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Suffice it to say, it's unusual to see a laywoman preaching in a U.S. Catholic church.

Witnesses for peace and against execution 

In his tribute to peace activist Gail Phares, the Rev. David McBriar, a Franciscan priest, told a story about the time he invited Phares "with some pressure from her" to preach a sermon at Raleigh's St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church, where McBriar then served as pastor.

Suffice it to say, it's unusual to see a laywoman preaching in a U.S. Catholic church. "I remember sitting there perspiring," McBriar recalled at a Witness for Peace dinner Aug. 26 at Exploris Museum in Phares' honor. McBriar said he told himself: "This is the right thing to do."

After all, Phares, who was released in July after serving a 90-day federal prison sentence, had spent years as a Maryknoll missionary living in Latin America. A co-founder of Witness for Peace, Phares has led 46 delegations of hundreds of North Americans on fact-finding trips throughout Latin America. She is recognized nationally for her human rights work.

Still, McBriar was sticking his neck out when he turned the pulpit over to Phares. After the service an outraged man approached McBriar and said, "That woman scares me."

"She scares me too," McBriar retorted.

"But the point is," McBriar told the more than 100 people at the dinner, "is what she says true? What she says is true, and I'm grateful for that."

Gail and Bob Phares have two grown daughters, Lisa and Rebecca. The Phares family was without Gail after a Georgia federal magistrate sentenced her to a 90-day prison sentence stemming from her arrest last Nov. 20 during a protest against the U.S. Army's Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly the School of the Americas) at Fort Benning, Ga.

Phares and Brevard peace activist Linda Mashburn were among about three dozen activists who were arrested for protesting at the school, where the U.S. Army trains Latin American soldiers, many of whom have been implicated in human rights violations and murders after returning to their native countries.

"I do believe that only if we are willing to risk and sacrifice can we bring about the kingdom of God--a kingdom of solidarity, love and truth," Phares said. "I ask, 'Are we truly people of faith? Do we believe that God is our mother/father, and that we are brothers and sisters, especially with the poor? Are we willing to live our faith, not merely profess it?'

"Prison has played an important role in Christian history," she said. "According to biblical scholar Walter Wink, 'Jesus' way has built into it an uncanny solution. It lands many of its practitioners in jail. That is where Paul did most of his meditating, thinking and writing, as well as Gandhi and King.'"

Phares served her sentence in the same Alderson, W.V., federal prison where former N.C. agriculture commissioner Meg Scott Phipps is serving a four-year sentence. Phares and Phipps became close friends at Alderson.

"I believe that most of the woman I met in Alderson Federal Prison Camp should not be imprisoned and separated from their small children," Phares said. She lamented that tougher sentencing laws and the failed drug war have resulted in women now accounting for more than 20 percent of the nation's 2.2 million prisoners.

"My time in prison seems a small price to pay to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador," Phares said.

In his closing prayer, McBriar said, "Oh God.... In every age you raise up women and men as witnesses of the truth that we are one family.... Theirs is not only a voice but an undaunting, never flagging witness at the barricades, where the poor are ground up by the rich, the weak by the strong. They put themselves on the line against poverty, against racism, against sexism, against war, against a nationalism where power and force, not peace, drives the will of the mighty.

"Tonight we come to honor one such witness. Continue to strengthen Gail. Let her know our gratitude."

Sammy Flippen executed

click to enlarge Cousins of Sammy Flippen comfort each other during a prayer service at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh just hours before the Aug. 18 execution. - PHOTO BY SCOTT LANGLEY
  • Photo by Scott Langley
  • Cousins of Sammy Flippen comfort each other during a prayer service at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh just hours before the Aug. 18 execution.

Emotions were raw the night Samuel Flippen was executed by injection in Raleigh's Central Prison. Just 36 years old, Flippen went to his death claiming innocence in the 1994 killing of his 2-year-old stepdaughter, Britnie Nicole Hutton.

