Sunday, April 24, 2011

Celebrating the life of Marie Deans

The following commentary by Todd C. Peppers was published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on April 24, 2011.

On Friday, April 15, one of the nation's leading advocates for the abolition of the death penalty passed away quietly in a Charlottesville hospice. Her name was Marie McFadden Deans, and for decades she fought to bring fairness, justice and decency to what Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun once decried as "the machinery of death," namely, our country's bewildering and stubborn commitment to the barbaric practice of killing its citizens to show that killing is wrong. Marie was a tireless worker who never sought the limelight, but in her death we should pause and consider her contributions to fight against the death penalty regime.

Marie's devotion to abolishing the death penalty was sparked by the brutal murder of her beloved mother-in-law by an escaped convict. In the face of such a horrific loss, Marie responded by founding Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation, an organization that sought to give a voice to families who believed that the death penalty was not the answer to the terrible loss of their loved ones. At the same time, Marie threw herself into work with Amnesty International and toured prisons across the country — documenting abuses and providing needed data to litigate the cruel and unusual conditions imposed on the forgotten inhabitants of death row.

In 1983, Marie founded the Virginia Coalition on Jails and Prisons — an organization dedicated to fighting for basic legal rights for the men on death row. At the time of its founding, Virginia's death row was — in Marie's words — a "horrific" place filled with drugs, sexual and physical violence, and despair. Marie became an advocate and friend to the men on the row, always motivated by the belief that there was a spark of the divine in even the most hardened inmate. Marie also became a thorn in the side of the Virginia Department of Corrections, which remained unyielding to the basic reforms that Marie demanded until she successfully obtained the legal backing from then-federal district court Judge Robert R. Merhige Jr.

The friendship and support that Marie unselfishly extended to the men extended to the death house, and Marie was present at the execution of 34 men in Virginia and South Carolina — an experience that left her emotionally scarred for the rest of her life. The death row inmates themselves were very protective of their champion, and tried, in their limited circumstances, to express their gratitude to the woman who fought to save them. They painted pictures for Marie (until the Department of Corrections took away their painting supplies), carved statues out of soap, and fashioned jewelry boxes out of match sticks. And when death row inmate Willie Leroy Jones sat down to his final meal, he demanded that Marie, exhausted and surviving on a diet of caffeine and cigarettes, eat part of his potato so that she would keep up her strength. Marie later described the sharing of the food as "taking communion" in the death house.

Marie's efforts not only focused on the men already on death row, but those men on trial for capital murder. Marie was incensed by a legal system which shackled indigent defendants with poorly trained defense attorneys and inadequate resources to hire expert witnesses. Marie became a mitigation expert, collecting relevant information on the backgrounds of capital defendants and weaving that information into a compelling narrative that would be presented to a jury weighing whether to sentence the defendants to life or death. Marie quickly established herself as a leading mitigation expert, and, largely due to her efforts, only two of the 200 men that Marie helped defend were ultimately sentenced to death.

Marie also became involved in the appellate process, as she spent countless hours finding inmates attorneys, filing mitigation evidence in support of habeas petitions, and petitioning governors for clemency for her clients. Marie's greatest triumph was the exoneration of Earl Washington Jr., a mentally retarded man whose false confession was the product of police coercion and manipulation and who came within days of being executed before a fellow death-row inmate, Joe Giarratano, brought Washington's story to her attention. Ironically, it would be the same Joe Giarratano that Marie would spend the rest of her life unsuccessfully fighting to free. Convinced of his factual innocence, Marie's campaign for clemency convinced one Virginia governor —L. Douglas Wilder — to grant Giarratano a conditional pardon and a new trial — a trial that the Virginia attorney general's office refused to hold. As her health steadily declined Marie continued to fight for Giarratano's release, and she was bitterly disappointed when outgoing Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine declined to consider Giarratano's clemency appeal.

Marie resisted efforts by others to publicly celebrate her work, and she despised the label that some bestowed upon her as "the angel of death row." When asked how she wanted to be remembered, Marie settled upon "a courageous fool" — a woman who overcame her anxiety and fears to walk daily amongst the damned and fought battles that many deemed unwinnable. Her courage, her convictions, and her voice will be desperately missed as our society continues to reconsider its embrace of state-sanctioned death.

Todd C. Peppers is the Henry H. and Trudye H. Fowler Professor of Public Affairs at Roanoke College and a lecturer at Washington and Lee University School of Law. He is the co-author of "Anatomy of an Execution: The Life and Death of Douglas Christopher Thomas" (Northeastern University Press, 2009). Contact him at

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