Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Death of Innocents by Sister Helen Prejean

The execution of a person who can show that he is innocent comes perilously close to simple murder. - Justice Harry Blackmun

Capital punishment means them without the capital get the punishment.

(As The Death of Innocents primarily focuses on Sister Prejean's experiences as the spiritual advisor to two innocent men who were killed by the state, in this review I will try to stay focused on the execution of innocent men and not wander into arguments for and against the death penalty in general).

In a word, this book was heartbreaking. Sister Prejean tells the story of two men, Dobie Williams and Joe O'Dell, who were falsely convicted of murder and were killed for it. She begins with Dobie Williams, a black man with an IQ of 65 who was convicted for breaking into a house and murdering a woman in her bathroom. Prejean tells the story of his trial, including the total incompetence of his attorney, the suspect nature of the prosecution's evidence, and the ridiculousness of the prosecution's version of what it thought happened. Though there's no way for the reader to really know if Williams was actually innocent, Prejean lays out a case so compelling that you can't doubt it. And plus, she's a nun, so you it's not hard to believe she's telling the truth. Prejean also tells the reader about Williams's last hours on earth, the dignity with which he accepted his fate, and the heart rending effect the execution had on his family.

Next, Prejean tells the story of Joe O'Dell, who was convicted for raping and murdering a woman after she left a night club. Again, Prejean recounts the facts of O'Dell's trial. After a string of incompetent or conflicted attorneys, O'Dell finally says screw it, and represents himself. He is, of course, woefully unable to stand up to the prosecutors, and even though O'Dell has an alibi that could have been substantiated and there is substantial physical evidence that shows he wasn't connected to the crime, he is still convicted. Much of the blame lays at the feet of the prosecution (who blocked O'Dell's access to crucial evidence), while the rest can be heaped on the courts for refusing to grant him evidentiary hearings so he could prove his innocence. Prejean also tells the moving story of how O'Dell met Lori Urs, who was his staunchest and most aggressive advocate, and how they fell in love and got married hours before he was killed. O'Dell's last words before he died were, "This is the happiest day of my life. I married Lori today. . . Lori, I will love you through all eternity." Prejean's account is incredibly moving.

Finally, Prejean addresses arguments for and against the death penalty, including the Catholic church's enlightening views on the subject.

And now I'll hop up on my soapbox. Whether or not you believe in the death penalty in theory is completely irrelevant to the discussion about whether we should abolish it. The fact remains that as it stands today the courts are just not able to fairly and competently use it, as the stories of Dobie Williams and Joe O'Dell show so tragically and clearly. Even though most of the Supreme Court disagrees with me, I believe that the death penalty is unconstitutional as it stands today. You don't even have to go to the 8th Amendment (which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment) to get there, either, although you certainly could. I believe it is unconstitutional because of the 5th and 14th Amendments, which state that a person shall not be "deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." As it stands today, there simply is not any process that is sufficient to uphold that standard, as Williams and O'Dell show.

For those of you who don't know me, I am a third year law student, so this issue hits close to home. I believe that if everyone does their job, the judge, the jury, the prosecution, the defense, etc, then justice will be carried out. It is for this reason that if I thought I would be at all competent in a court room (and didn't have a mountain of debt looming over me when I graduate) I would become a public defender. Basically, we just aren't good enough at determining a person's guilt or innocence to enforce an irrevocable punishment. Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, more than 100 people have been released from death row because they were later found to be innocent. From 1976 through 2004, when the book was written, approximately one out of every eight people sentenced to death were later found to be innocent. Some might say that that is just proof that the system works, but the way the system actually functions makes those lucky people exonerated post-conviction seem like a seed found by the proverbial blind chicken. Here are just a few of the reasons the system is flawed: cops have too much unchecked power; prosecutors have access to evidence and witnesses that the defense doesn't; in many cases, prosecutors and judges have to run for election (a concept that would be laughable if it weren't so horrifying), which gives them an incentive to push for the death penalty to appear tough on crime; defense attorneys assigned to indigent defendants (the vast majority of people sentenced to die are too poor to hire their own attorney) are often egregiously bad (falling asleep during your client's trial was only recently found to be an example of incompetent lawyering bad enough to warrant relief, but being drunk or on drugs isn't); and finally, many times the appeals process focuses more on procedure than substance, making it nearly impossible to fix the aforementioned errors (one man's appeal was denied because his attorney labeled it a notice of appeal instead of a petition for appeal, which the court found too presumptuous).

I'm going to wrap this up because I've gone on long enough (I haven't even gotten to how capricious and racist the enforcement of the death penalty is). To end, this is a moving, intelligent, well written book that asks questions and poses arguments that everyone should consider so we can stop the slaughter of innocent people at the hands of the government they trust to protect them.


Brent Waggoner said...

