Wrongful Death

By Scherer-Emunds, Meinrad | U.S. Catholic, April 2005 | Go to article overview

Wrongful Death


Scherer-Emunds, Meinrad, U.S. Catholic


"Honorable people have disagreed about the justice of executing the guilty," Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J. writes in her new book the Death of Innocents (Random House, 2005), "but can anyone argue out the justice of executing the innocent?"

Twelve years after her first book, Dead Man Walking (Random), became a surprise bestseller and 10 years after the release of the award-winning movie based on that book, Prejean has written a sequel that once again turns the spotlight on the practice of capital punishment in the United States.

Prejean has continued to accompany death row inmates as a spiritual adviser and in this book tells the stories of two of those men, who, she believes, were executed despite having been innocent. One of those two cases became a cause celebre in Italy and may have helped bring about a shift in the Catholic Church's position on the death penalty.

As she brings her readers up close to a reality most Americans know little about, Prejean paints a disturbing portrait of our deeply flawed criminal justice system. She takes on the pro-death penalty climate in the Southern "death belt" states--particularly in her home state of Louisiana, where most people "accept capital punishment with the air they breathe and the mosquitoes they swat." And she takes a hard look both at the constitutional issues and at the responsibility of Christians to join the fight to abolish capital punishment.

Prejean applauds the recent strengthening of the Catholic Church's position against capital punishment and on this issue sees a "wave of fresh moral energy pulsing through the Catholic Church."

An Interview with Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J.

Your new book recounts the stories of two people whom you accompanied on death row all the way to their execution and whom you believe to have been wrongfully executed. Tell us about them.

The first one is Dobie Gillis Williams, whom I accompanied on death row for seven years. He was an African American man with an IQ of 65--below the score of 70, which equals mental retardation. His was a classic case of a young black man wrongfully convicted by an all-white jury.

Dobie lived in the little town of Many, Louisiana, and his case involved the killing of a white woman in 1984. The main eyewitness was the woman's husband, who said that his wife's dying words were, "A black man is killing me, and he's jumping out the bathroom window." That led to Dobie being rounded up by the police.

Poor Dobie's defense was terrible. His lawyer, who was later disbarred, did nothing for him. He didn't do any independent forensic testing and let the prosecutor's far-fetched scenario of the crime stand uncontested.

The woman had been stabbed eight times while she was sitting on the toilet; there were bloodstains everywhere. When the post-conviction lawyers 13 years later brought in a top-notch bloodstain analyst, he was able to show that no one could have gotten out through that small bathroom window--the size of a microwave oven--without leaving a smudge of that blood. And because they found none of the victim's blood on his clothes, the prosecution claimed that Dobie must have crawled in and jumped out nude.

To me it's like a perverse story of Job: "Naked I came into this world and naked I left" (Job 1:21). Naked he came in through this incredibly small window, waited behind the bathroom door, fortuitously happened to find a steak knife on the back of the toilet, the woman came in, he stabbed her, and then he supposedly stood on her while she was still on the toilet--because they couldn't find footprints on the toilet seat--to get out of the same tiny window without ever touching it. It's a completely crazy scenario, but his all-white jury convicted him.

What's the second story?

It's Joseph O'Dell from Virginia, who spent 12 years on death row pleading for one full hearing of all the evidence in his case. …

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