Saturday, 16 August 2008

A gentle Garner dissident is jailed, unbowed

Mary Rider, 48, is the mother of eight children.

A gentle Garner dissident is jailed, unbowed

Execution protester gets a 15-day term

By Yonat Shimron, Staff Writer

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RALEIGH - Among the women confined at the jail on Hammond Road are prostitutes, crack users and an occasional domestic aggressor. Then there's Mary Rider, a 48-year-old mother of eight, with a master's degree in social work from UNC-Chapel Hill.

For a jailbird, Rider, who lives in Garner, is not typical, but neither was her sentence.

Two years ago, on the night the state executed death row inmate Sammy Flippen, she and three others were arrested outside Central Prison when they walked a few yards onto the prison driveway and knelt in prayer. They were charged with second-degree trespassing -- a misdemeanor.

For that act of civil disobedience, Wake County Superior Court Judge Michael Morgan last week sentenced Rider to 15 days in jail.

Three of her fellow protesters paid a fine. Rider, who was found guilty by a lower court, appealed her verdict and got a jury trial. A Roman Catholic who opposes the death penalty -- along with abortion, euthanasia and war -- Rider purposely risked arrest and jail time to stand by her convictions. It's a position she had taken many times as a champion of sanctity-of-life issues.

But the judge didn't want to hear about it.

"Every step of the way the worst-case scenario had happened," said Rider, who didn't expect such a long jail sentence.

Rider built her defense around First Amendment, free speech and religious freedom claims and brought in two high-powered witnesses to testify on her behalf. But Morgan ruled that the testimony of UNC-CH constitutional law professor Dan Pollitt was inadmissable, and strictly limited the testimony of Duke University theologian Stanley Hauerwas.

"We wanted to establish to the jury what Mary's motives were," said Tim Vanderweert, Rider's attorney. "This wasn't simply a trespassing case. But the judge took away Mary's defense."

Morgan was on vacation this week and couldn't be reached.

Had constitutional expert Pollitt been given a chance, he said, he would have explained to the jury that there were at least three cases in which the Supreme Court upheld the First Amendment right of free speech over state laws.

"In most First Amendment cases someone violates a local law, whether it's disturbing the peace, trespassing or inciting a riot," Pollitt said.

Hauerwas was ready to point out that Rider's action was not the irresponsible act of an individual, but part of a larger tradition of civil disobedience rooted, in this case, in Catholic obligation to resist what it believes is evil, such as the death penalty.

Instead, a jury of 12 found Rider guilty. Morgan gave Rider a suspended sentence of 15 days in jail and one year of unsupervised probation. He also asked her to pay court costs totaling $235.

Rider, however, refused to pay the court costs.

"I cannot in good conscience give my money to a system that doesn't provide justice," she told the judge, referring both to her own case and to a system that sentences people to death by execution.

Instead, she offered to do community service. But Morgan told her she could not pick her own sentence and ordered her taken into custody immediately.

Beliefs hold firm

Rider does not regret her action. She and her husband, writer and social activist Patrick O'Neill, are steadfast in their beliefs. The two run the Father Charlie Mulholland Catholic Worker House in Garner, where they welcome people with no place to stay. They hold vigils outside Central Prison each time there is an execution. They were among a group that protested Aero Contractors, a flight company based at the Johnston County Airport, that they say transported terrorism suspects to countries where they can be tortured.

"In a round-about way, the judge did me a favor," said Rider. "Because he gave me the harshest possible sentence, people say I inspired them to work harder to end the death penalty."

That doesn't mean Rider relishes the jail time. This week she missed her daughter Veronica's first day at Exploris Middle School. On Thursday night she missed seeing four of her children perform in the play "Honk" at the Garner Towne Players. And this weekend, her oldest daughter will go back to UNC-Wilmington without her mother to see her off.

Perhaps most of all, she is needed at home because her youngest child, Mary Evelyn, 3, has Down syndrome, and this week had surgery to put tubes in her ears.

Friends, however, have offered to help and have come by with food. One woman volunteered to fold laundry.

Meanwhile, Rider, who has one more week in jail, said she's using the time to listen to the women around her -- something she said she was trained to do.

She said she used to drive down Garner Road and see prostitutes waiting for rides and wonder what she could do to help them. Now she's beginning to see a bit more of what they go through. That she said is not only an opportunity -- it's a gift.

yonat.shimron@newsobserver. com; (919) 829-4891

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