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The innocents on death row

Review by Alice Kim | April 29, 2005 | Page 13

Helen Prejean, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions. Random House, 2004, 336 pages, $25.95.

IN THE opening pages of The Death of Innocents, Sister Helen Prejean tells her readers, "Brace yourself. These stories are going to break your heart." And it's the truth.

In this book, we get to know Dobie Gillis Williams and Joseph O'Dell through the eyes of Sister Helen, who befriended both men and witnessed their wrongful executions.

She describes Dobie's last few hours with his family in the death house. Although Dobie's IQ is only 65, he understands integrity and turns down the warden's invitation to share his last meal. "I ain't going to eat with those people. It's not like, you know, real fellowship," he says. "When they finish eating they're going to help kill me."

This is Dobie's third time in the Louisiana death house. The previous two times, Dobie won a stay just hours before his scheduled execution. This time, his mother believes that his life will be spared again. But this time, Dobie will not be spared. This time, Dobie will hug his mama three times before she is forced to leave him in the death house never to see him alive again.

At Dobie's funeral, Sister Helen promises Dobie's mama that she'll write his story. "Nobody ever heard his voice," Dobie's mama says. "He never got to speak." But through her book, Prejean gives Dobie a voice.

She exposes the holes in the prosecution's case against him and the inconsistencies in the state's version of events--a knife identified as the murder weapon without a speck of blood on it, a supposed confession but no written statement, missing forensic evidence, conflicting testimonies.

Joseph O'Dell's story is as heartbreaking as Dobie's. Frustrated with the public defenders assigned to his case, Joe, on trial in Virginia, chose to defend himself. Tragically, the public defender who was then assigned to help Joe in his defense failed to tell him about crucial evidence and witnesses that may have exonerated him.

Sister Helen comes to know Joe through his advocate Lori Urs, who volunteered with an organization that works to free innocent persons from prison because she was "tired of her social life and always having to dress in a coordinated outfit with matching shoes and getting her nails manicured." As Lori gets to know Joe, she becomes committed to saving his life, and her life as a socialite ends.

Joe writes his own monograph, "I Was Wrongly Convicted of Murder," which Lori has published on the Internet to build grassroots support for his case. Through press conferences, networking and even visits to Italy, Lori gains international support for Joe.

They miraculously manage to win DNA testing, and the results show that the bloodstains on Joe's clothes are not consistent with the murder victim's blood. Lori persuades jailhouse snitch Steve Watson, who testified against Joe at his original trial, to publicly admit that he lied.

But, ultimately, their efforts will not be enough to stop Joe's execution. As this becomes apparent to Lori, she tells Sister Helen, "I told Joe to stop putting those little stickers on his letters that say "'Thank God for America.' The courts of America are corrupt. The courts are doing their best to get Joe O'Dell killed."

Referring to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's dissent of the Court's decision to ban the execution of mentally retarded persons, Sister Helen writes, "Justice Scalia never met Dobie Williams or any of the 35 'mildly retarded' human beings already executed by state governments because Atkins came too late to save them. He never met Jerome Bowden, a 33-year-old African American with the mind of an 8-year-old."

Sister Helen describes a conference at the University of Chicago where Scalia spoke in support of the death penalty--and where a person in the audience stood up to Scalia. "'My name is David Bates,' he said. 'I'm a formerly incarcerated individual, served 10 years in prison, was falsely accused of a crime, tortured, beaten. I'm worried because this [conference] seems more like a joke. You have innocent people on death row right now, who have been forced to sign confessions, who have been tortured, suffocated, beaten, and it's like this is a tea party here. I'm scared that you're a Justice. I'm honest. I'm scared. I'm worried.'''

David Bates had attended that conference with other members of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, an organization that this reviewer is a part of, precisely to stand up to Scalia. As Sister Helen writes, "At that polite, intellectual conference he stood up, the only speaker that day who knew personally what the broken, flawed criminal justice system does to people. Bates spoke with an authority that cut through the jocular atmosphere, confronting everyone with hard realities, because he's been there, he's lived on the ground."

With The Death of Innocents Sister Helen shares with her readers the hearts and souls--and the humanity--of those who sit on death row today.

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