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



Before she died, Marie Deans told Todd Peppers, “I don’t want to be a saint.” Peppers, who would later publish her memoir, had just asked Deans why she did not 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”, because she was felt that she was too “foolish and stubborn” to give up on her advocacy of death row inmates.


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 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.

Photo of Marie Deans in featured in presentation on Saturday. Credit: B. Pitzer

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 was known for providing legal assistance to men on death row despite not being a lawyer. She saved 250 inmates from execution during her career.


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, according to the authors, the nuns taught her the meaning of forgiveness after wrongdoing. Peppers believes this had an influence on her understanding of justice.


Marie Dean’s beloved mother-in-law Penny deans was murdered in 1972. After her murder, the police said to Deans, “Don’t worry we’ll catch that bastard and fry him”, according to the authors, but Deans did not want to see that happen. She believed in forgiveness for everyone.


Peppers believes that this experience helped shape her moral compass on the death penalty and marked the beginning of her activism.


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


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


In 1983 she moved to Richmond to start the Virginia Coalition on Jails and Prisons. Deans would also spend the next decade in Richmond providing legal support for men on death row.

She spent 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, as Peppers himself had personally witnessed.


He was also a peace activist and started several hunger strikes which lead to him losing his leg due to being a diabetic.  He moved to a prison for the elderly where he currently resides. Marie Deans spent the rest of her life fighting for Giarratano and even petitioned for former VA governor Tim Kaine to grant him clemency but the request was denied.


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


According to Peppers, Deans went through her own looking glass while standing death watch with 34 inmates, many of whom did not want her to see them die. In the case of a client 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 Washington for the book. Now Washington is happily married and lives on Virginia Beach.


“Earl was saved despite the system,” Peppers said who gives the credit to Marie Deans and the anti-death penalty movement.


“America is worried about its pocketbook,” said Peppers about the state of the modern death penalty.

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


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


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