North Carolina’s death row is in a secluded corner of Raleigh’s Central Prison, but it can be glimpsed from the railroad tracks that run along the complex’s northern border.
“The only way they can see us is if they stand on their beds and look out the window,” said Elaine Roseboro, whose husband, Christopher Roseboro, is one of North Carolina’s 150 death row inmates. “But if they’re caught doing that, they get a write-up for it.”
Roseboro and about 50 other anti-death penalty activists gathered outside the prison on Christmas morning to sing carols, hoping their voices would carry into the cells. Death row was the last of three stops the group made around the perimeter of the property.
Twenty-one years ago, Patrick O’Neill organized a Christmas morning gathering at the prison. He and a growing number of carolers have returned each year since – the group still uses the same cardboard “Merry Christmas!” signs O’Neill made from an old refrigerator box in 1995.
O’Neill is the co-founder of the Friar Charlie Mulholland Catholic Worker House in Garner, a pacifist Christian community that provides shelter and resources to women and children in crisis. He’s also been arrested multiple times in association with the “Moral Monday” protests at the state Capitol.
O’Neill said he hopes that death row will be gone from Central Prison within his lifetime.
“The good news is that the sentiment against the death penalty is changing,” O’Neill said. “We’re moving toward a critical mass on abolition.”
We’re here to show that we believe they’re worthy of dignity and love and respect like everybody else.
David Biesack, supporter of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty
David Biesack, a supporter of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, a group that hopes to outlaw executions in the United States, is a perennial prison caroler.
“This is the Christmas season, and what does Christ tell us?” he said. “To look for Christ in everybody. Everybody here is a child of God. They don’t get visitors here on Christmas Day inside, so we’re here to show that we believe they’re worthy of dignity and love and respect like everybody else.”
This year, caroling began at 9 a.m. under a railroad bridge that crosses Western Boulevard just east of the prison. O’Neill read a verse from Scripture – Isaiah 58:5 – before the group set off.
“They told me – and I don’t believe it – that you get up on the bridge with a rope ladder,” said Margaret Toman of Garner, gesturing to a man carrying a length of blue rope. “But there’s no way in hell.”
It turned out the rope was just to help folks climb the steep embankment leading up to the trestle. Toman, who said her knees are bad, stayed behind.
As the carolers walked along the tracks, they yelled “Merry Christmas” and “Feliz Navidad!” and “Happy Hanukkah!” in between carols, with O’Neill acting as conductor.
They then descended from the railroad and met back up with Toman and others who had decided not to climb up to the tracks, as well as a man who had just arrived with a tenor saxophone.
Together, the group walked west to the prison’s main entrance, where a guard watched from the gate. He approached the carolers and cracked a smile before they left.
Some of the group went home then. The rest piled into cars and shuttled over to the train tracks nearest death row. Through a break in the trees, they could see a guard in a tower.
“Merry Christmas, guards!” they yelled in unison.
“Thank you!” the guard yelled back.
The group began to sing, making up for what they lacked in tune with enthusiasm and volume: “Jingle Bells,” then “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” then “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
Elaine Roseboro held up her hand, and everyone turned to listen.
“He wants to know if we can hear the tapping,” she said.
Elaine Roseboro was on the phone with her husband, whom she met as a pen pal. The couple have been married for almost seven of the 22 years Christopher Roseboro has been on death row, after his 1994 convictions for first-degree murder, first-degree rape and first-degree burglary. This Christmas is the first that death row inmates have had phones – land lines, of course – in their cells.
Then it started – Christopher Roseboro, and maybe others, tapping on their windows. The sound was quiet, but it carried. In the stillness of Christmas morning, it didn’t have much to compete with.
Gargan: 919-460-2604; @hgargan