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The Right to Life


The trial of Dobie Williams lasted one week, from selection of jury to guilty verdict to death sentence. Dobie was a Louisiana man, poor and black and with an IQ of sixty-five. He was convicted of the murder of a forty-three- year-old white woman who was stabbed to death in her bathroom. According to the prosecution, this lady called out helpfully, while being attacked, “A black man has killed me,” and when her husband rushed into the bathroom, she indicated, while dying, that the black man had gone out through a window so small and high up that the family had never bothered to put a lock on it. Betty Williams, the mother of the accused, commented, “That sounds like somebody in a murder mystery book.”

Dobie was on weekend leave from a detention center where he was serving a term for burglary. He seems to have been arrested because he was in the neighborhood. No motive was alleged for the crime, other than that Dobie had been drinking that evening. None of the blood of the dead woman was found on his person or his clothes. To explain this, the police suggested that Dobie had stripped naked to commit the murder. Because the victim’s clothes were pulled down—she was, after all, in the bathroom—it was insinuated that the accused had been attempting rape, though the victim had not in fact been raped and no such charge was brought. But the insinuation may have contributed to the jury’s speedy verdict.

Dobie was said to have confessed on tape, but the recording was missing by the time the case came to court, and the police officers who had overheard this “confession” gave conflicting evidence about it. Dobie was defended by an attorney later disbarred for unethical conduct, and as Sister Helen Prejean follows him on the long road to the execution chamber she explains how the failures and blunders at the original trial made it impossible for his later defenders to recover the ground lost.

Dobie went to death row in 1985 and was executed in 1999, by which time he had been given eleven separate execution dates, sometimes receiving a stay just hours before he was due to die. Is this torture? It is, by most people’s definition. In theory, the US Constitution does not permit it, but the Constitution is for human beings, and the system’s acknowledgment of Dobie’s humanity is scant. But he hangs on to a sense of his own dignity, refusing the grotesque ceremony of a last meal with prison staff: “When they finish eating they’re going to help kill me.” Sister Helen is horrified when she thinks of the cold-blooded ceremony to come:

Dobie is not in a hospital dying of some disease, with his life energies and faculties fading. He’s fully alive, has his full energy and emotions and consciousness. It makes his coming death impossible to comprehend.

In the room adjacent to the execution chamber, where he receives his final visits, there are murals showing Elijah ascending to heaven in his fiery chariot and Daniel in the lion’s den.

Her task in the last hour with the prisoner is to try to keep him emotionally intact, so that he doesn’t lose all dignity and is able to keep open the channels of grace which connect him to his God. Of course, if the prisoner remains emotionally contained, it makes the administration of the penalty easier. Faced with abject terror, staff might find it more difficult to deal with the task required of them. Faced with the protest and revolt of the powerless, they might feel their consciences touched and their notions of manhood afflicted (there are no women guards at executions). A prisoner reconciled to meeting his maker is easier for all concerned. “Jesus is close to us here,” she urges. “Jesus is helping you.” A thought arises, which seems almost too cruel to express: Sister Helen, in her heroic way, is helping to keep the machinery of death oiled.

In her book Dead Man Walking, published in 1993, Sister Helen explained how she first became involved with condemned prisoners, and she traces the cases of three men whom she accompanied, as their spiritual adviser, through their final days and hours. It was a best-selling and highly influential book, its arguments given wider currency by the film starring Susan Sarandon in the role of Sister Helen. This new book appears at a time when the death penalty system is in crisis. In 2000 James Liebman of Columbia University School of Law led a team which surveyed four and a half thousand death penalty cases and found “reversible error” in 68 percent of them. In his words—which seem the more true, five years on—the system is “collapsing under the weight of its own mistakes.”

So far, the crisis is not a crisis of conscience; among a public largely uninformed about how death penalty cases are decided, support for the punishment still stands high. But the public now cannot ignore the fact that there is a category of irreversible errors, which send innocent people to their deaths. The “innocence projects” run by law and journalism students have reexamined capital cases from the ground up; new DNA evidence has freed dozens of prisoners from death row. These instances are—or should be—profoundly shocking to a nation which has an often naive faith in its own standards of fair dealing. Sister Helen’s book is designed to increase public unease about unsafe verdicts. “Brace yourselves,” she says in her preface. “These stories are going to break your heart.”

