R. I. P.: Marie Deans–Victims’ Advocate and Death Penalty Foe
I have just learned the sad news of the passing of Marie Deans on 15 April 2011. Marie Deans, whose mother-in-law was slain by an ex-convict, hated the way that pro-death penalty zealots used the pain of victims’ survivors to justify the death penalty. As other rationales for the death penalty (deterrance of violent crime; retribution) became more publicly suspect, prosecutors came more and more to beg juries to execute prisoners in order for victims’ families to “gain closure.” New studies have shown that victims’ family members do NOT gain “closure” through the death penalty system and resent being used this way. Marie Deans knew that years ago from personal experience and she founded Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation in 1976 as a safe space for victims’ families to speak out against the death penalty. (Today, there is also the related group, Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights.)
Although today the tide seems turning against the death penalty in America, Marie Deans struggled against it during the decades when support gained every year and opponents were often lonely and frustrated. She was a self-taught mitigation expert who testified repeatedly in sentencing hearings against the death penalty. As a result of her efforts, only 2 of the 200 people she represented at sentencing hearings were ultimately executed. Her greatest triumph was the exoneration of Earl Washington, Jr., a Virginia death row inmate with mental disabilities whose false confession was the result of police coercion and intimidation. Washington was awarded more than $2 million in damages in a lawsuit against the police.
Marie Deans showed that one can seek compassionate justice for victims–without creating new victims. Rest in peace, faithful witness.
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