Dead men walking away from justice

Sister Helen Prejean tries again to stop the death penalty in America

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When an obscure nun from Louisiana named Helen Prejean wrote the bestselling book "Dead Man Walking" 12 years ago, she was amazed that her words could spawn a passionate debate about the death penalty. A year later, the movie version led to an Academy Award for Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen and sparked an expansion of the debate. Now comes a sequel of sorts.

Prejean's editor said during a recent meeting, "With the publication of 'Dead Man Walking,' we opened the national conversation about the death penalty. With 'The Death of Innocents,' we're going to catalyze public discourse that will end the death penalty."

Maybe. But it probably will not turn out to be that simple. The core of her new book rests on two state-sponsored executions, one in Louisiana, one in Virginia. Prejean came to know the men convicted of murder, Dobie Gillis Williams and Joseph Roger O'Dell, when each requested her as an official spiritual adviser. She became convinced that each man was innocent, making their executions unimaginably horrible for her.

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In the abstract, Prejean's polemic is filled with logic: If there is any possibility that governments have executed or will execute innocent defendants, then the death penalty must be abolished because it's irreversible.

Moving beyond the abstract, journalists like myself who have written extensively about wrongful convictions understand that innocent defendants have been executed - before DNA testing could prove prosecutors wrong; before we grasped the frequency of mistaken eyewitness testimony, false confessions, and the lies of jailhouse snitches cutting secret deals with district attorneys.

Unfortunately, though, Prejean's reportage is less compelling than her logic. Her presentation of the Williams and O'Dell cases show questionable conduct by police, prosecutors, and judges, to be sure. But, after reading each account, I am uncertain about the innocence of either dead defendant. That uncertainty, should it exist in the minds of other readers, will make it difficult to generate new opposition to the death penalty.

For the sake of debate, let us assume for a few paragraphs that Prejean's instincts are wrong, that Williams and O'Dell were guilty of murder. In that case, did they deserve to be killed by the state?

This is where the polemic becomes as much faith-based and law-based as fact-based. Prejean ranges wide, discussing the teachings of her own Catholicism as well as other organized religions, the intent of the US Constitution's drafters, the defensibility of dozens of Supreme Court decisions, the personal moral codes of court justices such as Antonin Scalia (her preeminent whipping boy) and Harry Blackmun (her judicial exemplar).

Are state-sponsored executions always morally wrong, even when a guilty defendant has committed a heinous murder, sometimes combined with sexual degradation before or after the homicide? Yes, Prejean says. For her, no sound reasoning, on any level of abstraction, can support the death penalty.

Her new book is almost certain to promote reflection rather than harden positions because Prejean commands respect. She left a comfortable upbringing to join the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille. Next, she left a comfortable position within her religious order to live in squalor, assisting poverty-ridden, nearly hopeless urban residents left in the backwash of politicians' empty promises. She answered affirmatively when asked to counsel the condemned, despite knowing she would be haunted by nightmares the remainder of her life. Risking calumny, she also began counseling the families of murder victims, despite the hatred some family members directed at her for befriending murderers.

Unlike most participants in the death penalty debate, Prejean has mingled with every type of person involved, including the prison wardens and the guards who actually extinguish lives under color of law. Because of her actions and the impassioned yet thoughtful words arising from those actions, she continues to deserve an audience.

Steve Weinberg is a freelance investigative journalist who writes frequently about the criminal justice system.

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