The anti-death-penalty activist provides a front-row seat for some of the more horrific miscarriages of justice in modern American history.
In her 1993 Pulitzer Prize–winner, Dead Man Walking, Prejean took a daring approach to the death penalty by focusing on the case of an undeniably guilty murderer, asking readers (and later the viewers of Tim Robbins’s film adaptation) to look beneath the surface at the deeper issue of whether it is ever right for the government to kill criminals. Her new book, a full-on polemic against the execution of those who are likely innocent, or at least were given such an incompetent trial that their guilt could not be accurately ascertained, makes a more traditional argument and is likely to make more converts. As a spiritual advisor to the condemned, Prejean has sat in on a large number of executions, and she tells about two of her most harrowing experiences, both involving men she believes were wrongfully executed. Joseph Roger O’Dell was accused of raping and murdering a Virginia woman in 1985. All through his trial the prosecution was able to keep out key evidence, and it’s likely that O’Dell’s less-than-effective lawyer was giving tips to the other side. Dobie Gillis Williams’s case is even more heartbreaking. Possessing an IQ of only 65, the African-American Louisiana resident was charged with raping and stabbing to death a Caucasian woman and was ultimately convicted on little more than the racism of an all-white jury. (Most death row cases involve a black accused and a white victim.) Prejean displays sharp intelligence in this book, stuffed with facts about the uncomfortable reality of death row justice, how weighted it is by laziness and prejudice. She sometimes weakens her argument, though, with her tendency to portray convicts as saintly martyrs.
Nonetheless, a passionate and convincing polemic for a modern abolition movement.