I'm completely ignorant here, so this might be a dumb question, but how does it work that the prosecution has access to more evidence than the defense? Isn't that available for everyone involved in the trial?

dudleysharp said...

Please see reviews of "The Death of Innocents", within

"Sister Helen Prejean & the death penalty: A Critical Review"

"Dead Man Walking" & Sr. Helen Prejean: A Critical Review
From Dudley Sharp

" . . .makes you realize the Dead Man Walking truly belongs on the shelf in the library in the Fiction category."

"Being devout Catholics, 'the norm' would be to look to the church for support and healing. Again, this need for spiritual stability was stolen by Sister Prejean."

The Bourques, Victim Survivors, Dead Family Walking

"Sister Helen Prejean & the death penalty: A Critical Review"

Other, related links

"Death Penalty Support: Christian & Secular Scholars"

"The Death Penalty: Neither Hatred nor Revenge"

"The Death Penalty: More Protection for Innocents"

"The Innocent Executed: Deception & Death Penalty Opponents"

"Killing equals Killing: The Amoral Confusion of Death Penalty Opponents"

"The Death Penalty: Not a Human Rights Violation"

"Physicians & The State Execution of Murderers: No Ethical/Medical Dilemma"

"Pope John Paul II: Prudential Judgement and the death penalty"

"At the Death House Door" Can Rev. Carroll Pickett be trusted?"

Christopher said...

Lovely. Do you just google this book title and then post this whenever you find it?

Billy: I am looking forward to using the tag "unconscionable miscarriages of justice" for my Dan Brown reviews.

billy said...

brent: in theory (and by law), yes. the prosecution has to give the defense any evidence that might prove the defendant's innocence. however, in practice that isn't always the case. for example, in O'Dell's case, the victim had an umbrella with her when she died. when it was recovered it was badly bent, which could mean that she used it in self defense. sometime before the trial, though, the umbrella disappeared. also, the prosecution doesn't always just hand deliver every little piece of evidence, and shitty attorneys (like the attorneys that most people who are sentenced to death have) or defendants representing themselves (like O'Dell) don't have the lawyer skills to get them to hand over everything. it's more likely that a district attorney will be held accountable for not getting a death penalty by being voted out of office than being held accountable for "losing" a piece of evidence. in addition, in virginia, there is a rule that all new evidence must be presented within 21 days of trial or it can't be presented at all. this was crucial in O'Dell's case because when he was convicted the technology to test DNA was a lot more primitive than it was in the months leading up to his death. there were articles of clothing that might have proved he was innocent with more sophisticated DNA testing, but the district attorney didn't have to turn over that evidence because of the 21 day rule. all that being said, i haven't taken evidence yet (i'm taking it this fall), so my understanding of the issue isn't complete, but based on what i read in this book there are situations when the defense does not get access to all the evidence that it should

billy said...

also, like i said, i haven't taken evidence, but from what i've gleaned from my friends who have a lot depends on the judge.

and chris: haha, i like it. i'm also going to start calling my ferocious deuces unconscionable miscarriages of justice

dudleysharp said...


I think the important issue is whether or not "Death of Innocents" is truth or ficiton, don't you think.

I hope that is the main concern, for everyone.

Shouldn't it be?

But, your only concern seem to be how I located your site. That is very minor.

dudleysharp said...

You write:

"Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, more than 100 people have been released from death row because they were later found to be innocent."

Totally untrue. Is is a simple fraud, easily uncovered by fact checking.

"The 130 (now 138) death row 'innocents' scam"

dudleysharp said...

billy writes:

"I haven't even gotten to how capricious and racist the enforcement of the death penalty is."

Please do. But, fact check, first:

"Death Penalty Sentencing: No Systemic Bias"

Arbitary and capricious

About 10% of all murders within the US might qualify for a death penalty eligible trial. That would be about 70,000 murders since 1973. We have sentenced 8000murderers to death since then, or 11% of those eligible.

I doubt that there is any other crime which receives a higher percentage of maximum sentences, when mandatory sentences are not available.

Based upon that, as well as pre trial, trial, appellate and clemency/commutation realities, the US death penalty is likely the least arbitrary and capricious criminal sanctions in the world.

Brent Waggoner said...

Billy: Thanks for the explanation. That seems crazy.

dudleysharp: Perhaps if you want people to actually consider your opinions, you should start off by engaging people in conversation instead of posting a list of a dozen links. It makes you look like a spammer, and is annoying.

dudleysharp said...

Annoying or not, I asked a valid question.

Does it matter if "Death of Innocents" is truth or fiction?

Of course it matters.

Read the specific material that deaths with that book.

It may look like spam, but it goes directly to the truth issue.

That is what you should be addressing, because it is what's important.

You address all but that.

Christopher said...

