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Issue Date:  July 15, 2005

By Helen Prejean
Random House, 310 pages, $25.95
By Bill Kurtis
PublicAffairs, 218 pages, $25
Judging the death penalty

Reviewed by ALLYNE SMITH

After the sniper shootings around Washington in 2002, then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft made the decision to have the culprits tried first in Virginia for two simple reasons: Virginia is second only to Texas in its number of executions, and at the time it allowed for the execution of minors. Many in the American press debated whether it would be right to sentence John Lee Malvo, then 17, to the death penalty; some said his youth made him more susceptible to being coerced or even brainwashed. In the end, a jury did not recommend a death sentence for the teenager.

Since then, the practice of allowing the execution of minors was deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court (Roper v. Simmons on March 1), and the debate over the morality of state-sponsored executions continues in the press and public consciousness today. The death penalty is on trial, as evidenced in two recent books.

The lawyer-turned-investigative journalist Bill Kurtis, well known as the host of A&E Network’s “American Justice” and “Cold Case Files” programs, takes aim at the unreliability of the capital punishment system in The Death Penalty on Trial: Crisis in American Justice. After supporting the death penalty for three decades, Mr. Kurtis changed his mind when it became apparent that justice is not served by the system. Innocent people can find themselves on death row. He examines two cases in depth -- Arizona’s 1991 Kim Acona murder and Pennsylvania’s 1994 Dryfuse family murder. Mr. Kurtis examines the crimes, the police investigations, the trials, the appeals and the subsequent exoneration of the men who were awaiting execution. Reading the book feels like reading a transcript of one of his programs, which is both good and bad. It is compelling but not literary. An open-minded reader could not come away undisturbed by the case Mr. Kurtis marshals against capital punishment.

In the final chapter he briefly discusses the two-year moratorium on the death penalty ordered by Gov. George Ryan of Illinois in 2000, his commutation of the sentences of everyone on his state’s death row and the subsequent enactment of reforms signed into law by his successor in 2004. While Mr. Kurtis acknowledges that the reforms in Illinois make errors less likely than before, he remains convinced of the capital punishment system’s fragility and its inability to guarantee that the innocent will not be put to death. “The administration of justice is complicated,” he concludes, “too complicated to make death its product.”

Perhaps no book on capital punishment in the last two decades has had the prominence of Sr. Helen Prejean’s 1993 Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States. It was a powerful, moving testimony about the executions of two men guilty of the murders for which they were sentenced, and it became a successful film -- economically and artistically -- with Susan Sarandon in the role of Sr. Helen. It was a testimony to her conviction that each person is worth more than the worst thing that person has done as well as a tribute to the remarkable and gracious experience of forgiveness. In her new book, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions, Sr. Helen follows Mr. Kurtis in examining two cases in great detail of men on death row who she believes were innocent. Unlike the cases Mr. Kurtis wrote about, however, these innocents were executed rather than legally exonerated.

Dobie Gillis Williams was a poor black man in Louisiana with an IQ of 65 who was represented by an incompetent attorney who did not manage to effectively challenge the state’s improbable arguments. The case is especially tragic because his 1999 execution would just have been barred by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia, which declared the execution of the mentally handicapped to be unconstitutional.

The case of Joseph Roger O’Dell is equally disturbing. Convicted on the testimony of a jailhouse snitch who later recanted, Mr. O’Dell sought DNA testing to prove his innocence, but the courts refused to have the testing done.

Sr. Helen’s accounts of these two cases are more compelling than those by Mr. Kurtis, but then she writes not as an investigative reporter but as the spiritual adviser who accompanied both men to their executions. She treats at greater length those aspects that make the system rife with error, although she goes a bit further in illuminating “how race, prosecutorial ambition, poverty, election cycles and publicity play far too great a role in determining who dies and who lives.”

U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia is the political figure who receives the greatest attention from Sr. Helen, no doubt because of his unbridled support for the death penalty (he proudly refers to himself as part of “the machinery of death”) and the fact that he is a practicing Catholic.

George W. Bush, who in his six years as governor of Texas presided over an astounding 152 executions, also comes under scrutiny, as does his legal counsel at the time, Alberto Gonzalez, who is currently the U.S. Attorney General. Particularly disturbing are the private remarks then-Gov. Bush made before the execution of Karla Faye Tucker, a case that featured appeals for clemency not only from Pope John Paul II but from some religious supporters of capital punishment such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

An important part of the book’s message is something that goes underreported -- the stories of forgiveness. Sr. Helen dedicates The Death of Innocents to the organization Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights.

This reviewer’s one disappointment with the book is how un-theological it is overall. While mentioning some specific scriptural and church texts, Sr. Helen misses an opportunity to make a theologically compelling argument against the execution of anyone, even the guilty. When she mentions the Mass, she does so only to discuss the role of scriptural readings and homilies that could address the death penalty; she overlooks the case for why the church and Christians who celebrate the Eucharist should not be involved in executing people.

But this does not diminish the power of Sr. Helen’s book. One cannot come away from it without at least suspecting that Justice Harry Blackmun was right when he concluded, “The death penalty experiment has failed.” If capital punishment is eventually abolished in the United States as it has been already in most of the civilized world, it will be in no small way due to the efforts of Sr. Helen Prejean.

Fr. Allyne Smith is an Orthodox priest who teaches philosophy and theology for William Penn University in Des Moines, Iowa. He is coauthor of the Ekklesia Project pamphlet “Christian Worship and the Death Penalty.”

National Catholic Reporter, July 15, 2005

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