injusticebusters logo

Sister Helen Prejean

Sister Helen Prejean

Doubts on death row

The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions
By Sister Helen Prejean
Random House, 310 pages

When I was asked by The Globe and Mail to review The Death of Innocents, a new book by Sister Helen Prejean, I leaped at the opportunity. She has been one of my heroes for a long, long time. We have worked together on many occasions over the years.

The Death of Innocents only demonstrates the human insanity in which we live. If you believe in, or have faith in, the correctness of the criminal justice system as it is presently being administered, don't read this book. It will blow your mind, your faith and your belief, leaving you with the knowledge that, in the criminal justice system, innocence means nothing and retribution means everything.

Sister Helen's account of her experiences with the criminal justice system, as a spiritual adviser to those condemned to death, is a wonderfully sad and disheartening exposé of a system where truth does not count -- only procedures. In the first chapter, she speaks of Roger Coleman, a Virginia coal miner who was executed in Virginia on May 20, 1992, because of a procedural technicality. His rookie lawyer, trying her first capital case, filed Coleman's petition one day late -- 24 hours late -- and so they took his life.

I had the opportunity to speak with Coleman one day before the state of Virginia executed him. Having been in that same position myself, I was impressed by his presence of mind, given the dreaded thing that was waiting to shock the life out of his body.

At one point, a prison nurse, who was concerned that Coleman had missed his scheduled medication for a sore shoulder, interrupted our conversation. I said to him, "Brother, this is absolutely insane. Here the state of Virginia is about to take your life, and they're concerned about your health!" He laughed, and I laughed too.

But I cried the next day when I saw him being carried from the prison in a body bag.

Roger Coleman is very much in the news again today, because the state of Virginia is refusing to release the DNA specimen that might provide evidence of his guilt or innocence. The system is afraid it may have executed an innocent person.

The Death of Innocents is a profoundly disturbing and horrifying demonstration that, once a jury has found a person guilty, it takes a monumental effort to reverse that decision. That's why competent counsel is necessary. There is a great deal at stake in upholding criminal convictions. Careers, political and otherwise, are built on these convictions. Successful police officers are promoted, successful prosecution attorneys become judges, and a successful judge is one who is seldom reversed on appeal.

Even at the best of times, nobody likes to admit fault. But when admitting that a mistake has been made begins to threaten one's own professional standing -- one's own career -- then justice becomes a very personal matter. Establishing that one, or one's colleague, did not make a mistake becomes much more important than the possible innocence of the person convicted.

There are many people in prison today who find themselves standing on the wrong side of the law not because they went astray, but because the law, having been placed in the wrong hands, strayed from the right path. Many instances of this have occurred right here in Canada. For instance, Guy Paul Morin was convicted of raping and killing nine-year-old Christine Jessop. Christine's parents told the police that they had returned home at a particular time and found her gone. The time they gave made it impossible for Morin to have committed the crime. Under questioning from the police, the mourning mother admitted she could have arrived home at a different time. Her original statement would have seriously weakened the case against Morin. The changed version strengthened it. And an innocent person was convicted of a horrible crime.

"Junk science" and "forensic fraud" were also involved in this case. Hairs found in Morin's car were presented to the jury as consistent with hairs from the murdered girl, but the link turned out to be a weak one.

Thankfully, Morin was eventually exonerated by DNA evidence.

Sister Helen details very succinctly the flaws and the mistakes of our criminal justice systems in North America, and even offers solutions. To prevent or to stop bad cases, prosecutors and police officers, especially senior ones, must learn to recognize the "telltale signs" that a case may be, as the lawyers say, "not safe" -- that there may be something wrong with it. Having spotted the signs and looked carefully into the case, they must be prepared to stop it. This is one of the most difficult things to get people to do. These telltale signs are: the absence of hard evidence; witnesses who change their testimony after conferring with the police; inconsistent police reports and notes; and unreliable witnesses, especially "jailhouse snitches," who should almost never be believed.

The two most dominant telltale signs of a bad case and, surely the cause of many wrongful convictions, as chronicled in The Death of Innocents, are eyewitness testimony and retracted confessions. Eyewitnesses are notoriously inaccurate, especially in cases of cross-cultural identification. They may be entirely credible, but nevertheless wrong. Unfortunately, juries tend to believe eyewitnesses much more than they should.

Likewise, confessions that the accused retracts should have little or no weight. A person who wishes to confess would plead guilty. But if that person pleads not guilty, then it should be obvious that he is not confessing. Yet "confessions" carry a great deal of weight with juries, even when the confession is repudiated or when there is clear evidence that the confession was coerced.

If any of these "telltale signs" are present, and particularly if more than one of them are present, prosecutors and Crown attorneys should immediately worry that the case may not be a good one.

Sister Helen Prejean is an old-fashioned lover of liberty; she administers the kind of service the world loves, one person -- alone -- who speaks the truth, mocking the enemies of justice, freedom, truth, beauty and good.

Just a few years ago, Sister Helen and I had the enormous pleasure of participating in a "journey of hope" at a children's crusade in northern Pennsylvania, where children from 57 different countries were represented. The three-day conference demonstrated very clearly how Sister Helen serves all of mankind, not only as spiritual adviser to those in prison facing the death penalty, and not only to her best friend, Ann, who was dying of cancer, but also to young people all over the world.

Thank you, Sister Helen.

Rubin Carter, sometimes known as Hurricane, is executive director and chairman of the board of Innocence International, an organization dedicated to uncovering wrongful convictions. He spent 20 years in a New Jersey state prison, narrowly escaping the electric chair, for a triple murder he did not commit.

Sister Helen Prejean