It isn't your place to tell us what we should or should not be addressing. We are serious people who encourage serious discussion but we are not required to endure spamming and rudeness. Take your agenda elsewhere, please.

dudleysharp said...

My agenda is, partly, correcting such errors as found on this site, several of which have been identified.

Is it your agenda to present error prone information, without the benfit of correction?

I can hope not, but based upon your non relevant responses, it does seem of very little concern to you.

Brent Waggoner said...

Our concern is to have actual discussion, not to make a statement and receive a response consisting of 20 links without commentary and a snide remark about how we don't care about the truth.

Maybe this sort of sledgehammer evangelism works with some people, but isn't it obvious that it isn't working here? If you were truly concerned about spreading your message, you would adapt it to your audience.

By the way, you are at least partially right: it isn't the focus of this blog to drill down to the ultimate truth of all issues. It's for us to read books, post our personal responses to them, and discuss them. Not to post our thoughts and then be attacked by someone with an axe to grind.

R.M.Fiedler said...

Dudley Sharp,

I'm only responding to the actual arguments you've made; not the 8 million links you've posted without commentary.

1) The innocents scam: Maybe you think it's easy to distinguish between "actual" guilt and legal guilt, but society has grappled with this problem for as long as it has existed. Lacking any sure-fire way of determining "actual" innocence, our society has elected to use an imperfect, but probably most proximate to perfect, jury trial system. For the purposes of our criminal justice system, there's no such thing as "actual" innocence because, with the possible exception of God, there's no way for our society to know who is actually innocent or actually guilty. Thus we accept legal guilt and legal innocence as ways of approximating truth; knowing that Truth is not possible.

The merit of the "innocence scam" is not to say that "actually" innocent people are on death row unjustly; rather it's to say that there are people on death row who, LEGALLY speaking, should not be there.

And the fact that people are on death row when, again from a LEGAL perspective, they should not be is what causes many death penalty critics to claim that the system is unmanageable and arbitrary. Any system which can grant life to one, but death to another, though there situation is the same is arbitrary. Which brings me to the next thing you say:

2) "the US death penalty is likely the least arbitrary and capricious criminal sanctions in the world."

We may have the least arbitrary and capricious death penalty in the world; but we are keeping company with mostly developing countries. We may have a better system than them; that doesn't make it a good system.

Of course, I'm wasting my time because your appearance on this blog was never about truth, but something else:

"The polemicist, on the other hand, proceeds encased in privileges that he possesses in advance and will never agree to question. On principle, he possesses rights authorizing him to wage war and making that struggle a just undertaking; the person he confronts is not a partner in search of truth but an adversary, an enemy who is wrong, who is harmful, and whose very existence constitutes a threat. For him, then, the game consists not of recognizing this person as a subject having the right to speak but of abolishing him, as interlocutor, from any possible dialogue; and his final objective will be not to come as close as possible to a difficult truth but to bring about the triumph of the just cause he has been manifestly upholding from the beginning. The polemicist relies on a legitimacy that his adversary is by definition denied." --Foucault, "Polemics, Politics, and Problematizations"

I would suggest, Mr. Sharp, that there is a universe of difference between what this blog does for the pursuit of truth and what you're doing here.

dudleysharp said...


I commented on 2 things specifically, all of which are in error.

So, truth was the aim and the target.

First, the "Death of Innocents" which I refer to as the Death of Truth.

None of the commentaries of the 4 respondents have been refuted.

The second was the 100 innocents released from death row, also a false claim.

Now, a third one.

You introduce that the 100 innocents are based upon either actual innocence or legal innocence.

It is well known, within this debate, that such is not at all the case.

It is a fraud, re that the were in fact actually innocent.

First, it is easy to discern that if you review the decade long scam.

However, it is just as easy to understand this, by knowing that nearly 3000 inmates have been removed from death row, because their cases were overturned on appeal, meaning, they are no longer leaglly guilty of a death penalty crime.

These 138 were specifically picked out for this specific "innocence" deception.

All of this was an effort to remove error from this site, which seems of little interest to those responding, who it would seem, prefer to leave bad enough alone.

There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is a proof against all argument, and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance – that principle is condemnation before investigation.
(unconfirmed) Herbert Spencer (1820-1903).

dudleysharp said...


More than happy to have a discussion with you about "death of Innocents".

I do think it important that readers know if it is fact or fiction.

It matters.

I listed 9 links, all of which have relevance to the Death of Innocents.

Brooke said...

I heard her speak at my university in 2004 and I fell asleep. And felt really, really guilty about it.

Holley Smith said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Holley Smith said...

Dont get fooled by images.

I suggest you read on sociopaths due to the fact that you assume people tell truth based off of an image.

Try not to believe story tellers and everything you hear or read. Check facts and figures. Pay attention to details.