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.