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A Conversation about the Death Penalty

The Power of Story: A Conversation about the Death Penalty
Governor Jay Inslee brought the issue of capital punishment to the forefront in our state in February of this year when he announced a moratorium on executions and called on us to join the national debate about the death penalty. Now Humanities Washington is responding to the governor’s call by offering, through its 2015-16 Speakers Bureau, a presentation that will engage people in conversations aimed at promoting the kind of cultural and political change the WCADP is seeking. In the session, author, educator and activist Dorothy Van Soest will facilitate interactive group dialogues that demonstrate the multi-faceted impact of the death penalty through the weaving together of personal connections, creative storytelling, real life experiences and scientific research.
The conversations will be grounded in the idea that changes in the law are most often the expression of a shift in the culture (i.e., what we consider normal and acceptable) rather than the other way around and that how we communicate either promotes or inhibits the kind of shift in our collective way of thinking that will eventually make the abolishment of capital punishment possible. Stories that engage our humanity, are a source of empathy and connection, and speak to our deepest values are a powerful way to change the cultural landscape. Thus, through the voices of personal experience and excerpts from novels, creative nonfiction, and memoir, stories will be shared in the sessions about how different people—e.g., victims and their loved ones, convicted murderers and their loved ones, innocent persons condemned to death row and their loved ones, exonerated prisoners, death row guards, prison wardens and chaplains, policy-makers—are impacted by the death penalty in different ways and how telling our own stories and listening to the stories of others influences the way we think about the death penalty.
More information about The Power of Story: A Conversation about the Death Penalty can be found at and about the presenter at If you’re interested in booking a session, you can email or call the Humanities Washington Speakers Bureau program manager, Zaki Abdelhamid, to determine your organization’s eligibility: or 206-682-1770 x102.

Reviews and Advance Praise for Just Mercy

Just Mercy, the story of a grieving mother whose teenage daughter is brutally murdered, exquisitely portrays the complexity and difficulty of forgiveness and its power take us to the inescapable truth that we are all connected. Bernadette Baker and her family will touch your heart and shake your soul so that, regardless of your position, you will never feel the same about the issue of the death penalty.
Just Mercy is grounded in Dorothy Van Soest’s insight about the role of grief in the lives of both victims and offenders and the healing potential of restorative dialogue. This family drama is a must-read that teaches us about the true nature of justice and our very humanity. —Sr. Helen Prejean, csj, Author of Dead Man Walking

A stunning achievement. Dorothy Van Soest is indeed a masterful storyteller. I eagerly await her next book. —Hal Zina Bennett, bestselling author of Write From the Heart: Unleashing the Power of Our Creativity

A thought-provoking novel about the full implications of the death . . . Complex characters populate this well-considered take on capital punishment. —Kirkus Reviews

Just Mercy combines a brisk read with deep themes of justice, forgiveness, the abiding love of family and the sanctity of human life. —Joe Martin, Real Change

Just Mercy is a moving, fast-paced read that artfully sweeps us up in the journey of forgiveness.
—Leslie Neale, Director/Producer of acclaimed documentary films, Road to Return, Juvies, & Unlikely Friends.

Just Mercy reads like a motion picture … bringing home the horror of the death penalty and the complexities of how compassion arrives in unexpected ways.—Jarvis Jay Masters, Author of Finding Freedom: Writings from Death
Row and That Bird Has My Wings: The Autobiography of an Innocent Man on Death Row
Just Mercy shares the compelling and intense journey of a family struggling with the horrors, trauma, and grief associated with the murder of a family member and the death penalty. It offers important insight into some of the additional harms a death sentence can inflict on a victim’s family and the varied ways different family members process, grieve, and heal following the murder of a loved one. —Marcelle Clowes, Member Engagement

Coordinator, Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation (MVFR)
An eloquently envisioned and deftly delivered a compelling tale that will tug you through grief, horror and hope as you witness instinct and ethics locking horns through a senseless tragedy and its legal outcome. In the end, it is love, compassion, and acceptance that prevail. In a word, just mercy. —Sarah W. Bartlett, co-editor, HEAR ME, SEE ME: Incarcerated Women Write and founding co-director of writing inside VT.

Just Mercy takes us inside a family’s struggle for justice, revealing the complexities and quandaries inherent in capital punishment. After reading the book, it is impossible not to feel compassion for everyone who is impacted by the death penalty system–condemned prisoners and murder victims’ family members alike. —Jen Marlowe, author, I Am Troy Davis

In Just Mercy victim Veronica Baker’s family is divided between those who support, oppose or are painfully ambivalent about capital punishment. Dorothy Van Soest’s gentle portrayal of their struggle in the face of cruel circumstances makes for a compelling read and the plot twist is up there with the best of them. —Dave Avolio, Board Member, Washington Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty

Just Mercy

Just Mercy is a page-turner that makes you think, and that will stay with you long you after finish. —Irene Sheppard, author, Restorativity blog

What makes a family and how families undertake and define healing is explored in this candid, utterly suspenseful and captivating novel. —Marilyn Armour, Ph.D. LICSW, Professor and Director, Institute for Restorative Justice and Restorative Dialogue, The University of Texas at Austin
Just Mercy faithfully captures the emotional complexities surrounding the death penalty – particularly the toll it takes on and among victims’ families – and confronts our notions of justice, punishment, and forgiveness. It presents a challenging, multi-faceted response to a question that can’t be answered in the abstract: What would you do if your family member were murdered? —Kristin Houlé, Executive Director, Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty

Dorothy Van Soest magnificently holds and embodies the value, in each of her characters, of how healing happens when opposing contradictory experiences are held together in a sacred space. Just Mercy is a fitting title for a relationship between unlikely advocates that manifests the principles of the victim offender dialogue process in a riveting family drama. —David Doerfler, founder and facilitator, Concentric Journeys

Just Mercy is a powerful call for breaking down the barriers that separate us and for recognizing the value of every human being. —Michael Reisch, Ph.D., Daniel Thursz Distinguished Professor of Social Justice, University of Maryland

Just Mercy will take you on a journey through the Texas criminal justice system that you will never forget.
—Larry Fitzgerald, former Public Information Officer, Huntsville, Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Just Mercy shows the surprising ways that human lives intersect and the roles that compassion plays in coming to terms with tragedy and loss.—Jane Gilgun, Author, Professor, University of Minnesota

Walla Walla Library Talk

Humanities Washington sponsored Big Idea talk at the Walla Walla Library this week on “The Power of Story: A Conversation about the Death Penalty.”

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