Make No Mistake About It

Book cover
The Death of Innocentsby Sister Helen Prejean

Random House. 336p $29.95


It is rare that the author of one extraordinary book should follow it a decade later with another of almost equal power. And yet this is what Helen Prejean, C.S.J., has done in The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions. Already an acclaimed author for her Dead Man Walking (1993), Sister Prejean, of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille, continues to advocate for the abolition of the death penalty. Using well-researched arguments concerning the capriciousness of our capital punishment laws and their implementation, the book demonstrates the way the criminal justice system as a whole is slanted against the poor and members of minority groups. The power of the book, however, arises from the author’s personal involvement as spiritual advisor to death row inmates. Since beginning her ministry over 20 years ago, she has accompanied five to their state-imposed deaths.

In The Death of Innocents, Sister Helen describes her ministry as spiritual advisor to two of these prisoners. Both, she is convinced, were innocent of the homicides for which the states of Louisiana and Virginia executed them. One was Dobie Gillis Williams, an African-American with an I.Q. of 65. The book begins with an account of his last hours early in 1999. Having accompanied him for eight years, Sister Prejean literally walks with him to Angola’s death chamber and then, from the witness room, watches him die by lethal injection. Her description of the proceedings might put one in mind of Franz Kafka—or even of one of Hieronymous Bosch’s demon-filled paintings— because the power of the demonic is clearly at work in the preparations for execution, which are described in vivid detail. Shortly before the execution was carried out, for instance, we are told that refreshments were served for the witnesses in a nearby room. Sister Prejean hears “a buzz of voices, and...can see some people with plates in their hands, eating and drinking.” Once inside the death room, with Dobie stretched out on the cruciform gurney, we hear the click, click, click as the buckles snap shut across his chest and limbs.

In her description of both Dobie Williams’s ordeal and that of the other prisoner in the book, Joseph Roger O’Dell Sr., Prejean takes pains to show in detail how the court proceedings were weighted against these two indigent defendants. The prosecution, for example, withheld evidence that could have helped them—by no means an uncommon procedure, known as prosecutorial misconduct. Equally disturbing in both cases, and in countless others that concern indigent defendants, was the lack of competent legal counsel. Not only did Williams’s lawyer fail to provide him with adequate representation during his trial; he was later disbarred for unethical practices. No wonder Sister Prejean quotes Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginzburg’s statement on the subject: “People who are well represented at trial do not get the death penalty.” Although Sister Prejean believes in the innocence of both men, she makes it clear that the greatest hurdle to abolition concerns not the innocent, but the guilty. And in fact, the two prisoners she accompanied to the death chamber in the earlier Dead Man Walking were guilty.

But despite the darkness implicit in much of the new book, the author also points to promising signs of a diminishing reliance on capital punishment. One sign can be seen in the action taken by George Ryan of Illinois, when as governor of that state in 1999 he ordered the release of 113 men from his state’s death row because of proof that they had been wrongfully convicted. Other signs of hope include the wide acceptance of DNA testing, which has proved that innocent people were being sentenced to death.

Although a majority of Americans still support the death penalty, Sister Prejean’s account of the trial and death of the second prisoner described in her book, Joseph O’Dell, underscores the horror with which other Western countries see our commitment to capital punishment. Not only did the pope make a special plea that O’Dell’s life be spared; his story became a cause célèbre throughout much of Italy. The Italian Parliament issued a formal resolution on his behalf, and the mayor of Palermo flew to Virginia to visit him in prison. After his execution, the mayor arranged for the body to be flown to Palermo for burial. Will we ever learn to see ourselves though the eyes of other nations that have ended the use of capital punishment?

It was in 1997, the year of O’Dell’s execution, that Sister Prejean wrote the pope asking that the loophole in the 1992 version of the Catechism of the Catholic Church be closed. Paragraph 2266 allowed for the death penalty’s use “in cases of extreme gravity.” The loophole, she contends, has now been plugged, with the new version, which reads: “Legitimate authority has the right and the duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense.” The reference to the death penalty that appeared in the earlier version is omitted. The change, Sister Prejean observes, “cuts the ground out from under Catholic politicians who advocate restricted use of the death penalty.”

Among such Catholic politicians is Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Prejean describes and takes issue with his arguments in favor of the death penalty, and entitles this portion of the book “The Machinery of Death.” The phrase is taken from the late Justice Harry Blackmun’s famous statement: “From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death.” Clearly, the two justices saw the issue from very different perspectives. One continues to embrace the machinery, the other rejected it.

Sister Prejean ends her book with the words, “See you on the road”—the road, that is, of her “mission to keep getting on planes to talk in cities and towns to awaken people’s souls about the need to abolish the death penalty.” More and more people are joining her on this road.

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