Sr. Helen Prejean is a native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She joined the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille in 1957. She has been a teacher, religious education director, and formation director of her religious community.
Sr. Prejean began her prison ministry in 1981 when she dedicated her life to the poor in Louisiana. While living in the St. Thomas housing project, she became pen pals with Patrick Sonnier, the convicted killer of two teenagers, sentenced to die in the electric chair of Louisiana's Angola State Prison.
At the request of Sonnier, Sr. Prejean visited him repeatedly in prison. She turned her experiences into the best-selling book Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of The Death Penalty in the United States. The book was made into the movie Dead Man Walking starring Susan Sarandon as Sr. Helen Prejean. Directed and written by Tim Robbins, the film received four Academy Award nominations (with Sarandon winning the Best Actress award).
Among other things, Sr. Prejean is the Honorary Chairperson of the Moratorium Campaign, a group working towards a moratorium on the death penalty at the state and national level. There are currently 3,692 inmates on death row in the U.S. I reached Sr. Prejean by telephone in LaGrange, Illinois.
Gerry McCarthy: The former Governor of Illinois George Ryan was a conservative Republican. But in 2000, he declared a moratorium on executions. Then before he left office in January 2003, he emptied Illinois's death row by pardons and commutations of death sentences to imprisonment for 40 years or life. Do you think other Governors in the United States might follow this example?
Helen Prejean: No. Because he's such a rare exception. Governors are very political animals, and you can trace what happens with clemency. Every now and then a miracle can happen. But the systemic way we're going to get an abolition of the death penalty is first to have a moratorium.
I work with the Moratorium Campaign to educate citizens to communicate with legislators and politicians that it's not political suicide to recognize that we have a seriously broken system, which is going to be executing innocent people along with the guilty. That is morally intolerable to us. Decent people can get hold of that issue. I travel the country and talk to people. I'm writing a book about accompanying two innocent people to execution. Of course, the courts found them guilty. The appeals to the court were blocked out, because the structures were so small that people can't get into the courts for appeals. But the American people understand this. They get it. The moratorium is like a peace-fire in war. You don't stop the whole war and negotiate the complete peace. But you stop killing. I see that in stages: Awakening, education, and recognition that it's morally intolerable even for the people who, in theory, support the death penalty --but in conscience do not want to see innocent people executed.
There are a lot of American people who have a quick fix approach to the death penalty issue: Give them all DNA. But you have to teach them that DNA only applies in one out of every four cases, because you must have the biological evidence. So DNA won't be the quick fix. In fact, what I'm going to do in my new book is show that there is no quick fix, because district attorneys have complete discretionary power as to how they do the charge, and whether they go forward or not. There are patterns involved here. For example: When whites are killed the death penalty is involved, and when people of colour are killed it's not.
You have to show people all these things. Then you say: Look we already have it in place --tomorrow morning at nine o'clock people who are sentenced for first degree or felony murder are not going to get out of prisons in a few short years. We can be safe, and we don't have to kill anymore. That's the journey I take people on. And they get it.
GM: In a new book entitled The Death Penalty: An American History by Stuart Banner, the author studies various polls in the U.S. and finds that a large majority of Americans still support capital punishment even on the assumption that a tenth of those condemned had committed no crime.
HP: It's not very hopeful is it?
GM: No. But in the same book the author explains that
in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Americans led the way against capital punishment. He also reminds us that between 1968 and 1978 there was not a single execution in the United States. Do you think the wider American public is familiar with this history?
HP: I've read Banner's book. I know that in the nineteenth century what they discovered was context: Criminality came out of social conditions. But for the most part, that debate went on in the northeastern states. The southern states that practiced slavery along with the Jim Crow laws are where 85 percent of the executions are going on today.
In terms of mentality --whether it's in Michigan or in Arkansas-- when you ask people about the death penalty they give you a surface sole response. They say: We need it. What they really mean is: There are sometimes crimes that are really terrible --they're outraged about the people who commit them-- and they deserve to die. But if people are given a choice of the person either getting death or life without parole (and they're sure that person is not going to kill again) the response for life is up to 50 percent. I think that's very important to look at when you answer the question about how Americans feel about the death penalty.
In this book I'm writing now The Machinery of Death, I look at the Supreme Court justices we have like Scalia, Rehnquist, and Clarence Thomas. They don't look at context at all. At a conference Scalia attended in Chicago he said: If you want to make it equal then if you kill you die.
These judges don't look at the other constitutional protections like a decent lawyer and a jury of your peers. We have a mentality in the court that has legalized death and cut-off appeals. So that poor people --who are ninety-nine percent of the people on death row-- do not have good attorneys. As a result, you cannot have an adversarial system of getting to the truth at trial. So it's inevitable that the innocent are thrown in with the guilty. Also: You don't have a court process where you can get an evidentiary hearing even to re-explore the issues to show it.
I think we're right, because we now have 108 innocent people who have come off death row in the U.S. That means for every 8 executions that have happened since we re-instated the death penalty in 1976 one person is released from death row. This is because of citizen involvement like the kind that occurred in Illinois. Also: With journalism students, and the innocent projects. We have forty innocent projects going on. These are college students and citizens who intervene. It's not because the system is working in the appeals court. In the appeals court they just shut them all out, because they can't fit the criteria to get in.
