Support for the death penalty is at its lowest point since the 1970’s, according to a recent Gallop poll. It was a different story 35 years ago, though, when one woman began her crusade to change Virginia’s death row.
When Marie Deans came to Virginia in 1983, the Commonwealth had just carried out its first execution since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty. The conditions she found were appalling.
"When Marie came to Virginia, death row was out of control. Sexual assault, drugs, violence," says Roanoke College professor Todd Peppers. He and coauthor Maggie Anderson profiled Deans in a book called A Courageous Fool.
The condemned men had almost no help filing legal appeals. "It was almost triage especially in Virginia for men facing execution dates without attorneys. So Marie’s first job was to find those men attorneys, which was sort of a gargantuan task."
Deans was determined to improve conditions for men facing the death penalty. "And here’s one woman on the outside, a poorly paid volunteer, who through sheer force of will is able to do what the Department of Corrections could not do. Which is maintain order and bring a sense of safety back to death row," Peppers said. "And it’s because these men respected her, and maybe feared her a little and understood that if they did not toe the line, she was not going to help them."
While Deans didn’t excuse their crimes, coauthor Maggie Anderson says she realized they too had suffered. "She wasn’t necessarily saying the murders they committed were okay by any means. But she was making them realize that they were human. That their actions had repercussions to them. She wore many hats over the course her career and one of those main hats was a spiritual advisor and almost a mother to these men."
Most of the men Deans advocated for lost their appeals and went to the electric chair. "A little part of Marie died every time she was at an execution," Peppers noted. "Marie early on made a decision she would not watch the execution so she was with the men until they went into the death chamber and the door was closed and she would stay in the outer room. But in the bowels of the old Virginia State Pen and the generator, Marie said you could feel the electric chair and you could smell it."
The stress of it all took a personal toll on Deans. "When I first started interviewing Marie for the book, she used to get mad at me because I would say I want to understand everything you did," Peppers remembered. "And she didn’t like labels. But my list kept getting longer and longer because this is a woman who I don’t think ever slept. She lived on a diet of caffeine and nicotine. And what she accomplished was astonishing. But it took a dramatic toll. Marie died at 70, I think a partially broken woman."
There were success stories, like Earl Washington, Junior who was wrongfully convicted in 1983 and saved from death row by DNA testing in 2000. "At Marie’s funeral in Charlottesville in 2011, one of the pall
bearers was Earl Washington, Jr. That was just so powerful to see a man who Marie promised she would help and take care of and ultimately save, now at the very end was helping Marie."
While Peppers began the project when Deans was still alive, Anderson did not personally know her. Over the course of her research, though, she came to see her as an inspirational figure. "She’s a remarkable woman," Anderson said. "Anytime I’m thinking 'Oh this day is so hard,' I think about Marie because she went through so much more in such a darker place."
Peppers agrees with that assessment. "She’s a remarkable role model and figure because she believed so strongly in what she was fighting for and she sacrificed almost everything."
Very few of the prisoners Marie Deans helped are still alive, but one of them, Joe Giarratano, received a conditional pardon in 1991. He is expected to be released on parole December 20th.