Sister Helen is a remarkably gifted story teller. In this, her second book, she demonstrates that she has developed her voice as an author, too. One really should read her first book, Dead Man Walking, to have the context for the second, but each book stands on its own. In The Death of Innocents, Sister Helen again tells the story of accompanying two men, as their spiritual advisor, as they go through the agonizing process of state sanctioned execution. This time, however, there is compelling evidence that these two men likely were innocent of the crime for which they were executed. Sister Helen lays out the evidence as well as the long road she and others travelled to bring the evidence before the appropriate authorities, only to be rebuffed each time. Nevertheless, she presents a compelling argument against the death penalty, using the examples of these two cases with which she was personally involved to demonstrate how procedural mistakes and incompetence too often prevent evidence from being heard and lead to innocent people being executed for crimes they did not commit.
The first half of the book describes in detail the trials, appeals, and execution processes of two men that Sister Helen accompanied to their execution. She holds nothing back in describing in detail the twists and turns of each case. In the second half of the book she lays out the constitutional arguments against the death penalty. Though she is no constitutional scholar, her first person description of the legal arguments she has absorbed in her self-taught education on death penalty law are presented in a way that any reader can understand (and research for themselves – the book is extremely well-documented).
The book is written in a very accessible style and even the legal arguments she describes are easily understood by someone with no formal legal training. I would recommend this book to a general audience and feel that it should be read by those on all sides of the debate over execution in the United States. The book would make a good addition to the reading list for an undergraduate Social Problems class and would fit in just as well in a graduate class in Catholic ethics, particularly timely in light of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ recently released document “A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death.”