“Good lord, I’m not ready for this.” The words are uttered by Bernadette Baker, a loyal wife and loving mother who has just entered the prison where she expects to witness the execution of the woman who murdered her beloved daughter, Veronica. Bernadette is accompanied by a former minister named Regis Dorfman, who oversees a program that brings together accused perpetrators and their victims and victims’ relatives for what might be a healing dialogue. As recounted in Dorothy Van Soest’s debut novel “Just Mercy,” Bernadette and the murderess have had such an exchange but healing has been elusive.
She admits to Regis: “I never saw anyone die before.” The heat of the Texas summer intensifies the anticipation. Outside the walls, proponents and opponents of the death penalty mill around. Enthusiasts for execution are clamorous: “Kill the bitch!” Opponents chant “Shame on Texas!” Some are prayerful. For the grieving mother it is a wrenching experience. Bernadette’s mind is swirling with sorrow, anger and ambiguity. Ten years before, she had been an avid member of the Texas Coalition Against the Death Penalty. In the wake of her youngest child’s brutal death, Bernadette withdrew from the group since “there was no way they could understand what had happened to her.” All she can hope for is that the pending execution will bring some closure and relief to the heartrending anguish she has endured over the past decade.
Bernadette and her husband Marty, a bookish philosophy professor, were already raising two kids of their own — Annamaria and Fin — when they decided to adopt a child. Newborn Veronica became a joy to her adoptive parents and older siblings. She bloomed into a parent’s dream, a kind and studious girl brimming with life, on the verge of young adulthood. Surely her future held great promise. On the night she was murdered, Veronica was headed back home after spending the evening helping a friend struggling with algebra. She had just missed her bus. In 30 minutes another would come along.
Suddenly, a dazed white woman appeared behind the teen: “The woman swayed back and forth, staring into space through hollow eyes ringed with black. Stringy matted hair — it was too dirty to tell whether it was brown or blonde — clung to her cheeks. She probably looked older than she was, her body sunken inside ripped and filthy jeans that were falling off her hips and a faded blue T-shirt with holes in front that looked like they came from cigarette burns.” Veronica attempts to assist her. The addled woman soon draws a switchblade. Crazily, she slices the palm of her own hand and then pricks the tips of each finger. She licks the blood.
The deranged stranger is impervious to Veronica’s pleading.
Moments later the knife is turned on Veronica as the howling woman comes at her: “Then the blade was everywhere, tearing into her arm, her shoulder, her face. It flashed over her as she fell to the ground. With each stab, she screamed and begged the woman to stop. The pain was excruciating until suddenly, gratefully, she felt nothing.” After her arrest, Raelynn Blackwell has no recollection of her horrific deed.
Author Van Soest is the former Dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Washington. She has written nine previous books and a plethora of articles and essays that touch upon myriad contemporary issues. “Just Mercy” is her first venture into fiction. This captivating story is inspired by her critical study of 37 men who were executed in Texas in 1997. Van Soest found that the emotional and political turbulence sparked by the subject of state-sanctioned executions affects everyone on all sides of this explosive subject. She learned that many in officialdom responsible for carrying out the dictates of the law are often psychologically and spiritually torn by their responsibilities.
Raelynn’s execution is postponed. Angered by what seems an interminable ordeal, Bernadette is drained. Her family is rocked and divided. Annamaria, a lawyer, is devoid of any charity for the woman who killed her sister. Fin, a handsome gay man, remains adamant in his opposition to capital punishment. Marty remains home with a book and quietly ponders his recent diagnosis of prostate cancer. It is a trying time for this family.
Bernadette meets again with Raelynn. In this conversation Bernadette is painfully blunt: “I want my life back,” she said. “I want myself back. I want my family back. Don’t you see? It’s about more than what you did to Veronica. It’s what you’re doing to us. Every day.”
Prison has transformed Raelynn. Sober and caring, she is a model prisoner. Clearly, she is contrite and ashamed. Someone as decent as Bernadette cannot long bear the onus of hatred. She learns of the sordid conditions that surrounded Raelynn and her siblings as they were subject daily to their drunken mother’s neglect. Bernadette forgives Raelynn and determines to find out what happened to the mother and other children.
This past February, Gov. Jay Inslee proclaimed a moratorium on state executions in Washington. “Just Mercy” combines a brisk read with deep themes of justice, forgiveness, the abiding love of family and the sanctity of human life.
Book Review - Just Mercy by Dorothy Van Soest