December 2005By Thomas M. McKenna
Thomas M. McKenna is a lawyer in Virginia.
The Death of Innocents. By Helen Prejean. Random House. 336 pages. $25.95.
In her new book, Sr. Prejean, of Dead Man Walking fame, returns to death row to witness the execution of two convicted murderers, Dobie Williams in Louisiana and Joseph O'Dell in Virginia. Along with conveying her horror in witnessing these deaths, she denounces the criminal justice system in general and the death penalty in particular. She saves particular ire for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, whom she claims engages in "icy sophistry" in his defense of capital punishment and who has thus descended to the level of a beast, having become "separated from the human family."
First, however, she details her thoughts and feelings at witnessing the execution of these two men. She sets out to demonstrate that the two are actually innocent of their crimes. Hers is the latest effort to identify an execution of someone who was actually innocent, a task that death penalty abolitionists have been furiously, but thus far fruitlessly, pursuing. In doing so, she ignores many facts about these two cases that do not support her claims. The book is moreover riddled with factual errors and misrepresentations.
She promises Dobie Williams, a black man, she will "tell the truth" to the world about his case. Williams had confessed to repeatedly stabbing his victim, Sonya Knippers, a white woman at home with her husband, after climbing in her bathroom window. But according to Sr. Prejean, a prosecutor railroaded him using corrupt police testimony in front of a racist jury. Her evidence? The three police officers who heard Williams confess recorded the confession but the tape malfunctioned; they must be lying, she concludes. Sr. Prejean neglects to mention that one of the officers was black.
Equally damning was the presence of Williams's blood on a curtain in the bathroom. Blood typing had shown this blood to be consistent with Williams's but inconsistent with the victim or her husband. After the trial, the same prosecutor who had just "railroaded" Williams agreed to a stay of execution so that DNA testing, unavailable at the time of the trial, could be performed. This DNA test was performed by an independent lab in Dallas, which concluded that there was a one in nearly four billion chance that the blood could have been someone's other than Williams's.
Yet, for the determined Sr. Prejean, this was not enough. She complains that a review of the independent test results performed by a lab chosen by Williams casts doubt on the independent test. Likewise, despite repeated claims that she cares about crime victims, she implies that the victim's husband was a more likely suspect but was overlooked because the authorities wanted to convict a black man.
In Williams's legal appeals, however, a Federal District Court, which thought Williams should get a new sentencing hearing nevertheless stated that "the evidence against Williams was overwhelming," and, "we find overwhelming evidence to support the conviction."
The same court also did "not find any evidence of racial bias specific to this case." That is noteworthy because Sr. Prejean states many times in the book that black defendants are tried or sentenced by "all-white juries." For her, that assertion alone is proof that racism is the motive behind the convictions. This race card is repeatedly played throughout, and Prejean compares capital punishment to slavery. Her broad brush strokes paint individual jurors, prosecutors, and judges with the term "racist" with no facts, no evidence, and, in most cases, without so much as having spoken with the people she accuses. Her implicit view is that whites (especially Southern whites) cannot fairly try cases involving black defendants.
This view is particularly odd given that two of the three men she has shepherded through death row were white. She also devotes several pages to a defense of Karla Faye Tucker, the white female murderer executed in Texas. Her indictment of capital punishment as racist cannot account for these counter-examples. If we execute whites, how can racism be the primary reason for the death penalty?
Sr. Prejean also claims that Dobie Williams was mentally retarded. But the same federal judge who thought he deserved a new sentencing hearing also upheld the finding of the state Sanity Commission report on Williams, which concluded that he had a "low-average I.Q.," and did not suffer from schizophrenia or other major affective disorders. Indeed, Williams's own expert at trial concluded that Williams's intelligence fell within the "normal" range. Prejean mentions none of these facts.
This methodology of simply asserting your ideal version of facts and not acknowledging or accounting for contrary facts continues in Prejean's handling of her involvement with Joseph O'Dell. He was executed in Virginia for the abduction, rape, forcible sodomy, and murder of Helen Schartner. Schartner was struck on the head with a gun, sodomized and raped before being strangled to death. In addition to lying to the police about how he came to have blood on his clothes, the best evidence of O'Dell's guilt was that Schartner's blood was on his jacket. Testing showed that only three of every thousand people share the same blood characteristics as Schartner. Also, a cellmate of O'Dell's testified that O'Dell told him he killed Schartner because she would not have sex with him.
After the trial, LifeCodes, a DNA lab that O'Dell himself praised as having "an impeccable reputation," tested the blood on O'Dell's jacket -- and found that it was a genetic match to Schartner. When the results were not to his liking, O'Dell, and of course Sr. Prejean, attacked the reliability of the lab O'Dell had earlier praised. Again, as with Williams's conviction, the federal court reviewing the case characterized the evidence against O'Dell as "vast" and "overwhelming."
