Peter Maurin co-founded the Catholic Worker with Dorothy Day. He wrote “Easy Essays” in which he expressed, in a straightforward manner, thoughts on social justice, simple living and solidarity with the poor and common workers. In “Social Workers and Workers” Maurin asserts:
The training of social workers Does not enable them To help people To change the environment. Social workers Must become social-minded Before they can be critics Of the existing environment And free creative agents Of the new environment.
Dorothy Van Soest, former Dean of the University of Washington School of Social Work, agrees with Maurin. Throughout her career she has urged social workers to go beyond the daily work of addressing immediate needs and to look at the broader social and political dynamics of inequality and injustice. Van Soest has authored numerous books, including “The Global Crisis of Violence” and “Diversity Education for Social Justice,” along with academic articles and essays.
At the University of Pittsburgh in 2010, Van Soest had these suggestions for social workers: “First, to work for social justice means to work for peace when peace is seen as the absence of war and the presence of justice. Second, social workers are inherently well-suited for peace and social-justice activism. Underlying our social work values, ethics and practice principles is what I call professional peace consciousness that links peace to issues of social justice, human rights and development: Issues that are at the heart and soul of social work. And, third, the personal qualities and skills required to be effective social workers parallel those needed for peacemaking and community activism.”
Recently, I met Van Soest at Kells Irish Pub in the Pike Place Market to discuss her first novel “Just Mercy” (Apprentice House, $16.99), a work that explores the emotionally charged subject of capital punishment. We were joined by Danielle Fulfs, Outreach Coordinator for the Washington Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
How was writing fiction different from your previous academic writing?
Van Soest: It’s very different. I have a growing conviction that people change and are moved to action more through story and emotion than through objective data or studies. I want to show how ordinary people like the family in my novel find the courage to embrace the rough experiences in life and make deeply personal decisions that change not only themselves but the world. Through fiction, I give voice to my passion for social justice. It’s been challenging and extremely satisfying.
Surely you’ve pondered the situation of people incarcerated and on death row who are innocent?
I studied the life stories of 37 men executed in Texas in 1997. My research assistant and I were terrified that we might find that one of those men was innocent. That didn’t occur. But there is the case of Troy Davis, who was executed in Georgia. I truly believe that he was innocent. Another man has since admitted [to committing] the murder and from what I understand, he is a haunted man.
Has DNA technology had a big impact in overturning convictions?
Fulfs: Being exonerated through dna is not the rule, it’s the exception. One hundred forty-six people have been exonerated since 1976, when the death penalty was reinstated. The Innocence Project states that only 20 were exonerated through dna identification. There are other issues such as prosecutorial misconduct, ineffective defense lawyers who are inexperienced or not committed to their task, flawed eyewitness testimony and jailhouse snitches who get reduced sentences for lying. There are strong cases for 10 people who have been executed who may have been innocent.
In Texas in 2004, Cameron Todd Willingham was executed. He was convicted of arson. There were experts who argued that the investigation was deeply flawed. Some have said that [Texas] Gov. Rick Perry was aware of this. Once an execution has been done, states don’t pay to prove that they may have been wrong. That is done by nonprofit organizations, journalism students or lawyers who later uncover evidence of innocence. As of October 2014, there are 3,035 people on death row in the U.S. A study conducted earlier this year concluded that 4 percent of those individuals are believed to be innocent. That’s about 122 people. The majority of inmates [feel] indigent and have no money to pursue overturning their sentences.
Has there ever been a wealthy person given the electric chair?
Fulfs: I don’t think so.
What do we do with someone who has committed a particularly heinous crime, say, against a child? Why shouldn’t such an individual be executed?
Fulfs: We like to think that our way of killing a prisoner is humane. But there are botched executions. The system overall is flawed. Juries are sure of their decisions when a person is convicted. But we also have seen persons who are charged with crimes who are later exonerated.
Van Soest: When I did the study of 37 men in Texas, we divided them into two categories: The worst of the worst, who had committed the most heinous crimes, and the rest. Those truly terrible acts were defined by extreme rage, multiple weapons and so forth. They seemed to lack remorse. The kind of people it’s easy to call monsters and who deserve to die. Some of the crimes were so horrible we couldn’t sleep at night after reading the facts of the crimes. But if you look at them as human beings from birth up to the time of the capital crime, you start to understand the hand they were dealt in life. The men who committed the most heinous crimes had lives in which they had endured physical and sexual abuse. Some of the abuse bordered on torture. Blows to the head had resulted in brain damage. It’s not just the criminal justice system that failed them. The child-welfare system, their communities, schools and families also failed them.
What is the name of the most recent person executed in this country?
Fulfs: His name was Chadwick Banks. He was a black man. He was executed in Florida on Nov. 13th. He was the 1,391st person to be executed in the U.S. since 1976. He killed his wife and raped and murdered his step-daughter. He was intoxicated and returned home in a rage. The act does not seem to have been premeditated.
Who was the last woman to be executed?
Fulfs: Her name was Lisa Coleman, a black woman. She was executed on Sept. 17 in Texas. She had tortured and murdered her girlfriend’s son. He was about 9. The girlfriend is serving life for her participation in the crime. There have been 15 women executed since 1976.
Who has been on death row the longest in Washington state?
Fulfs: A man named Jonathan Lee Gentry has been on death row for 23 years. There are currently nine men on death row here, five are white, four are black. Commutations are much more common for white males than black males.
You believe that we will eventually abolish the death penalty. How will that come about?
Van Soest: We need an alternative. We either punish or attempt to rehabilitate criminals. A third way is possible. A movement is growing known as restorative justice/restorative dialogue. It focuses on rehabilitation of the offender through reconciliation with victims and the community at large. I believe if we are going to end the death penalty and find a way back to our humanity, this movement may provide the way. There are many organizations that focus on different programs and processes. Two of them that I’ve found very informative are The Institute for Restorative Justice and Restorative Dialogue, at the University of Texas at Austin, and Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation. In my book I try to capture what happens when there has been a murder. The goal is healing, forgiveness and the hope of moving on. It’s a way for victims to have their voices heard. It’s a way for the offender to be restored to humanity. It is a way to make restitution. The notion that state executions somehow allow families to heal is not so.
However, there is evidence that with restorative justice and dialogue, healing does take place.
Dorothy Van Soest’s novel “Just Mercy” was informed by her study of the life stories of these 37 men who were executed by the state of Texas in 1997. For a list of names and photos, click here
“The men who committed the most heinous crimes had lives in which they had endured physical and sexual abuse. Some of the abuse bordered on torture. Blows to the head had resulted in brain damage. It’s not just the criminal justice system that failed them. The child-welfare system, their communities, schools and families also failed them.”