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Author speaks on death penalty

Joan M. Cheever stood about 5 feet from Walter Williams when he was executed Oct. 5, 1994.

She often wondered what would have happened to the convicted murderer had he not been put to death by lethal injection that day.

"I thought the answer had died with Walter," Cheever told the Bemidji Rotary Club at its Monday meeting.

She didn't find the answer to that specific question, but Cheever did get some insights a few years later when she tracked the post-prison lives of 322 death row inmates who were released as a result of a 1972 Supreme Court decision. Nearly 600 were removed from death row because of that ruling before another Supreme Court decision reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

"I'm not the one making the case for abolition (of the death penalty)," Cheever said. "The Class of 1972, by what they've done since they walked out of prison, are making the case."

Cheever was in town on Monday to present a program at Bemidji State University. The former managing editor of the National Law Journal was Williams' attorney during the last nine years of his life.

Now she can add author to her resume. Her book, "Back from the Dead," was published this year.

Of the 587 men and two women who were spared by the 1972 ruling, Cheever researched 322 who eventually were released from prison. Of those, 111 returned to prison (33 for parole violations, 42 for non-violent crimes such as burglary, 29 for armed robbery or aggravated assault, two for attempted murder, two for manslaughter and three for murder.

Cheever said it took her about 18 months to compile a list of those who were on death row. Six years of research followed, including many dangerous encounters. "I had a lot of faith, and I had a lot of angels," she said.

At least seven of the men she studied were exonerated of their murder charges. "They had their confessions beaten out of them," she said. "Dead men don't talk. This group of men are dead men walking, and they decided to put their faces on the death penalty discussion."

One of the men profiled in Cheever's book is 89-year-old Moreese "Pops" Bickham, whom she found in a crime-ridden neighborhood in Oakland, Calif. He was incarcerated in Angola, La., from 1958 to 1996. He spent 14 of those years in a 6-by-8-foot cell, just down the hall from the electric chair.

Bickham, a black man, shot and killed two white police officers on July 12, 1958, in Mandeville, La., a small town that had an active chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and was headquarters for former KKK leader David Duke's National Organization for European-American Rights (NoFear), an anti-black, anti-Semetic organization.

In those days a black man didn't hardly get to the courthouse, Bickham told Cheever. His attorney, who refused to put Bickham on the stand, called him "a darky on a Saturday night."

After the 1972 ruling, Bickham spent another 23 years in Angola. His reading scores improved from the sixth-grade level to nearly the 11th-grade level. He worked in the kitchen for 2 cents an hour. When he was released, he had $864 in his prison savings account. He had become an ordained minister and was the prison church's pastor and president for nine years.

Bickham told the author that death row kept him alive and out of trouble. He has survived three heart attacks and prostate cancer. His wife died four years ago. He lives with his daughter, a few grandchildren and a great-grandchild.

"Is rehabilitation possible?" Cheever asked rhetorically. "I'm happy to say the answer is 'yes.'"

Cheever said in October she joined murder victims' families and Bickham on the Virginia "Journey of Hope" crusade that toured the state making anti-death penalty presentations.

The message is that it costs more than $3 million (mostly in court-related bills) to execute one prisoner, compared to an average of $750,000 to incarcerate a prisoner for 40 years.

"We could take that money and use it up front for our kids," Cheever said, calling for community, after-school and tutoring programs. "We're the only civilized Western country to have the death penalty."

She said she keeps up with many death penalty cases and is familiar with the case of Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., who has been convicted of murdering University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin. The jury in that case returned a death verdict in September. The abduction occurred in North Dakota, but when Rodriguez transported Sjodin into Minnesota, it became a federal case and thus was eligible for the death penalty. North Dakota and Minnesota are two of 12 states that do not have the death penalty.

"It's disturbing that the federal government has to impose itself in the two states that do not have the death penalty," Cheever said. "That's a decision the people of North Dakota and Minnesota should be able to make."