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A Courageous Fool
Marie Deans and Her Struggle against the Death Penalty

Author(s): Todd C. Peppers, Margaret A. Anderson

There have been many heroes and victims in the battle to abolish the death penalty, and Marie Deans fits into both of those categories. A South Carolina native who yearned to be a fiction writer, Marie was thrust by a combination of circumstances--including the murder of her beloved mother-in-law--into a world much stranger than fiction, a world in which minorities and the poor were selected to be sacrificed to what Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun called the "machinery of death."

Marie found herself fighting to bring justice to the legal process and to bring humanity not only to prisoners on death row but to the guards and wardens as well. During Marie's time as a death penalty opponent in South Carolina and Virginia, she experienced the highs of helping exonerate the innocent and the lows of standing death watch in the death house with thirty-four condemned men.

Biography of Author(s)

Todd C. Peppers, Fowler Professor of Public Affairs at Roanoke College and Visiting Professor of Law at Washington and Lee University, is co-author of Anatomy of an Execution: The Life and Death of Douglas Christopher Thomas.
Margaret A. Anderson is a graduate student in public policy analysis at the University of Virginia.


  • "The death penalty has been the topic of heated debates and struggles for centuries, but few participants have been the equal of Marie Deans. Yes, there have been many who have publicly debated the issues, some who have had star turns in the media, and others who have dabbled around the edges. More significantly, lawyers and their teams have labored in the trenches to save their clients' lives. Few, if any, however, have worked so long and hard for so little appreciation and reward as Marie Deans. This wonderful tribute to her notes that 'Marie felt like the world had forgotten her.' No chance."
    --Victor L. Streib, Professor of Law Emeritus, Ohio Northern University, and author of Death Penalty for Juveniles
  • "A powerful story of a Virginia heroine."
    --Senator Mark Warner (D-VA)
  • "A Courageous Fool is the riveting story of Marie Deans' life and the death row prisoners she befriended, defended, and frequently watched die in the electric chair in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Her heart broke every time. The authors write that Marie Deans was neither a saint nor a psycho. But she differed from the rest of us in that she was incapable of turning a blind eye. It takes first-rate biographers to do justice to a first-rate human being. Marie Deans got lucky."
    --Phyllis Theroux, author of California and Other States of Grace and The Good Bishop
  • "Some say I've done a thing or two for human rights, but next to Marie Deans I'm a pale little wimp. She and I believed in the same kind of scrappy Jesus. Marie used to say, 'Faith? What good is it if you don't put it to work like hell for justice?' Marie wasn't a lawyer, but that didn't stop her from learning the Constitution on her own so she could fight smart for the rights of her clients.
    Marie's soul was so wide.
    Her spirit so truthful.
    Her being so passionate and generous.
    Her language so salty and her humor so outrageous. All of which kept me sane through many a tortuous ordeal.
    Thank God we have this book so others can meet her and love her, too."
    --Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, author of Dead Man Walking
  • "Today America's death penalty seems to be in decline, and America seems to be on the road to abolition. But if we look back into the late twentieth century, few could have foreseen such a possibility. Opposing the death penalty then was very much an uphill struggle. A Courageous Fool offers a compelling account of that struggle. It does so by telling the story of Marie Deans, a little-known but important foot soldier in the abolition movement. This book tells that story in a nuanced and complex way. In the end it shows that the struggle for justice is a very human one, one in which heroic actions are carried on by 'fools' like Marie Deans."
    --Austin Sarat, William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence, Amherst College, and author of Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America's Death Penalty
  • "Marie Deans, one of the most compassionate, thoughtful, committed, and humane people I've ever known, hated to be thought of as the 'Angel of Death Row.' She did work she thought was urgently important but felt anyone could do it and everyone should. And what she accomplished in the years I knew her, cajoling attorneys to take hard cases representing hopeless people, driving long hours to spend precious minutes encouraging the condemned to think, to know their rights, and believe in themselves, made broken men realize someone cared and helped to heal wounded souls. She taught bitter men to laugh, and she wept as the state killed them. The woman you'll meet in this powerful book was not the Angel of Death Row, but somehow miracles flourished in her wake."
    --Mike Farrell, best known as BJ of TV's M*A*S*H, is the author of Just Call Me Mike: A Journey to Actor and Activist and Of Mule and Man