Throughout his almost 12 years on death row, Flippen maintained close ties to many of his family members, including his mother and father, Rita and Carl Flippen, both of whom watched their son die Aug. 18 at 2 a.m.

While two juries, the DA, police and many members of Hutton's family were convinced of Flippen's guilt, such was not the case for the more than three dozen Flippen family members who came to Raleigh on Aug. 17 hoping appeals courts or Gov. Mike Easley would stop the execution. It didn't happen. After Flippen's final appeal was denied by the U.S. Supreme Court, Easley denied clemency, allowing Flippen to become the 27th man executed since Easley took office in 2001.

At a prayer service at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church just hours before the execution, Flippen's family members took turns delivering testimony about the man who had no criminal record prior to his being charged with beating Hutton to death when the toddler would not stop crying.

One friend called Flippen "precious, loving and kind," a person without "a mean bone in his body."

Flippen's second cousin, Jennifer Johnson of Goldsboro, said, "Sammy became a role model for me." Johnson said Flippen, who turned down a plea deal that would have spared him from the death penalty, was never bitter about his plight.

"Don't do this," Johnson said as several Flippen family members sobbed loudly in the small chapel.

Many of Flippen's family members also joined a crowd of mourners who held candles and prayed on the sidewalk in front of Central Prison in the hours leading up to the execution.

Speaking to reporters, the Rev. James W. Flippen, Samuel Flippen's uncle, expressed his belief that Flippen was innocent, instead placing the blame for Hutton's murder on the victim's mother, Tina Gibson.

"The only thing he's guilty of is loving the wrong woman," the Rev. Flippen said. "If that child was beaten, she did it."

After Flippen's fate was sealed, seven members of Hutton's family arrived to stand in support of Flippen's execution.

Hutton's uncle, Ben Streett of Winston-Salem, held a placard stating: "Britnie Nicole Hutton had no chance."

"Britnie was the victim here," Streett said. "Britnie was and is the victim. Sammy is not. Sammy committed the murder and twice was given the death penalty, and we're here to see that the state carries out the mandate it was given. We're just here to see final justice."

Streett called last-minute court filings by the defense team that raised the possibility that Gibson had beaten her own daughter "unfounded attacks on the mother."

Streett said the death penalty was appropriate for Flippen.

"When a man beats to death a 2-year-old child with his fists, I think that's the worst of the worst, heinous," Streett said.

Flippen's attorneys, Thomas Loflin III of Durham and Richard Greene of Greensboro, both spoke to the press after witnessing the execution.

"It's tragic that a person is killed in cold blood by the state of North Carolina," Loflin said. "That is what happened a few minutes ago."

Loflin said the defense team offered "extremely significant evidence that showed Mr. Flippen was not guilty of the crime he was convicted of--first-degree murder." Loflin said it was tragic that the courts refused to consider the new evidence.

Said Greene: "The death of a child is tragic, and we send our condolences to the child's family. ... But this tragedy's been compounded by the death of Sam Flippen. He was executed for a crime for which he was not guilty. He was not guilty of first-degree murder."

Greene said the citizens of North Carolina "have suffered a tragedy. We continue to believe that the death of a person somehow satisfies us socially. At some point I think there'll be a better day when we all agree that the death penalty is not a proper form of punishment."

click to enlarge PHOTO BY SCOTT LANGLEY

Flippen died without making a final statement. Four death penalty opponents were arrested for trespass after refusing police orders to stop blocking the driveway entrance to the prison.

Strapped to a gurney, Flippen mouthed the words "I love you" three times to his parents before closing his eyes for the last time.

"He went to Jesus. He's with the Lord," Rita Flippen said after watching her son die.

At Sammy Flippen's request, his ashes were scattered in the sea near Ft. Macon on Aug. 21, said the Rev. Flippen, who officiated at the service near a spot where Sammy liked to fish.

  • Suffice it to say, it's unusual to see a laywoman preaching in a U.S. Catholic church.

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