To many of the condemned men waiting to be electrocuted or drugged to death in a Virginia prison on charges of capital murder, Marie Deans was known as the “angel of death row.” She preferred the phrase “courageous fool.”
Her advocacy, which spanned more than three decades and was based on her steeled opposition to capital punishment, took many paths.
She pestered Washington and Virginia law firms to provide pro bono defense attorneys for inmates too poor to pay for post-conviction habeas appeals. She made hundreds of visits to Virginia’s grimy death row and more than 30 times accepted prisoners’ invitations to be in the death house for their final hours.
She was on hand, too, as a celebrator of justice when years of work helped free a falsely convicted prisoner — Earl Washington Jr. — from Virginia’s death row.
Washington, poor, black, illiterate and mentally disabled, was convicted of raping and murdering a Culpeper mother in 1982. He could not afford an appeals lawyer, and Virginia would not supply one.
It was Mrs. Deans who, after investigating on her own the arrest and trial records, found repeated errors suggesting a wrongful conviction. She scrambled to find a team of lawyers to save Washington. The defense attorneys maintained that Washington’s initial confession was bullied out of him because of his limited intelligence.
Irrefutable DNA evidence exonerated him. He had come within nine days of execution, marking the first time in memory that newly uncovered evidence led to the freeing of a death-row prisoner in the state. He was taken off death row in 1994, released from prison in 2001 and received an absolute pardon in 2007.
“Marie Deans brought hope and humanity to death-row inmates living under barbaric conditions,” said Donald P. Salzman, a criminal defense lawyer and litigator who now is pro bono counsel at the law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom.
“Her indefatigable insistence on justice for Earl Washington Jr. led to his release from death row and eventual exoneration,” Salzman said.
At the time of her death in a Charlottesville hospice on April 15, after months of fighting lung cancer, Marie Deans, 70, was a major figure in the high stakes and often dispiriting world of death penalty abolition. Once immersed, she found the rituals of capital punishment to be void of mercy.
Up close, she saw it grounded in arbitrariness, racism and legal absurdities. “The death penalty,” she told interviewers from Amnesty International in 1989, “is something that is destroying the soul of our people. If people don’t know that, it just tells me how quickly it is destroying us.”
Marie McFadden, whose father was a jeweler, was born June 8, 1940, in Charleston, S.C. A personal tragedy brought her into her life’s work.
In 1972 in Charleston, her mother-in-law, Penny Deans, was murdered by an escaped convict. At the scene of the crime, Mrs. Deans once recalled, she was told by a police officer not to worry: “We’ll find the bastard and fry him.”
Capture him, she said, but don’t kill him for me.
“He had a family, too,” she told The Washington Post in 1989. “If he was executed, it would be another murder. It would be worse in a way, because he would be put on death row and the family would have been told every day for 10 years — or eight years or six years or however long it takes — that he was going to be killed. I think that’s worse.”
In 1976, she formed Murder Victims’ Families Against the Death Penalty (now called Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation) and a few years later moved from Charleston to Richmond, in part because she knew the workload would be heavier.
Virginia ranks with Texas in executing more prisoners than any other state. In addition, Virginia is home to the conservative U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit.
Mrs. Deans founded the Virginia Coalition on Jails and Prisons, a public-interest group that specialized in providing pro bono legal assistance from the time of arrest to eventual executions, stays or exonerations. Her salary seldom exceeded $13,000. Nevertheless, the coalition ran out of funds in the early 1990s.
Pushing on, her final effort was creating the Virginia Mitigation Project, which was an extension of her earlier work of persuading juries to reject capital verdicts.
According to journalist and author Margaret Edds’s 2003 book “An Expendable Man: the Near-Execution of Earl Washington Jr.”, Mrs. Deans “found attorneys for dozens of death row inmates. No one died without a lawyer. She assisted in over 220 capital trials and only two of the defendants were sent to death row.”
The prisoner who might have received more of Mrs. Deans’s attention than any other was Joseph Giarratano. In a 1979 Norfolk capital trial that lasted less than four hours, Giarratano, a 21-year-old drifter and drug addict, was sent to death row on a conviction of a double murder and rape.
When Mrs. Deans investigated the case, she said she found a morass of legal inconsistencies, prosecutorial misconduct, coerced confessions, sloppy police work and incompetent defense.
Hours before Giarratano’s scheduled electrocution in Richmond in February 1991 — a time when Chief Justice William Rehnquist was calling for fewer appeals and faster executions — then-Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder stepped in. He expressed grave doubts about Giarratano’s guilt and called off the execution.
For Mrs. Deans, it was semi-justice. Instead of being released or at least earning a new trial, Giarratano was given a life sentence with a chance for parole after 25 years of his 1979 conviction. He has been turned down three times since 2004.
I’ve followed Mrs. Deans’s work for nearly 25 years, initially as a Washington Post columnist and later as a teacher.
At her urging, and she definitely knew how to urge, I brought my law school, college and high school students to visit Giarratano, both on death row and later at a maximum-security prison. Mrs. Deans often came along, conducting seminars with Giarratano and assuring that students’ minds were opened and hearts stirred.
A few days before her death, a letter came to me from Giarratano saying the end was near for his friend. “Marie,” he wrote, “has been such a strong and powerful force and influence in my life. No one person has had more impact on my life, my soul, than she.”
Her marriages to William Trember, David Lubotsky and Robert L. Deans ended in divorce. Survivors include a son from her first marriage, Joel McFadden of Red Bank, N.J.; a son from her third marriage, J. Robert Deans III of Alexandria; and three grandchildren.
Asked once why she involved herself in a field that attracts so few, Mrs. Deans replied: “I have the need to understand why we are so good at passing on violence and so poor at passing on love.”
Colman McCarthy, a former Washington Post columnist, is the director of the Washington-based Center for Teaching Peace.