Sister Helen Prejean became well known for her efforts to end the death penalty after the success of her book “Dead Man Walking,” which was adapted into a film starting Susan Sarandon.
Of “A Courageous Fool,” the Roman Catholic nun writes, "Some say I've done a thing or two for human rights, but next to Marie Deans I'm a pale little wimp.”
Deans’ work is credited with helping to save the life of Earl Washington Jr., who was on death row for the rape and murder of a woman in Culpeper, Virginia. He was eventually exonerated by DNA evidence.
Joseph Giarratano was given a death sentence after being convicted of the 1979 murder of a Norfolk woman and the rape and capital murder of her daughter. Three days before his execution date, then-Gov. Douglas Wilder commuted the sentence to life in prison, a move that, according to Giarratano in a foreword for a ‘A Courageous Fool,” would not have happened if Deans had not taken an interest in his case. “No one can deny that Marie was the force and the linchpin that kept my case, and ultimately me, alive,” he writes.
Thirty-four inmates asked Deans to be present in their final moments before execution. “There are men who before they died got to see one last loving face,” Peppers says. “She was there with the men at the very end when they took those final, maybe six or eight, steps from their cells to the death chambers.”
Peppers describes Deans’ presence in what is referred to as the death house, “a tremendous gift” but adds that it came at a cost. “You can imagine what watching 34 men walk to their death does to you,” he says.
In addition to suffering from PTSD, Deans died flat broke, according to Peppers. “I don’t think Marie ever made more than $14,000 a year,” he says. “She lived off a diet of caffeine, nicotine and red beans and rice. . . Marie should be considered a casualty of capital punishment in Virginia, almost as much as the men who got put in the chair. Being exposed to that and working with those men, I think, shortened her life dramatically.”
Deans was buried without a tombstone. “It really got to me after a while that she was laying in an unmarked grave in South Carolina,” Peppers says.
He launched a fund drive on the internet, which quickly raised over $3,000 for a headstone. On the giving website, one donor wrote: “There could be few better models for a life well-lived.”
Anderson and Peppers were not the only ones who found Deans’ story compelling. Screenwriter and director Claudia Myers recently finished a screenplay based on “A Courageous Fool.”
Peppers hopes that with the book and possibly one day a movie about Deans’ work, she will receive the recognition that evaded her in life. “I think she’d be proud, not just of the book,” Peppers says of Deans. “But proud looking back at her body of work.”