We were deeply saddened to learn that Marie Deans died this past Friday, April 15. Virginia’s Richmond Times-Dispatch has this obituary.
Marie was a writer, organizer, and fierce advocate who dedicated herself to almost every aspect of death penalty abolition work. She ran the Virginia Coalition on Jails and Prisons, assisted in hundreds of capital trials, investigated – as a mitigation specialist – the life stories of defendants facing the death penalty, and served as a companion to almost three dozen prisoners in the final days before their executions.
Marie’s mother-in-law, Penny, was murdered in 1972, and Marie was clear that she did not believe in the death penalty for the person responsible for taking Penny’s life. As she put it years later,
Raised as a Lutheran, I was taught and wholly believe that I cannot justify my sins by the sins of another, and we cannot justify executions by the acts of those who kill. Such actions only take us deeper into imitating and becoming that which we despise.
The death penalty is a false God promising to bring justice and closure to victims’ families. We did not seek closure. We sought healing, a way to get beyond the ‘legal case’ and back to the memories that honored Penny. As for justice, there is no justice for murder. You cannot give enough time in prison and you cannot kill enough people to make up for the precious, unique human life that murder takes. Instead, we must put the vast resources we spend on killing a small percentage of murderers into preventing homicides.
Marie saw that the common and unquestioned assumption was that family members of murder victims would be in favor of the death penalty. “People expected victims’ family members to prove their love for their murdered family member by seeking revenge through the death penalty,” she recalled in 2003. “We needed help in dealing with our anger, pain, and fear, yet we were isolated by the assumptions of others. Breaking out of that isolation meant challenging those assumptions publicly.”
Marie founded and began to organize a group of families of murder victims who opposed the death penalty, a group that later took the name Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation. She had been powerfully affected by a personal message she had received from the sister of the man who had murdered Penny, and she wanted to include families of people who had been executed in the new organization. When she put that idea to the victims’ families she was talking with, “They all agreed. None wanted to extend their pain and grief to another family, and what better way to make that point than to have both families working together.”
Another example of bringing people together was the story Marie often told about a talk she gave to a historically pro-death penalty victims’ group in the 1980s. Having heard that the speaker was opposed to the death penalty, several of the audience members arrived at the talk carrying nooses. But as Marie began to speak, the nooses came down and the audience began to listen. At the end, one audience member came up to Marie and said, “I had no idea you’d been where we are. I had no idea you felt the same things.”
There is a great deal more to say about Marie, and we hope that more of her own writing will be available in some form even though she was not able to complete the book she had been working on in recent years. We are aiming to post some further recollections of Marie here in the coming days.
For now, our thoughts are with Marie's family and the many people whose lives she affected. We'll end this post with a comment from Marie that sums up so much of her thinking and, of course, is at the heart of the “for victims, against the death penalty” message: “If we truly cared about victims, we would put all our knowledge and resources into saving them. Crime prevention, not retaliation, should be our number one goal.”