This ambition to stir up emotion may not suit all readers, but Sister Helen also excels in pressing her case through analysis and argument. Here many of the points so well made in Dead Man Walking are reinforced, with fresh instances and telling detail. Public support for the penalty is based on the idea that the death penalty deters, though there is ample evidence that it does not. It is also based on a simple notion of answering harm with harm, balancing each killing with an equivalent slaughter. Yet only 2 percent of killers are actually killed in their turn; so why are they chosen? Overwhelmingly, those who get the death penalty are poor and black. African-Americans are 12 percent of the US population but account for 40 percent of those condemned to death. People of color are 50 percent of homicide victims, but 85 percent of the people on death row have killed white people.

The system values some lives more than others. And when we look at where the death penalty is most used, we find the southern states account for 80 percent of executions; they are prisoners of a history in which black people, especially, are to be feared, controlled, and repressed. Throughout the nation, it is the right wing and the godly who support the death penalty, taking their authority from the Constitution—which they read as a document frozen in time—and from the Bible: from all those familiar Old Testament texts, read as direct instructions from a wrathful God.

Dead Man Walking is not just the story of the men whom Sister Helen accompanied to execution, but also a story about her own radicalization. As a young nun, she thought her principal task was to save her own soul. Then in 1980,when, as she describes it, American “rage for incarceration” was at its height, she woke up to the notion of social justice. As a social worker in a poor black district of New Orleans, she began to understand why poor people remain poor, and to pick up on the fact that

whenever white people were murdered it was always front-page news, but when black people were killed the news evoked barely a five- or six-line article on the back pages.

The debate about capital punishment, she realized, is inseparable from the debate about race, and about poverty. You don’t find wealthy people on death row. In her neighborhood, they told her that “capital punishment means them without the capital get the punishment.”

She admits to a certain ignorance about how her own country worked. “When I first started visiting the condemned in 1982, I presumed the guilt of everyone on death row.” The death of an innocent person would be a fluke, she thought. In Dead Man Walking she examined cases where the executed men were guilty beyond doubt of the crimes for which they were killed by the state, but here she deals with two cases where she is sure the men on trial were innocent. They both believed that they had only to tell their story, and the truth would set them free. Her book is a detailed history of how wrong they were. When Sister Helen scrutinized the process of cases that interested her, and looked afresh at the initial trial process in each, she began to realize that “the courts are a system of gates that shut like one-way turnstiles. Once you come out, you can’t go back.”

It is vital to get effective legal representation at the earliest stages, and this is what poor people cannot get. The poor are defended by “overworked, underfunded and inept attorneys,” yet federal appeal courts routinely deny appeals based on “inef-fectiveness of counsel”—any lawyer not actually a corpse seems to be good enough. In the case of Dobie Williams, his counsel failed to conduct proper forensic tests, challenge the all-white jury, or properly frame pleas in mitigation of sentence. In addition, mistakes of fact made at the initial hearings can rarely be retrieved. The “raw stuff” of the crime—police reports, eyewitness statements, physical evidence—is dealt with at first hearing. Even if the appeal courts can be persuaded to re-examine it, there are the practical difficulties of disappeared witnesses, and missing and deteriorated forensic specimens. The prosecution has first sight of the evidence, and prosecutors routinely, she believes, withhold from the defense what is not helpful to their case, walking a fine line between carelessness and misconduct.

The defects of the system are well illustrated by the second case she follows, which is that of Joseph O’Dell, a white man from Virginia. He was convicted of the rape and murder of a white secretary, who was bludgeoned to death after leaving a nightclub in February 1985. As in the case of Dobie Williams, the prosecution overlooked obvious suspects and wove a “preposterous and convoluted” story to implicate the accused, who had been seen at the same nightclub on the evening in question. O’Dell’s landlady, who was also his girlfriend, had found some bloody clothes in a bag in her garage the next day, led there by an “intuition” after reading a report of the murder. The police found a blood type “similar” to that of the victim and arrested O’Dell. They found semen “consistent” with O’Dell’s on the victim’s body. The subsequent trial showed that if a prosecutor says “consistent with” long enough and hard enough, a jury will begin to hear “the same as.”

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