United in OUTRAGE

Benetton's sympthetic images of Death Row inmates make victimized families' blood run cold. To the Peebles of North Carolina, they are a second assault.

March 14, 2000|By MICHAEL OLLOVE | MICHAEL OLLOVE,SUN STAFF

As Dr. Joanne Wilson emerged from her San Juan hotel last month, she spied a young woman striding toward her in a dusty pink T-shirt emblazoned with the words "United Colors of Benetton."

Just like that, the tropical beauty around the doctor faded, and she found herself transported back 13 years. The ocean, the sun, the sand, all of it was replaced by the vision of a dingy convenience store in Raleigh, N.C., and the crumpled body of her 33-year-old baby brother.

As anyone in grief knows, there's no way to tell what associations will spark new spasms of sorrow. A family gathering, a birth, a favorite old movie. But the survivors of Edward Pierre Peebles now know one image guaranteed to renew the hurt and resentment.

"United Colors of Benetton."

Who could have seen it coming? Murder always reverberates through the survivors, who must endure not only the shock of the loss itself, but also the corollary events: the police investigation, the trial and -- especially when the death penalty is involved -- the appeals. But who would have thought that a clothesmaker would turn itself into an instrument to aggravate the wounds?

That's exactly what Benetton accomplished by opposing capital punishment in a slick advertising campaign introduced last month. By publishing empathetic photographs and interviews with Death Row inmates -- including Ed Peebles' killer -- Benetton forever demonized itself to the families of the dead.

The large, close-knit Peebles clan of Raleigh is angry and hurt. Most of all, they are dumbfounded. "I could not believe someone would sell clothing using the suffering of families of the victims and even the death row inmates themselves," says Wilson, a gastroenterologist at Duke Hospital.

The centerpiece of Benetton's campaign is a 96-page catalog in last month's issue of Talk magazine. The text provides only the most cursory sense of the crimes that landed the 25 men and one woman featured in the catalog on Death Row. The entry for William Quentin Jones says merely that he was found guilty of "first degree murder" and gives his date of sentencing -- 11/03/87. Nowhere does it mention Jones' victim, Ed Peebles, or describe what happened in the convenience store that night.

The interview with Jones, who spent most of his teen-age years in Baltimore, can only be described as sympathetic. Jones speaks of daydreams about his 13-year-old daughter and his desire to see his mother. He says he misses non-prison food and is wistful about many everyday things. "The smell of waking up early in the morning," he says, "smelling, watching the dew, the aroma once the sun starts coming out.

"I miss hearing kids running around, laughing, playing. The sound of cars, the sound of women and children, women playing with children in the playground. Birds. Dogs barking at night. You gotta remember I haven't played in the rain in 13 years, haven't stood out in the rain."

He tells his interviewer he imagines his execution. He always sees it happening during a rain shower, and he can sense the presence of strangers watching from behind a glass partition. In his imagining, "I ask for forgiveness."

No one in the Peebles family remembers him ever asking them for forgiveness.

Marked by the memories

John Henry Peebles is hunched forward, pointing at a television screen. He has the air of a schoolteacher at a blackboard, calling attention to today's lesson.

He is 75 years old and dressed head to toe in Western garb. Black cowboy hat, embroidered shirt with a ram's head tie at his throat, fringed jacket, ostrich boots. He has outfitted himself this way since Lyndon Johnson became president. "I always admired him," he explains.

Aside from the clothing, John Peebles would still be a striking, Old Testament figure, with tufted white beard and hair offset by dark skin and fiery brown eyes underneath arched eyebrows. He is a master plasterer, probably the only one left in Raleigh now that his son Ed is gone. There isn't a historic building in town where he hasn't done ornamental work.

"Look here," he says. "There's Ed coming in now."

In the foreground on the screen is a cashier behind a store counter. Beyond him is a window looking out on a parking lot. Just now, two slim, young black men are ambling through the front door, the first in a white cap, the second in a dark one. That one, John Peebles says, is Ed, the fifth-born and most impish of his seven children.

The two men drift to the left and out of view. Moments later, another black man, a little burlier than the other two and dressed in light clothing, is at the door. He jerks it open with one hand while thrusting the other through the doorway. That hand is holding a large gun. Before the man is through the doorway, before he has said a word or anyone has even noticed him, he is firing.

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