Here are remembrances from two long-time capital defense attorneys who worked with Marie. First, from Dick Burr:
I had some contact with Marie for several years before 1987 through the Southern Coalition on Jails and Prisons, but my most intense experience with her was in connection with Joe Giarratano’s case, from 1987 – 1991. I took on Joe’s representation in 1987 when much of the litigation had already occurred. I did not think much more could be done – even though I was faced with a client who insisted he was innocent. Marie had worked on Joe’s case as an investigator and a mitigation specialist and a strategist long before I became involved, and along the way she became Joe’s friend and came to believe in Joe. Over time, she opened my eyes to the very real possibility that Joe was innocent and doggedly helped pursue and develop the evidence of Joe’s innocence. At every turn, Marie helped me and the rest of the team see clearly that which had before been murky. Marie was persistent, usually (but not always) patient, and seemingly indefatigable.
Though we ultimately failed in the courts, we succeeded in part in clemency proceedings, persuading then-Gov. Doug Wilder to grant clemency to Joe in 1991. Thus, Joe joined the cast of other innocents who were saved from execution but were not provided the remedy they really deserved. Along the way, Marie had the vision and the pull to get Mike Farrell involved in Joe’s case. Mike’s stirring advocacy for Joe provided a new voice that got attention in Virginia like no other had before, and Mike’s support became a critical factor in Gov. Wilder’s decision to commute Joe’s death sentence.
The role that Marie played in Joe Giarratano’s case was what she did so often and so well. She got to the truth of the matter and helped others get there, too, facilitating and bringing out the best in others along the way. She was a catalyst that brought out the best in the people with whom she worked.
We will miss Marie dearly. She made us all better for having known her and worked with her. Marie was a rare and truly extraordinary human being.
And from Marshall Dayan:
Marie Deans was one of my mentors in the work to abolish capital punishment in the United States. I will miss her greatly. I met Marie shortly after she moved from South Carolina to Virginia, after her mother-in-law was killed in a homicide. Marie was working for the Virginia Coalition on Jails and Prisons to ensure that Virginia death row inmates had post-conviction counsel, because the Commonwealth of Virginia did not, and still does not, as far as I know, provide counsel to indigents who wished to file state habeas corpus petitions challenging their convictions and/or death sentences. She worked to ensure that the habeas lawyers for Virginia’s death row inmates raised issues of federal constitutional dimension so that they could litigate those issues in federal habeas corpus proceedings.
Before there were Capital Habeas Units, or even federal death penalty resource centers, Marie in Virginia, Patsy Morris in Georgia, Scharlette Holdman in Florida, and Lao Rubert in North Carolina, made sure that death row inmates had able counsel for post-conviction proceedings. But for Marie’s work, and Patsy’s, Scharlette’s and Lao’s, far more executions would have taken place, and more quickly. Their work, and especially Marie’s in Virginia, saved lives, and made the prosecuting agencies work harder at getting the executions they sought by helping poor people get quality counsel. Additionally, Marie publicized the errors that beset Virginia's capital sentencing system, raising public consciousness of the flaws in that system.
I was a law student at that time, and I transferred to Antioch School of Law in Washington, D.C. I occasionally drove to Richmond, Virginia to attend vigils that Marie had organized on the nights that executions took place in the now-closed state penitentiary in Richmond. At the vigil preceding James Briley’s execution in the spring of 1985, Marie asked me to take a Virginia capital post-conviction case when I graduated from law school. Marie was absolutely and completely committed to the men on Virginia’s death row, and often was with them in the days and hours before their executions. I promised her I would; I never learned how to say “no” to Marie. Scharlette, Patsy, and Lao were all good at pleading with attorneys for help in representing death row inmates, but none was better than Marie, who was able to make Virginia's situation seem so much worse than anywhere else in the country. Sure enough, my first case as an attorney was the pro bono representation of David Pruett, whom I represented from October, 1986 through December, 1993, when he was executed.
I remember when Marie called me on July 4, 1990. She asked me to handle a second round of post-conviction litigation on behalf of Ricky Boggs, who was scheduled to be executed on July 19, 1990. There was new evidence, she said, that Ricky had fetal alcohol syndrome. I never worked harder in my life. For the next two weeks, I worked at least 20 hours a day. Marie and I were on the phone daily, talking about the evidence of FAS, what trial counsel had failed to do, and how to integrate the FAS claim into Boggs' clemency package for the governor.
We did not prevail, and Ricky Boggs was executed as scheduled. If I am not mistaken, Marie was at the prison with Ricky when the word came from the U.S. Supreme Court that it was not going to issue a stay of execution in the case. Marie and I talked on the phone just after she got that news. We spoke at about 8:30 that night. We cried together on the phone, after which I went to sleep, not waiting for the inevitable. Boggs’ cert. petition to the U.S. Supreme Court was denied on July 19, 1990, just before his execution. The next day, Justice William Brennan, Jr., announced his retirement from the Court. Boggs's case was the last capital case in which Justice Brennan joined Justice Thurgood Marshall in their regular and famous dissent, “[a]dhering to our views that the death penalty is in all circumstances cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, I would grant certiorari, reverse the death sentence and remand for sentencing consistent with this opinion.”
Many have written about Marie within the last week since she passed away, and all of those remembrances describe the passion, commitment, humor, faith, and perseverance that marked her character. I will always remember her gravelly laugh and ribald sense of humor, her sparkling eyes, and her humility. She rarely took or accepted credit. John Kennedy said that victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan. While many can claim significant roles, Marie was hugely responsible for saving the lives of Joe Giarratano and Earl Washington, two former Virginia death row inmates.
I spent a good deal of time around Marie in the midst of the struggle to develop the evidence to convince Governor Wilder to grant clemency to Joe Giarratano. I learned a lot from her during that campaign. She was adamant that the campaign be local; she made it clear that beyond national and international figures of respect, such as the Pope, the campaign had to be led and driven by Virginians who became convinced that the case against Joe was flimsy. She did not want, and dissuaded people from garnering, a lot of correspondence from outside of Virginia. She understood that Governor Wilder would have to be persuaded that Virginians wanted him to grant clemency to Joe. I remember how excited she would get as she would reiterate over and over the facts that led to the conclusion that Joe was probably innocent of the crime for which he was convicted. As happy as she was that Governor Wilder commuted Joe's death sentence, she was always frustrated that Joe had to remain behind bars, a frustration she avoided with Earl Washington's case. Beyond saving those lives, he enriched the lives of many, many others, including one abolitionist and capital litigator who can only hope to leave a shadow as large as the one left by Marie Deans.