Since the 1993 publication of her memoir Dead Man Walking
and the 1995 film it inspired, Sister Helen Prejean has become a powerful and articulate presence in the fight against the death penalty in America. In The Death of Innocents
, Prejean focuses her argument on the ways in which an unjust system may be killing innocent people. She tells the story of two inmates she came to know as a spiritual adviser. Dobie Williams, a poor black man with an IQ of 65 from rural Louisiana, was executed after being represented by incompetent counsel and found guilty by an all-white jury based mostly on conjecture and speculation. Joseph O'Dell was convicted of murder after the court heard from an inmate who later admitted to giving false testimony for his own benefit. O'Dell received neither an evidentiary hearing nor potentially exculpatory DNA testing and was executed, insisting on his innocence the whole while. Besides exploring the shaky cases against them, Prejean describes in vivid detail the thoughts and feelings of Williams and O'Dell as their bids for clemency fail and they are put to death. The second part of the book details "the machinery of death," the legal process that Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, dismayed at the inequities of the death penalty, cited as his reason for resigning and that current justice Antonin Scalia has boasted of being a part of. Prejean is impassioned as she describes what she sees as an arrogant attitude by both Scalia and the contemporary judicial system. Her chance confrontation with Scalia at an airport is a gripping collision of disparate worlds. In recent years, DNA testing has overturned the convictions of scores of prisoners, including many on death row. As the death penalty is increasingly called into question, Sister Helen Prejean will surely be a force in that debate. --John Moe
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Activist nun Prejean, whose crusade against the death penalty became widely known after Susan Sarandon portrayed her in the Oscar-winning film adaptation of her first book, Dead Man Walking
, has again crafted a passionate indictment of the American criminal justice system. This time, with gripping, heartrending detail, Prejean draws on her experience advocating for two men she believes to have been innocent, but who were condemned to death row—Dobie Gillis Williams and Joseph O'Dell. While the book's subtitle removes any element of suspense, few readers will miss it. Instead, many will be outraged at a "machinery of death" weighted against the poor and African-Americans, featuring technical obstacles placed in the way of men desperately fighting for a fair hearing of evidence never elicited at their trials (O'Dell was denied appellate review by the highest court in Virginia because his lawyers typed one wrong word on his petition's title page). Prejean's tale involves a tragic, but not atypical, confluence of aggressive prosecutors (such as those in Louisiana, who display a "Big Prick" award featuring the state bird clutching in its talons a hypodermic needle used in lethal injections in its talons) and inept, ill-trained and apathetic defense attorneys. This damning critique should make even supporters of capital punishment pause, and the author's celebrity status, coupled with a timely message, should propel this onto bestseller lists.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.