A Courageous Fool: An Author Talk on the Life and Legacy of Anti-Death Penalty Activist Marie Deans

By Julia Rapp, Tuesday, September 12, 2017 12:36 PM

WASHINGTON- “I don’t want to be a saint,” said Marie Deans to Todd Peppers while taking a drag from her Marlboro cigarette and blowing out puffs of smoke towards the ceiling. Peppers, who would later publish her memoir, just asked Deans why she didn’t want her book to be titled after her popular nickname “Angel of the Deathhouse”.

Instead, Deans wanted to be referred to as a “courageous fool” so that’s what Todd Peppers, a professor of public affairs at Roanoke College and his former student, Maggie A. Anderson decided to title the posthumous book: “A Courageous Fool: Marie Deans and Her Struggle Against the Death Penalty” about this anti-death penalty activist.

Peppers and Anderson presented the book at the Potter’s House, a social justice bookstore and coffee shop in Washington, D.C., Saturday evening to discuss the process of writing the book and the important work Deans contributed to the anti-death penalty movement.

The book, which took seven years to make, included 50 to 70 pages of Dean’s writings along with interviews with family and former inmates.

Marie Deans wore many hats. She provided legal assistance to men on death row despite not being a lawyer, founded the Charleston chapter of Amnesty International, the Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation and the Virginia Coalition on Jails and Prisons, attempted to build a school at a correctional center in Virginia and saved over 250 inmates lives all while raising children by herself while never earning more than $14,000 a year at a time.

“Marie was a smoker, and Marie was an avid book reader,” said Peppers.  Her diet consisted of nicotine and caffeine which most likely contributed to her death in 2011 after a long battle with lung cancer.

Deans never had an easy life. She was born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1940. Her mother had paranoid schizophrenic disorder and Peppers believes that Deans’ father may have abused her. She was sent to live in a convent for a year, where the nuns taught her the meaning of forgiveness after wrongdoing. Peppers believes this had an influence on her understanding of justice.

During her third marriage to Robert Deans, Marie became close with her mother-in-law Penny Deans who was murdered in 1972. After her murder, the police said to Deans, “Don’t worry we’ll catch that bastard and fry him”, but Deans didn’t want to see that happen.

This experience helped shape her moral compass on the death penalty and marked the beginning of her activism.

After founding the Charleston chapter of Amnesty International she was invited to visit inmates on Virginia’s death row.


(Above: Photo of Marie Deans featured in the presentation on Saturday) Credit: B. Pitler

“Marie was pretty gutsy,” said Peppers. According to him, Deans trusted inmates more than the guards.

“Move throughout the fear”, was Marie Dean’s personal mantra. “Marie was often terrified of her work,” said Peppers. She would spend hours and days trying to find the death row inmates lawyers and eventually became a litigation specialist and prepared reports. According to Peppers, these reports read like short novels.

“Marie was basically a lawyer,” Peppers said.

Joe Giarratano was one of the first inmates that she met and is still on death row to this day. In 1971 he was convicted of the murder of his girlfriend and the murder and rape of her daughter There are still speculations of his guilt today.

During his incarceration, he became a jailhouse lawyer and supported the other inmates.  He was also able to protect himself from the guards by doing their legal work.

However, Giarratano resisted against the prison conditions. He spent his time as a peace activist, often going on hunger strikes which lead to his multiple prison transfers.

A diabetic, Giarratano lost his leg from a hunger strike and an exceptionally long ambulance ride. Giarratano was eventually transferred to a prison for the elderly and now writes law journals. Marie Deans spent the rest of her life fighting for him and even petitioned for Governor Tim Caine to grant him clemency but the request was denied.

“The death penalty is like going through a looking glass,” Peppers said.

Deans stood death watch with 34 inmates, many of whom did not want her to see them die. In the case of her client who was named Rickey, she stood outside of the death house but could still feel the electric vibrations and the burning of flesh.

According to Peppers there were “few happy stories in Marie’s career.” The case of Earl Washington Jr. was one of them.

He was a severely mentally disabled African-American man who confessed to five crimes he didn’t commit, four of which were “beyond the pale” said Peppers. However, the fifth crime surrounded the murder and rape of a white woman by the name of Rebecca Williams.  Peppers believes that the police manipulated Washington into confession.

After the DNA results were released he received a full pardon by the then Virginia governor James Gilmore.

“In my mind this is everything wrong with the justice system this day,” said Anderson, as she highlighted the many issues involved in the justice system including racism, mental illness and alcoholism.  “This case hit the hardest on me”, she said. Anderson interviewed him for the book. Now Washington is happily married and lives on Virginia Beach.

“Earl was saved despite the system,” Peppers said.

The Death Penalty Information Center says that executions have dropped since 1973.

“America is worried about its pocketbook,” said Peppers, implying that the system is less concerned over the inmates and more concerned over its own budget.

Marie Deans died poor but died fighting. Yet her memory and legacy lives on in her memoir. “We need to preserve Marie’s story,” Peppers said.

Anderson ended the talk by reading an excerpt from the book: “if prison officials fear anyone and death row it is these men and women.” Maybe Marie Deans was more than just a courageous fool after all.




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