Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend
Marie Deans’ struggle against the death penalty
Today, April 15, is the sixth anniversary of the death of one of the most remarkable individuals I have ever met, Marie McFadden Deans. A native of South Carolina, Deans moved to Richmond in 1983 and started the Virginia Coalition on Jails and Prisons. During the 10 years that she ran the organization, Deans became an advocate for Virginia’s death row inmates. She found lawyers for the men, fought to improve prison conditions, worked on their appeals as a mitigation specialist, and served as their friend, confidante, and mother. And she stood “death watch” with the men in the death house, often being the last loving face they would see before being electrocuted.
Deans paid a steep price for her advocacy. During the years she ran the coalition, she was a single mother who lived well below the poverty line. Sustained on a diet of caffeine and nicotine, Deans drove herself mercilessly — consumed by the fear that there was always something more she could do to save the lives of the condemned inmates. Many referred to her as a “saint” — a label she abhorred. “I’m no goddam saint,” Deans would reply. She preferred to be known as a “courageous fool,” someone who was too foolish and stubborn to abandon her struggle to defeat capital punishment. When she died at the age of 70, Deans was a physically broken woman— as much a casualty of Virginia’s death penalty as the men who were strapped into the electric chair.
As the anniversary of her death approached, I found myself wondering what Deans would think of the current state of the modern death penalty. She had no doubt that America would someday end its bloody embrace of state- sanctioned killing, and I believe she would be pleased to see that the number of capital convictions and executions has continued to decline in the past six years. She would find it ironic, however, that the death penalty is being slowly abandoned not because of moral outrage, but because of the high costs associated with the trials and appeals of individuals charged with capital murder.
Deans would not be surprised to see that the Southern states still lead the rest of the country in terms of conviction and execution rates. Nor would she be shocked to find that the death penalty is still being selectively applied to minorities, the poor, and the mentally ill. Deans visited death rows in Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia, and she saw firsthand that the populations of these prisons contained those men and women whom society feared and demonized.
What would surprise and sadden her today would be how our country’s political polarization has spilled over into the statehouse and the death house, spawning a new level of blood lust and hatred. The debate over lethal injection has sparked calls for a return to the firing squad and the electric chair. Fears over false claims of rising crime rates have led politicians and citizens to demand the expansion of death- eligible offenses. And concerns over the supply of lethal injection drugs have prompted states to hide their execution protocols and speed up the rate of executions.
I amglad Deans cannot witness the upcoming execution of Ivan Teleguz, who is scheduled to be put to death on April 25 despite considerable evidence of factual innocence. Many people roll their eyes when they hear death row inmates claim they were wrongfully convicted, responding sarcastically that all men on death row wrap themselves in the blanket of innocence. Yet over the past 40 years, 157 men and women have been exonerated and walked off death row.
Deans herself worked with several Virginia death row inmates whose cases raised concerns about innocence, including Earl Washington Jr. — who came within eight days of being executed for a crime that Virginia police and prison officials were utterly confident that he committed. But Washington was innocent. If not for the heroic efforts of Marie Deans and his fellow death row inmate Joe Giarratano, Washington would have been killed. Because of Deans’ unflagging commitment to justice, other death row inmates — including Giarratano and Joseph Payne Sr. — saw their death sentences reduced to life by Virginia governors because of similar concerns about factual innocence.
In my mind’s eye, I can imagine Deans’ reaction to the upcoming execution of Teleguz. Her big brown eyes would fill with tears, and she would take a deep drag of her cigarette as she tried to steady her shaking hands. “Just another turn of the screw,” she would say softly. And then she would return to her fight against the machinery of death. Luckily, there are other dedicated lawyers and volunteers who have taken her place. May they be as tenacious as Marie Deans was in ferreting out the truth.