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Bar News - August 10, 2007

Book Review: Back from the Dead by Joan M. Cheever



Critical substance over journalistic form aptly describes this work by court journalist-turned-attorney Joan M. Cheever.  She makes a convincing argument for the abolition of the death penalty in her book, Back from the Dead: One Woman’s Search for the Men Who Walked Off America’s Death Row.  Taking advantage of a brief window in criminal justice history, Ms. Cheever searches for an answer to the question of whether death row inmates convicted of murder can rehabilitate themselves and become at least peaceful, if not productive, members of society—or whether they will kill again.


In true journalist fashion, Cheever tracked down and interviewed ex-death row inmates who had been released after the 1972 Furman v. Georgia U.S. Supreme Court 5-4 decision making the death penalty unconstitutional. (Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972)).   After Furman, states immediately began re-writing their death penalty statutes, and in 1976 in Gregg v. Georgia the Supreme Court held that death penalty statutes passed constitutional muster as long as more stringent safeguards were implemented, such as: a narrowing of capital crimes to murder or felony murder, a separate post-verdict sentencing phase, and the right to a trial by jury. (Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976)).


Driven by a promise to Walter Key Williams, a 32-year-old black man executed in Texas on October 5, 1994, Ms. Cheever tells his story and the story of her subsequent search for those who won the 1972 “Death Row lottery.”  In 1985, she was the attorney recruited to work on Mr. Williams’ appeal after he was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death following a botched convenience store robbery in which the store clerk was brutally killed.  Her next nine years would be spent fighting for a reversal on appeal, a decision the defense team was sure would be granted because of incompetent defense at trial—but no reprieve was forthcoming.  Walter had shot the 19- year-old store clerk in the head at point-blank range.  He would pay for it with his own life. 


During his time in prison, Walter found solace in the Islamic faith, and from all appearances, it changed his whole being.   As Joan witnessed Walter’s execution so many years after the crime, the haunting questions began—what would have been his fate if he had been released?  Would he have been able to become part of society?  Would he have killed again?  She watched as the needle inserted into his vein delivered the drugs that slowly caused his heart and breathing to stop. In the moments before his death, Joan Cheever promised Walter Williams that she would tell his story, and “get it right.”

To her, the taking of a life by the state corrected nothing—it was just as wrong and just as irreversible as what Walter had done.  She vowed to let the victim’s family know that Walter Key Williams was truly sorry for what he had done, that he sought their forgiveness, and that forgiveness is a more powerful healer than vengeance ever can be.


Through interviews with many of the “Class of ‘72" who are now living throughout the country, Ms. Cheever raises important questions about the death penalty.  She explores how socioeconomic factors play into convictions and sentencing.  A great many of the death row inmates were poor, black, and had no money for experienced defense attorneys.  The juries were often white, the evidence circumstantial and the trials often in Southern states.  She looks at the uncompensatable costs society has extracted from people who are now living productive lives and contributing to our culture in ways that could not have been imagined. She talks with “Class of ’72" members who are private investigators, legal advocates, and teachers.       


However, recidivism is not ignored.  Several death row inmates did kill again, and did so shortly after release.  Some inmates were re-incarcerated for both real and alleged parole violations.  Many of those sent back to prison died there. 


One of Cheever’s most significant contributions lies in identifying four common denominators that successfully changed life-after-death-row for many: education, family support, friendship and faith were fundamental to a positive outcome for the released inmates.  Those who were able to take advantage of education while incarcerated fared much better than those who could not. Family support during incarceration and after also helped to determine who was able to successfully fit back into life outside prison walls. 


Five people who made friends with each other while on death row at the same prison became their own “prison family,” agreeing that no matter where each of them happened to be, if they felt they were slipping back into old behaviors, they would contact each other and meet to help one another.  All five managed to stay out of prison after their release.         


Finally, a deep abiding faith found while living with death on a daily basis changed many inmates’ lives and not only kept them from returning to prison, but compelled them to share their lives and lessons with others in their communities.


As she seeks to find the men who walked off death row, Cheever gets nearer and nearer her holy grail: she wants to find Furman if he’s still alive, to see what life has dealt him since the fateful August day in 1972.


Cheever does find Furman, living out his life in obscurity in a small town in Georgia, a man of very limited means, just getting by from day to day.   He shares a modest house with a roommate, asks for nothing more than to watch sports on TV; in fact, when Cheever took Furman and his roommate out to lunch, they asked if they could get the food to go, just so they wouldn’t miss a football game.  And there’s a “church lady” who visits often, wanting to bring Furman back into the fold.  


After Cheever’s visit with Furman, she realized it was time to go back to Walter’s victim’s family and deliver Walter’s message.   Sitting in their living room, watching the family relive the pain and listening to the victim’s mother and brother spew anger that had been roiling for over 17 years, Cheever told them that Walter’s last words to her had been that he was so sorry he had killed their son and brother.  The sincerity of Walter’s regret began to break down the walls of hatred, letting the healing begin.                          


The book’s literary style can be a bit distracting at times, since the author jumps from one time period to another, interrupting the chronological flow of events, calling on the reader to make mental leaps to bridge gaps in time.  But through Back from the Dead, Joan Cheever forces us to consider how we can make our laws and their application truly more just.  Back from the Dead provides food for thought during the evolution our society must make in its consideration of the death sentence.


Nancy C. Russell is with Valley Regional Healthcare, Inc. in Claremont.  She has been a member of the NH Bar since 2006.


Published by John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 111 River Street, Hoboken, NJ 02030.







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