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“Marie is one of the unsung heroes from the early years of the fight against the modern death penalty. [Her] work on death row took a terrible physical and mental toll. She died at the relatively young age of 70 – as much a victim of the “machinery of death” as the men she fought to save,” is how Todd Peppers describes Marie Deans, the subject of his biography,
A Courageous Fool, which will be released tomorrow.

According to Peppers, Deans “was a social activist from the very beginning.” A South Carolina native, she walked into a drug store when she was 13, sat down at the counter, and immediately realized that the black men already at the counter were not being served. When the waitress asked her for her order, “Marie said I’ll have what they’re having, and pointed to the men.”

Her empathy stemmed in part from her own upbringing. Her mother suffered from mental illness, and when Deans was very young, she once locked her in a closet for several days, an experience Peppers believes was at least part of the reason she “felt so strongly for the men locked in their cells.” But it was the murder of her mother-in-law by an escaped convict that set Deans on the path of working with death row inmates. When a police investigator working on the case told Deans, “We’ll catch the bastard and fry him,” she was horrified. She founded the organization, Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, and began working for criminal justice reform, first for Amnesty International, and then, in the late 1970s, turning her attention to the men on South Carolina’s death row. In the early 1980s, Joe Ingle, the director of the Southern Coalition on Jails and Prisons, asked Deans to come to Virginia, and help with death row inmates there.

“She was appalled by what she saw,” Peppers says. “She found the death row in South Carolina one of the more humane death rows. But Virginia was different. A death row out of control. A cesspool of drugs, violence, sexual assault. Men with execution dates who didn’t have lawyers because the state didn’t have to appoint an attorney after their first appeal. She’d spend hours and hours on the phone begging attorneys to take cases.”

She spent 10 years working with the condemned, acting as their spiritual advisor and advocate, “the only friend, the only lifeline to the outside world these men had,” says Peppers. By the time she stopped, she had accompanied 34 men to the death house (a room immediately adjoining the execution chamber), and while she refused to watch them executed, “she was close enough to smell the electric chair, feel the vibration of the generator. She did not want the men to die alone, no matter what they had done. The work she did, it often scared her, but she walked through the fear. In most of these cases, she was the last loving face these men would ever see. But it took a toll. She suffered from PTSD. She was as much a victim of the electric chair as the men they strapped into it,” he says.

Deans’ dream had always been to be a writer, and after the Southern Coalition on Jails and Prisons closed in 1990, she founded the Virginia Mitigation Project and drew on her talent as a storyteller to become a mitigation specialist, “weaving together a narrative about the condemned men, about the sexual abuse they suffered, or the mental illness, the extreme poverty,” all the factors that a jury must consider before issuing a verdict of death. “She was a mitigation specialist in 200 death penalty trials,” Peppers says,” and only two resulted in death, so skilled was she in telling their stories.”

Her compassion extended beyond the inmates on death row to the members of the execution team. “She was their therapist. They would come to her for comfort.” Her compassion was coupled with a strong streak of practicality. Peppers says that at one point the head of the execution team came to her to tell her he was going to quit, that the job flew in the face of his Christian beliefs. “She talked him out of it. Told him the men needed him. She did it because she knew the man who would replace him would have been brutal.”

Peppers met Deans when he was co-writing Anatomy of an Execution, the story of Douglas Christopher Thomas, who was sentenced to death when he was 17 years old for the murders of his girlfriend’s parents, and was executed in Virginia in 2000. Deans had spent hours with Thomas as a mitigation expert at the request of the attorneys working on his appeals. Peppers interviewed Deans for his book and they became friends. In the course of discussing his work, Deans “shared her angst over her own book,” a memoir she had been working on for years without much progress. “Too many memories overwhelmed her. Her hands would shake, she would tear up.”

She was very ill at the time, Peppers says. She had injured her back in an Amtrak train accident, and was in constant pain. Peppers taped their conversations, and obtained some of her papers before she died in 2011, but says he was “in despair because I thought the stories died with her.” But when he reviewed what he had, he found he had enough to work with and began writing her story, a six-year effort that culminated in the 328-page A Courageous Fool, which he co-wrote with Margaret A. Anderson. “It’s a nice picture frame around the painting Marie’s drawn,” Peppers says.

“She was one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever met in my life,” he says. “Never met anyone who really dedicated her life to a cause the way she did. She was sometimes called the ‘Angel of Death Row,’ and she hated that. ‘I’m no goddam saint,’ she’d say, and take a big drag of her cigarette. It offended her, like she was some sort of do-gooder who floated around death row on wings.” Instead, he says, she would insist “I want to be called a courageous fool.”

Todd C. Peppers is a professor of political science in the Department of Public Affairs at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia, as well as a visiting professor of law at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.

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