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The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness…
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The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions

by Helen Prejean

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In this book, SIster Prejean details 2 cases where innocent men were executed, and also talks a lot about the position of the Catholic Church. There is a polemic against Scalia, and also a lot on the human rights argument against the death penalty as torture, and the constitutional arguments against the death penalty as practices in the US. There is some repetition. The part that had me yelling back at her is when she uses the argument that the US can do away with the death penalty by using the alternative of Life w/out Parole as if that is somehow less inhumane, less torture, less cruel and unusual.
  franoscar | Jan 2, 2008 |
The facts of Prejean's first book have been disputed by victims and others. The truth isn't always obvious, but putting together Prejean's remarks in her book about Robert Lee Willie; the interviews that they both gave; Debbie Morris's account in Forgiving the Dead Man Walking: Only One Woman Can Tell the Entire Story, of what Prejean told her; the testimony of other witnesses, I'd have to say that she was lying when she described him as remorseful, and her credibility is compromised. Prejean is also willfully gullible when it comes to her advisees; she isn't so trusting with everyone. The first part of this book deals with the cases of two executed men whom Prejean claims were innocent. I don't know whether to believe her or not.

I also found this book considerably less moving since it does not include the soul-searching that made her first book so profound. Prejean is now apparently much more confident of her own righteousness, or at least less inclined to acknowledge other points of view.

The second part is arguments against the death penalty. Here Prejean is talking particularly, though not exclusively, to fellow Catholics, pointing out the changes in the Church's teachings. As an atheist, I will only say that I agree with Walter Berns in For Capital Punishment: the Christian model of redemption, presided over by an all-knowing god, is not a suitable model for a human legal system.

Prejean would argue that our lack of omniscience is a chief reason why we should not condemn anyone to death; life-without-parole is an adequate substitute. In my opinon, if we release a person we have good reason to believe is dangerous, we are an accessory to further violence. Not as guilt as if we executed an innocent person, but still guilty. If we didn't have the death penalty, I don't believe that we would have life without parole. I can remember the 1960s and 1970s: Karl Menninger's book The Crime of Punishment sums it up: "men of science" would "cure" criminals. Prejean's argument that we cannot predict future behavior is thus deeply ironic. Many of the people now arguing for life-without-parole used to argue for short sentences, employing the same basic arguments presented here. Hugo Bedau argued that surely ten years was enough for any crime, however heinous. If the death penalty is eliminated, I assume that many abolitionists will revert to their earlier, more sincere beliefs and campaign for quick parole. Having a death penalty is a very crude solution, but I don't know of any other.

In Dead Man Walking, Prejean quotes Susan Jacoby's brilliant book, Wild justice: The evolution of revenge. Jacoby argues that state justice exists partly to restrain excessive vengeance, like blood feuds, but "`... law exists not only to restrain retribution but to mete it out ... A society that is unable to convince individuals of its ability to exact atonement for injury ... runs a constant risk of having its members revert to wilder forms of [vigilante] justice.'" [brackets Prejean's] I think that our society lost its faith not so much in the ability as the will of the legal system to exact atonement.

I have discussed this at length with a friend who is a pre-sentencing investigator, who thus talks to everyone involved in a case and sees the final outcome. While our politicians may strut about talking about getting tough, existing laws may be unenforced and people get out the back door. In some states, parole agreements are unenforceable; probation is piled upon probation; parole is granted simply for time, not behavior. We are told that it is the public's fault: we refuse to pay for an adequate legal system. But since the "get tough" is considerably more public than the loopholes, I think this is doubtful. It's like maintaining any infrastructure: the temptation is always to shave here and shave there to finance more visible projects, knowing that it will take awhile for the neglect to become obvious.

Prejean also brings up a number of my least favorite arguments:
1. "The legal system is unfair to the poor and minorities". Eliminating capital punishment only solves this if unfairness only affects capital cases, or if you think a wrongful lengthy prison sentence is a trifle. I attended a debate on the death penalty: someone suggested that the solution is to provide a better defense. I thought this was a brilliant idea, benefitting all indigent defendants, not just the tiny fraction up on capital charges. The opponents of the death penalty said that it is impossible to improve the quality of the defense. There are at least three different systems for providing counsel to the poor - surely they can't all work the same. And the justice (or injustice) meted out to the wealthy shows that a defense can be much more effective. I also don't see how it would help the victims of crimes that the legal system more or less ignores. Do they want others to be treated as badly as they are, or do they want to be taken seriously?

2. "It is unfair that different jurisdictions hand down different penalties". No, we deliberately set up a system that allows these differences. Anyone who doesn't like it can certainly campaign to change the constitution, but that's the system now. It is also inappropriate to judge individual states by nationwide statistics. Further, if we require uniformity, more states have the death penalty than don't - a scale can be balanced from both sides.

3. "If something is wrong for an individual, it is wrong for the government". In that case, the government has no right to imprison people, either, let alone collect taxes, enforce public health laws, etc.

Prejean's statistics leave a lot to be desired. They are incomplete or inappropriately applied, e.g., taking statistics from "The Death Belt" and applying them to the entire country. Prejean also uses an "any weapon that comes to hand" approach that means that she talks out of both sides of her mouth: the death penalty is unconstitutional in Texas because they use it too much, and unconstitutional because most of the states only rarely apply it. I'm rather incredulous that Prejean says that human beings can't make distinctions: I think I can see the difference between killing someone because one's car skidded on ice and being a serial killer. ( )
  juglicerr | Jun 26, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0679759484, Paperback)

Since the 1993 publication of her memoir Dead Man Walking and the 1995 film it inspired, Sister Helen Prejean has become a powerful and articulate presence in the fight against the death penalty in America. In The Death of Innocents, Prejean focuses her argument on the ways in which an unjust system may be killing innocent people. She tells the story of two inmates she came to know as a spiritual adviser. Dobie Williams, a poor black man with an IQ of 65 from rural Louisiana, was executed after being represented by incompetent counsel and found guilty by an all-white jury based mostly on conjecture and speculation. Joseph O'Dell was convicted of murder after the court heard from an inmate who later admitted to giving false testimony for his own benefit. O'Dell received neither an evidentiary hearing nor potentially exculpatory DNA testing and was executed, insisting on his innocence the whole while. Besides exploring the shaky cases against them, Prejean describes in vivid detail the thoughts and feelings of Williams and O'Dell as their bids for clemency fail and they are put to death. The second part of the book details "the machinery of death," the legal process that Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, dismayed at the inequities of the death penalty, cited as his reason for resigning and that current justice Antonin Scalia has boasted of being a part of. Prejean is impassioned as she describes what she sees as an arrogant attitude by both Scalia and the contemporary judicial system. Her chance confrontation with Scalia at an airport is a gripping collision of disparate worlds. In recent years, DNA testing has overturned the convictions of scores of prisoners, including many on death row. As the death penalty is increasingly called into question, Sister Helen Prejean will surely be a force in that debate. --John Moe

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:05:23 -0400)

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Raises constitutional questions about the legality of the death penalty and reveals how race, poverty, publicity, and prosecutorial ambition can determine who lives and dies after a murder conviction.

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