For the most part, the American people are good decent people. I know the polls say only one-in-ten are opposed to the death penalty. But that's a very surface response. If people are reflecting and thinking about an issue, they don't respond that way.
GM: Since the Gospel of Life encyclical in 1995, Catholic teaching has changed on the death penalty. The Church now opposes it on all grounds. Has this had any impact on Catholic parishes and the wider Catholic public?
HP: I'm writing about all of this in my forthcoming book. You had The Gospel of Life encyclical in 1995. But then you had a change in the Catechism of the Catholic Church where the criteria the Church used for 1700 years to determine who the state had a right to kill was eliminated. They cut-out the grave and grievous crimes. In other words, because of the inviolable dignity of the human person the huge shift that's happened with the Church means that it's not only innocent people that have dignity. But guilty people too. That means there's no crime that a person can do that is so grievous that the state has a right to take their life. That's been a huge shift, and it happened in 1997.
Then Pope John Paul II came to St. Louis in 1999. The Pope had spoken in the U.S. four other times. But he never mentioned the death penalty, because the Church was making a distinction between the innocent and the guilty. In St. Louis the Pope --for the first time-- put the death penalty alongside other issues the Church calls "pro-life" issues. It was the first time he clearly said no to the death penalty, because it is both cruel and unnecessary --and it's against the dignity of the human person.
The ripple effect that change had on the Church is that now it's acceptable teaching and the Catholic Bishops will not go against the Pope. That hasn't changed minds and hearts. We still have a lot of educating to do. But it's the official teaching of the Church that the death penalty is listed with "pro-life" issues. And every 10 years when the U.S. Bishops come together to discuss "pro-life" campaigns, they'll put on the agenda the need to educate people on the death penalty.
GM: Your 1993 book Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of The Death Penalty in the United States was made into the film Dead Man Walking. It was a very powerful movie. Why do you think it had such an impact?
HP: I really worked very closely with Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon on this film --every line and scene. Tim constructed it in a certain way. He said to me: "Helen, if we wanted to do propaganda we would put in the 1400 reasons why we're against the death penalty. But we want to do art. And art means we want to bring people over to both places in their heart where they struggle on this issue." He was very clear that it wouldn't be an innocent person sentenced to die. It would be a guilty person. Because the hard moral issue is not what to do about the innocent people. We shouldn't execute the innocent. But what about the guilty? We know they're guilty --should we kill them? That's how Tim constructed the film. He gave as much time in the movie to the victims as to the perpetrators and his family. The upcoming opera based on my book Dead Man Walking (which opens in Detroit on June 7) does the same thing.
The theatre managers told Tim Robbins that they'd never seen a film screened before that --when it ended-- people stayed seated all through the credits and then filed out of the theatre in silence, because they were thinking. That's what Tim wanted to happen. Of course, it brought people over to the book and put it on The New York Times bestseller list for 8 months. Which was wonderful, because you have people reading. And you get a lot more information that way.
GM: All of this must have been very gratifying?
HP: Very --and when Susan Sarandon received the Academy Award for Best Actress it gave the film to the whole world.
GM: You've written that Susan Sarandon is "a courageous spokesperson for justice and human rights." I gather you admire her work?
HP: We're good friends. I stay with Susan and Tim when I go to New York. She was really the midwife of the film Dead Man Walking, because she read the book ahead of Tim. And she met with me in New Orleans. Then it took six months for her to convince Tim to read the book. She was the only one who was convinced that we needed a way to help mainstream America reflect on the death penalty. She believed Tim was the one to construct this film. So she prevailed upon him, and he finally read the book.
GM: You travel all over the world to give talks and speak about the Moratorium Campaign --among other things. Traveling can be tiring. I recently looked at your past schedule and it was very extensive. But you've written how important it is not to go overboard. How do you find that balance in your life?
HP: You have to pace yourself, and there is a pacing in my life. Most of the talks I give take place generally from September through May. Summer is a time for writing. I go on a northern Cheyenne reservation where some Franciscan sisters have a centre for women. Writing is a contemplative, more solitary work. So I have a natural pacing that way. In life, you can't just work. I'm learning how to play the saxophone now. I have developed good and close friendships.
Where I live and have my office is right in the middle of the "Jazz Fest" in New Orleans. There are rivers of people flowing into this festival. There are all kinds of music and good food. Not only does "Jazz Fest" happen but the music erupts all over the neighbourhood. People do jazz and have things like crawfish boils in their driveways. New Orleans is the city that lends itself to life --despite its tremendous struggles with poverty, racism and violence.
I'm also part of a community --the Sisters of St. Joseph-- and I do things with that community. I travel far from home, but the secret is to bring your centre with you. Airplanes are my cloisters and people don't know who I am unless I voluntarily tell them. Then if I do, that changes everything. For example, I had one lady stand up in a plane and say: "It's that nun! Susan Sarandon played that nun!" That was the end of it. I said I would never do that again.
So I read, sleep and write my journals in airplanes and airports. That's how I do some of my balancing.
Gerry McCarthy is Editor of The Social Edge.