Exposing the machinery of death

Book review

The Death of Innocents:

An eyewitness account of wrongful executions

By Sister Helen Prejean

Random House, December 2004

Hardcover, 336 pp., $25.95



With expectations rising that Chief Justice William Rehnquist will retire at the end of the current Supreme Court term in June, blocking an extremist Bush nominee is an epic battle facing the American people. One of the worst legacies of the Rehnquist court is the elimination of legal protections allowing the death penalty to operate unhindered. Rehnquist is famous for having said, “It’s too bad that drawing and quartering has been abolished.”

Sister Helen Prejean’s new book about the “machinery of death” is not only timely, but a must read. Prejean gained fame for her first book “Dead Man Walking” which was popularized with the Academy Award-winning movie by the same name. This, her second book, is no less compelling and passionate in exposing the immorality, inhumanity and unconstitutionality of the death penalty.

Prejean speaks with sympathy for everyone involved — the executed and their families and the murder victims and their families, as well as those who must administer the killing in the death houses.

She begins by telling the story of two inmates who were innocent but murdered by the state: Dobie Gillis Williams, an African American man with mental retardation from Louisiana, and Joseph O’Dell, a poor white worker from Virginia. They are among the many likely innocents who have been executed. Over 100 inmates scheduled to die have been exonerated in the past few years.

Prejean demolishes the prosecution cases of both convictions and in the march toward death describes the doomed fight to save both men and how she became their spiritual adviser and witnessed their executions. She exposes horrendously inept defense attorneys, tainted and shoddy crime state lab reports (witness the recent expose of botched DNA testing in dozens of capital cases by the Virginia state crime lab), all white juries, racist judges, corrupt police and ambitious prosecutors who hid evidence, jail house snitches, procedural technicalities that prevent new trials, forced confessions by torture and beatings, the political manipulation of state pardon boards, and backroom deals that decide the fate of most defendants.

Prejean proves the death penalty cannot be fairly administered in a society dominated by pervasive institutionalized racism and class bias. Therefore, she argues, it is incapable of meeting the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.

After years of trying to overcome the random application of the death penalty and make it “fair,” the late Justice Harry Blackmun concluded, “It seems that the decision whether a human being should live or die is so inherently subjective — rife with all of life’s understandings, experiences, prejudices and passions — that it inevitably defies the rationality and consistency required by the Constitution.

“From this day forward I will no longer tinker with the machinery of death,” he said.

Prejean shows how the death penalty is rooted in the legacy of slavery and racism and carries on the tradition of lynching as an instrument to terrorize the African American community. From the time of the reinstitution of the death penalty in 1976 until 2003, the southern states that made up the Confederacy have performed 81 percent of all executions, including 89 percent in 2003.

The unequal application of capital punishment, especially in Texas and Virginia, is alone grounds for ruling it unconstitutional. This is one reason former Attorney General John Ashcroft was intent on gaining death sentences in states beyond the South.

Although African Americans are 12 percent of the population, they make up 40 percent of those on death row. In Alabama alone, African Americans account for 70 percent of executions.

One of the most despicable killing machines is the state of Texas, which has carried out 39 percent of all executions. As Texas governor, George W. Bush oversaw 152 executions in six years. Prejean shows how Bush and his then legal counsel Alberto Gonzales never seriously reviewed the cases.

Prejean argues just how crucial the battle for the Supreme Court is to the future of the death penalty. In addition to Rehnquist, core death penalty supporters include Justice Antonin Scalia. Prejean chews up Scalia’s fascist ideas, rooted in archaic notions of an unevolving interpretation of the Constitution, Christian fundamentalism belief in the wrath of God and the “doctrine of free will,” an absolutist view of individual responsibility.

“The more Christian a country is the less likely it is to regard the death penalty as immoral. … For believing Christians, death is no big deal,” said Scalia. “Do you want to have a fair death penalty? You kill, you die. That’s fair,” he told a startled death penalty conference at the University of Chicago.

David Bates, an exonerated prisoner, challenged Scalia. “I’m a formerly incarcerated individual, served 10 years in prison, and was falsely accused of a crime, tortured, beaten. 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,” he said.

The “Death of Innocents” is a convincing book, rich in arguments and facts. It’s a damning indictment of the machinery of death and a powerful weapon in the fight for its global abolition.