Deserving of Death?

No one, it seemed, wanted Elias Syriani to die.

The protestors huddled together in puffy nylon coats, woven knit caps and thick fleece sweaters, grasping candles lit inside flower-print Dixie Cups as the wind picked up.

Cars passed every few minutes in the biting cold, some honking their horns, some slowing to see the mass with the loudspeakers, the plastic banner, the prison fence. But the stinging November night didn't faze the group.

"There are just some wonderful people in the world, and we are going to lose one in a couple of hours," Syriani's defense lawyer Henderson Hill told the crowd gathered outside Central Prison in Raleigh.

A poll by Doble Research Associates last year found 63 percent of North Carolinians want a moratorium on the death penalty-and according to other data, the momentum is growing.

But has the pressure for a moratorium gone largely unnoticed by Duke undergraduates? Is the death penalty simply off the radar for college students? Not so, says Stephen Dear, executive director of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty.

Instead, he argues, some Duke students have been slow to respond to such calls.

Students at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill have formed Campaign to End the Death Penalty. Twenty-four university student governments from East Carolina University to Davidson College have passed resolutions calling for a moratoium, Dear says.

But Duke Student Government hasn't touched the issue, he says.

"[In previous years] the Duke Student Government refused repeated requests from Duke students to consider a moratorium on execution resolution because it didn't have enough to do with Duke students," Dear says. "It has everything to do with Duke students."

On Nov. 18 Syriani became the 998th person executed in the country since the reinstatement of the practice in the 1970s. He had been condemned to death for murdering his wife in Charlotte in 1990.

Prosecutors say Syriani, who was 67 when he was executed, stabbed his estranged wife 28 times with a screwdriver. She died 26 days later.

At the time of the trial, one of the couple's four young children testified against their father for the prosecution and helped secure his sentence.

But two years ago, Rose, John, Janet and their sister Sarah had a change of heart. For the first time in over a decade, they visited their father in prison.

Realizing they were about to lose their only parent, they say they witnessed the extraordinary power of the human heart to forgive.

The children, along with Elias Syriani's current lawyer, claim that Syriani's defense attorneys failed to produce evidence at his trial about his traumatic childhood. They say growing up as an Assyrian Christian in Jerusalem and Jordan had caused Syriani mental anguish that plagued him throughout his life.

But despite meetings with Governor Mike Easley and an appearance on Larry King Live, the Syriani children's pleas for their father's clemency went unaswered.

And members of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, a Carrboro-based organization pushing for a statewide moratorium, turned out to bear witness to the execution. It was one of many programs that PFADP sponsored that day, including prayer services at churches across the state, protests on the grounds of the State Capitol and late-night candle-lit vigils.

While capital punishment may not seem important for many at Duke, pockets of the University community have taken on the issue with full force.

A death penalty legal clinic at the School of Law, where Dear says the law students' bar association passed a moratorium resolution, helps with cases for inmates sentenced to die.

Scholars with Duke's interdisciplinary Human Rights Initiative, a group of faculty devoted to humanitarian challenges, have also tackled the issue.

Robin Kirk, director of the group and a lecturer in the cultural anthropology department, is teaching a class this semester in which some students are studying capital punishment.

Kirk also recently won a non-fiction contest from Glamour Magazine writing about her experiences investigating the backgrounds and childhoods of those sentenced to die.

Divinity School students and campus group like the Universal Unitarian fellowship-which recently hosted an anti-death penalty speaker-are also addressing the issue.

"I think it's an issue that a lot of young people don't even think about," says Martin Caver of Raleigh, a field organizer and educator with People of Faith Against the Death Penalty.

"First and foremost, have an opinion," he suggests. "Keep putting the pressure on people. Make sure you know who you vote for. Make sure your friends and family know your opinion."


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