The Common Good
August 2005

Executing The Innocent

by Tobias Winright | August 2005

The number of executions in the United States has decreased in recent years,

The number of executions in the United States has decreased in recent years, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, as has citizen support for capital punishment. A major reason is the increasing concern that innocent people may be sentenced to death. Since 1973, 119 people in 25 states have been exonerated and released from death row because of evidence of their innocence. As these cases have received national exposure, more Americans have come to question the institution of capital punishment.

The conviction and execution of innocent persons is the focus of Sister Helen Prejean’s new book, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions. Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize multiple times, Prejean is widely known for her best-selling book Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States, on which Tim Robbins’ 1995 film Dead Man Walking was based. As in her first book, Prejean provides a moving and persuasive narrative that describes her experience accompanying two men to their deaths at the hand of the state. However, unlike Dead Man Walking - in which the two men were guilty of their crimes - The Death of Innocents provides disturbing details related to the execution of two possibly innocent men.

"Honorable people have disagreed about the justice of executing the guilty," writes Prejean, "but can anyone argue about the justice of executing the innocent?" She offers the standard arguments and statistics against capital punishment - racial bias, incompetent legal representation, poverty, geographic disparity, and unfair application - but makes them extremely compelling through her vivid accounts of these two men.

The first is Dobie Gillis Williams, a poor black man with an IQ of 65 (a score of 70 indicates mental retardation), who was executed in Louisiana on Jan. 8, 1999. Prejean describes the details of his case, including how the crime scenario presented by the prosecution failed to match the forensic evidence, which was neither carefully investigated by the police nor honestly presented by the prosecution to the jury, and how his defense at trial was led by an incompetent attorney. In Prejean’s view, these crucial factors raise "reasonable doubt" about Williams’ guilt, and the execution of this possibly innocent man is all the more tragic given that only three years later, in the U.S. Supreme Court decision Atkins vs. Virginia, the execution of the mentally handicapped was deemed unconstitutional.

Joseph Roger O’Dell was executed by the state of Virginia on July 23, 1997. Prejean recounts the way in which unskilled defense representation (O’Dell, who had no legal training, attempted to provide his own defense), prosecutorial unfairness (the "coaching" or intimidating of witnesses, the suppression or destruction of evidence, obtaining and rewarding testimony from "jailhouse snitches," employing questionable scientific data, and manipulating information given to the media), and legal technicalities (typing "Notice of Appeal" on the title page of his petition rather than "Petition for Appeal," which caused the Virginia Supreme Court to refuse to hear his appeal) led to O’Dell’s conviction and execution. Again, Prejean writes, "I believe that the killing of any human being, even the guilty, is morally wrong, but that the killing of Joseph O’Dell, a possibly innocent man, without allowing him DNA testing is doubly heinous."

PREJEAN DOESN’T shy away from naming names and speaking truth to power, as shown in her critical treatment of the pro-death penalty viewpoints of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a fellow Catholic who speaks openly about his role as "part of the machinery of death," and President George W. Bush, who as governor of Texas presided over 152 executions. One of the most careful and technical sections of the book is a chapter covering constitutional law and death penalty jurisprudence.

Of particular interest to Christians, and especially Catholics, is Prejean’s account of recent developments in the Catholic tradition’s position on capital punishment. In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (Gospel of Life), Pope John Paul II stated that even murderers possess human dignity and that the practice of the death penalty should therefore be "rare, if not non-existent" in modern societies. In January 1997, Prejean wrote a letter to the pope, which may have contributed to a change in the catechism of the Catholic Church that was announced a week later by then-Cardinal Ratzinger.

While some theologians argue that capital punishment is permitted in rare cases in defense of society against an imminent threat to citizens’ lives, in Prejean’s interpretation of this revised version of the catechism, the Catholic Church now stands in more principled opposition to the death penalty. "The entire argument for self-defense changes, however, when violent offenders are incarcerated and thereby rendered defenseless. Where, then, is the threat of an immediate violent assault on citizens?"

Prejean articulates an even more principled theological argument against the death penalty when she correlates Christian (mis)understandings of atonement with capital punishment. She believes that the traditional satisfaction theory of atonement contributes to Christians’ support of the death penalty, and she calls this theology into question: "Is God vengeful, demanding a death for a death? Or is God compassionate, luring souls into love so great that no one can be considered ‘enemy’?"

Yet she stops short of developing and offering another nonviolent theory of atonement compatible with such a compassionate God. Giving as much attention to such a model seems warranted in order to make this portion of the volume more theologically persuasive. This would also place Prejean in the company of Karl Barth and John Howard Yoder, both of whom argued that the execution of the innocent Jesus Christ should have done away with the need for all forms of expiation, including capital punishment.

Related to this point, while Prejean rightly notes the important role attending worship can play in informing Christians against capital punishment, she mentions only the way that sermons can educate on the issue. She also might have pointed out how practices such as passing the peace, prayers of confession, regular recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, and partaking of holy communion might also form us to be a people oriented in opposition to capital punishment.

Nevertheless, The Death of Innocents is an important contribution by Prejean, and one hopes it will have as much impact as her first book.

Tobias Winright, a former law enforcement officer, is assistant professor of theological studies at Saint Louis University.

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