Sr. Prejean again sees nefarious forces at work. Not racism this time, for O'Dell was white. Rather, she charges that the prosecutors were motivated to convict by desire for advancement and judgeships. Yet she never contacted the prosecutors to interview them or anyone who might substantiate such a charge.
Even when she can bring herself to make a cursory reference to the fact that O'Dell had a criminal history of violence, she omits the most damning portion of that record: an abduction charge in Florida where O'Dell struck the victim on the head with a gun and told her that he was going to rape her. This very similar crime helped the jury conclude that O'Dell would be a future threat to society. It supports the other evidence of his guilt and thus undermines Prejean's claim of innocence.
As with her insinuations against the husband of Williams's victim, Prejean again shows more compassion for O'Dell's new girlfriend and legal advocate, Lori Urs, than for the family of Schartner, effusing about how devoted Urs was to O'Dell and how she resisted the efforts of the state to exact punishment. Prejean explains this focus on O'Dell's girlfriend by positing this definition of "victim": "the family of the murdered one and the family of the executed one" (italics added). There is thus a moral equivalence for Prejean between the family of an innocent victim and the newfound girlfriend of a convicted rapist and murderer.
This curious definition of "the victims" suggests that her concern for "victims" seems to be more window-dressing for her cause than true concern. She acknowledges that after Sonnier (the Dead Man Walking murderer) was executed, she was stung by the criticism that she cared more for the criminal than for his victims.
Virginia Governor (now U.S. Senator) George Allen denied O'Dell's clemency petition (thus earning Allen a comparison with Pontius Pilate by Sr. Prejean -- what does that say about whom O'Dell represents?), and O'Dell was duly executed. The Italian government and the Vatican remained intensely involved in the O'Dell case, and his body was even shipped for burial to Italy, where Sr. Prejean and Lori Urs were received as heroines. Sr. Prejean herself claims that the high profile of the O'Dell case aided in the subtle shifts taking place in Catholic teaching on the death penalty.
Indeed, the latter half of the book is devoted to a summary of what she calls the "seismic change" in Catholic thought on the death penalty, and Sr. Prejean's own role in it. She leaves the impression that Pope John Paul II further modified his death penalty stance after she wrote him a letter concerning the O'Dell case.
This part of the book is of particular interest to Catholics, and although Sr. Prejean acknowledges that the Church still maintains the moral licitness of the death penalty, she enthusiastically (and accurately) recounts the demotion of the death penalty from its traditional place as a vindication of the Fifth Commandment prohibition against murder by restoring the moral harm inflicted by murder, to a mere matter of self-defense of society.
In this discussion of Catholic teaching, Sr. Prejean recounts her confrontation with Justice Antonin Scalia in the New Orleans airport. She begins by describing how her brother and Scalia became hunting buddies by chance, and expresses skepticism when her brother "tried to convince me that Justice Scalia is a devout Catholic." Indeed, she is skeptical, and defines Scalia as a "Traditionalist" who attends the Old Latin Mass "in a white suburban parish and sings Latin hymns," a practice unfavorably compared to her own attendance at an inner-city black parish where spirituals are sung (never mind that Old St. Mary's where Scalia sometimes attends an indult Mass is in a mixed black and Chinese area of Washington, D.C.).
She emphasizes this difference between Scalia's "world" and hers by contrasting his Harvard education with her school of hard knocks education in the "inner city African American housing project in New Orleans." She pictures herself, like Jesus, "on the ground" working for justice, which she says is why the Jews wanted to kill Jesus. She describes her religious order's shift from school teaching to "social justice" in the early 1970s without apparent regret at the loss of vocations to her order.
This street education is what leads her to confront Scalia, and she warns him she will be taking him on in her book. He supposedly playfully raised his fist in response and told her he'd be coming right back at her. Sr. Prejean indeed does "take him on," attacking Scalia for referring to the "God of Hosts" as justification for the idea that God sanctions the death of wrongdoers. Her protest would more profitably be lodged against the tradition of the Church, which has steadfastly supported the right of the state to exact the death penalty, as shown most persuasively in E. Christian Brugger's recent book, Capital Punishment: Roman Catholic Moral Tradition. Scalia's position is in line with what the Church has taught in the past about this issue. He is not alone in his reservations about recent admonitions of uncertain binding authority to execute rarely and only when other means are not sufficient to incapacitate the offender.
Sr. Prejean also spends much ink on the proposition that capital punishment has become a cumbersome process, focusing on a small number of aggravated murders and asking jurors to weigh "future dangerousness" against literally any and all mitigating evidence the defense can adduce. This much is true, but it is, ironically, the opponents of capital punishment who have prevailed on the courts to erect these frequently opaque processes in order to ensure that we execute only the worst of the worst, who are found to constitute a future threat to society.
Although Sr. Prejean scores some points against what she calls the "machinery of death," if her book were itself a criminal case being tried before a jury, the verdict in her prosecution of the death penalty "system" would be a resounding "not guilty."