When the mayor of Chapel Hill received an honor for his work for human rights, his first reaction was to talk the awarder out of it.
“It was overwhelming and extremely humbling,” Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said. “I can come up with a dozen other people who deserve it more than me.”
The Wake County Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union gave Kleinschmidt and Stephen Dear, executive director of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, the Finlator Award last Thursday.
The award is given to those who have shown an exemplary record of advocacy for civil rights.
Kleinschmidt served as the president of the North Carolina ACLU from 2008-09.
The news came as a surprise to Kleinschmidt, who said he doesn’t feel that he matches up to previous recipients of the award.
N.C. Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, D-Orange, won the same award in 2009.
Kleinschmidt said he admires her for her work with state social services.
“It’s hard for me in my mind to compare what I’ve done in my life to anything they’ve done,” he said.
“I’ve counted any of them as personal heroes of mine.”
Though Kleinschmidt is well known for his work with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community, he received the award primarily for his efforts against the death penalty.
Josh McIntyre, historian for the Wake County ACLU, said Kleinschmidt and Dear were chosen because of their work against cruel and unusual punishment.
“Some of the motivation is that (Kleinschmidt) is a younger person and so has a considerable amount of struggle and advocacy work in front of him,” McIntyre said.
“I think it helps to inspire others that are younger to see that he’s already making a change in the world.”
Kleinschmidt has focused the majority of his career as a lawyer on death penalty work.
“The injustices that exist in the application of the death penalty are overwhelming,” Kleinschmidt said. “We get a little further everyday.”
Dear said he admires Kleinschmidt for his extensive work with the Fair Trial Initiative, which aims to recruit lawyers to work for indigent defendants facing the death penalty.
“When Mark trains lawyers and defends people on death row in capital cases, he’s working to not only help marginalized people but helping to ensure that all of our rights are respected,” Dear said.
Kleinschmidt joined the initiative after spending six years at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, a non-profit legal firm that shares the same mission.
He said he became involved because he believes strong lawyers and advocates are needed in the justice system.
“I wish we had a lot more Mark Kleinschmidts in North Carolina,” Dear said.
“Chapel Hill should be very proud of its mayor for his willingness to use his skills to defend not just the people on death row but to ensure that everybody has their constitutional rights represented.”
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