Marie was a woman who lived her convictions every day of her life. She worked tirelessly on behalf of people on death row. I collected signatures for her in her efforts to save the life of Joe Giarratano, and later met Joe when MVFR sponsored the Peace Studies program he began at Augusta Correctional Facility in Virginia. Joe’s life was spared when Gov. Doug Wilder commuted his sentence to life, but Marie never gave up hope that one day he would be free. During a Journey of Hope, Marie left the MVFR group to fly home and be with Dennis Stockton at his execution in Virginia. She arrived at the prison but was not allowed to see Dennis and was deeply upset that he died without knowing she had kept her promise to be with him at the end. She suffered with a migraine headache for days after.
These and so many more efforts were more than the work of an abolitionist; rather, they were the work of a friend. Marie’s friendship with Joe continued until her death. She knew so many MVFR members personally and remembered their stories. For her, there was no difference between families of people executed by the state and families of murder victims. Despite objections by some, she was always a friend to both.
That is the way I remember Marie, as a dear friend. We traveled together, I slept on her couch many weekends and smile as I remember her referring to my white nightshirt as my “mental patient gown.” During my years as executive director of MVFR, we often talked late into the night planning events, strategizing, venting our frustrations, laughing and just sharing our feelings. When my friend Paul Ruiz was put to death in a triple execution, it was Marie I called because I knew she truly understood the horror of such a travesty in the guise of justice .
In recent years though we saw less of one another, we kept in touch with phone calls and emails sharing important events in our lives. I visited her in Charlottesville when she bought her home there. Her wry sense of humor came through when she always sent just the right birthday card, and I cherish the thoughtful gifts she sent. These last few years, Marie gave me a magazine subscription for Christmas so I thought of her each month when it arrived and sometimes dropped her an email about a great article or recipe in it. On the day her son Robert called to tell me about her illness, a copy arrived.
We never got to say goodbye, but we didn’t have to. She knew how I would feel.
The people we love may leave us physically, but they are always close at hand. Every member of a murder victims’ family understands that and never stops feeling the connection with those who have gone on before us.
And Renny writes:
I first met Marie Deans at the 1998 “National Conference on Wrongful Convictions and the Death Penalty” at Northwestern University. It was my first time at a death penalty abolition event. Marie gave me an overview of the movement and of victims’ role within it. She told me a lot about what it had been like for her to be a pioneer as a victim interacting with both the abolition movement and with victims’ organizations.
As I got to know Marie, I always appreciated that she had a broad sense of social justice, not limited to the death penalty. I appreciated that she saw her death penalty work in the context of other social justice concerns.
I remember Marie’s keynote speech at the “Healing the Wounds of Murder” conference at Boston College in 2001, the first and so far only national gathering of family members of murder victims who oppose the death penalty. In that speech, Marie described the continuity and growth of the role of victims within the abolition movement. She talked about how you build a movement and about her awareness that the abolition movement historically had a difficult time really understanding victims and their role within the movement.
Marie said to me once, “If you’re going to be a victim who speaks out against the death penalty, you have to be prepared sometimes to be the only one.” I thought of that often when I found myself sitting among a group of victims and being the only one to speak against the death penalty. Along with Pat Bane, Marie was my mentor in this work, the pioneer who taught me and shared experiences with me and provided the foundation upon which I’ve tried to work.
In recent years, Marie was always a helpful resource for Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights. We consulted with her when preparing our Double Tragedies report about mental illness and the death penalty, and on other matters related to victims and the abolition movement. She was always there to offer advice and wisdom.
Marie’s death is a tremendous loss to the abolition movement and especially to those of us who have a victim identity. Part of her legacy, though, is that today there is increased awareness of the importance of victims within the larger discussion of the death penalty and of what public policy should be in the aftermath of murder. I doubt this greater awareness would exist had Marie Deans not initiated the conversation.