By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published February 17, 2005
Sister Helen Prejean published her second book in opposition to the death penalty in January. In the book, entitled “The Death of Innocents,” Sister Prejean examines her relationships with two of the five condemned men she has journeyed with to their executions, both of whom she believes were innocent. She also addresses how 117 people in the United States have been found innocent and freed from death row, and she reflects on how many others who have been executed may have been innocent.
But for many years the sage, Southern sister had not even thought much about justice, let alone become a passionate social justice advocate.
During a talk on Feb. 2 at St. Brendan Church in Cumming, Sister Prejean, whose first book, “Dead Man Walking,” led to the making of a movie for which Susan Sarandon won an Academy Award for best actress in 1996, spoke of how her call to charity grew to also become one for justice and how she’s stretched herself over the past 20 years in response to the injustice she has found in capital punishment. Her first book stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for 31 weeks and was translated into 10 different languages. She speaks without ceasing in the United States and internationally in opposition to the death penalty and has appeared on numerous major media outlets including NBC’s “The Today Show” and National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition” and “Fresh Air.” Furthermore, she is the honorary chairperson of Moratorium Campaign, a group gathering signatures for a world-wide moratorium on the death penalty. She is also the founder of “Survive,” a victim’s advocacy group in New Orleans, where she counsels the families of murder victims.
Within the church she has dialogued for 20 years to raise consciousness and encourage priests and bishops to speak out on the issue of capital punishment as part of the larger pro-life ethic that opposes violence and upholds the basic dignity and human rights of all people, even those guilty of committing crimes.
While it’s clearly an issue not at the top of many agendas, inquiring Catholics at the St. Brendan’s event were challenged to further reflect on the issue. When one retired military man expressed his support of the death penalty, he was prompted to look into Sister Prejean’s assertion that it is actually at least three times more costly to have the death penalty than life imprisonment. Another woman came up to the microphone to say that she wished Catholics could have the same passion about this issue and opposition to the war as they have about euthanasia and abortion. The United States is the only country in the Western Hemisphere with capital punishment, as it is legal in 38 states.
A youthful 65, Sister Prejean opened her talk declaring her gladness in speaking to Catholic groups, affirming her Louisiana heritage with her friendly Southern drawl and usage of “y’all.”
She was born in Baton Rouge and grew up in a loving middle-class Catholic family—where punishment for any boisterous siblings on station wagon road trips meant, sure enough, reciting yet another round of the rosary. And Catholic to the core, she was inspired by the sisters in her school to become a Religious and joined the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille. She loved the Lord and practiced charity, but she wasn’t interested then in politics and had little understanding of the poor. She hadn’t questioned why black first communicants always came after the whites. Neither had she questioned why there were only white students in her school and why laws sanctioned segregation, even though her dad was a lawyer. But one day as a Religious at a conference she heard “one of those social justice sisters (and) she preached that Jesus preached the Good News to the poor and integral to good news was that they would be poor no longer. And I got it,” she said. “We never know when enlightenment of the Holy Spirit will zap us and we’ll be changed forever.”
She experienced an awakening to the Gospel call to social justice and contemplated how Jesus didn’t just preach love for one’s neighbor, which wouldn’t have been threatening, but also shook up society with His treatment of the poor, women and children, and the ostracized. Because He was a threat, “I began to understand Jesus was executed,” she continued. “I thought about our sisters serving in Latin America. As long as they just taught people the sacraments and spirituality and didn’t connect it to justice … they’d be left alone …When they began to raise questions about justice, they began to be killed along with the people.”
Her Religious order had been talking about how to focus more on social activism, and she decided to move to an African-American housing project in New Orleans. While the project was near her home with the sisters, she traveled a “galaxy” in mindset.
She began to read of famous activists like Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker movement, and Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, who risked his life and was eventually assassinated for standing up for the poor.
“I could read them because I was ready.”
She began to see firsthand the endemic problems of the neighborhood, like youth becoming involved in drugs and violence and dropping out of school, and frightened mothers running outside when shots were heard around the “’hood.” And it was her saying “yes” to a simple request to become a pen pal with a death row inmate, Patrick Sonnier, in 1982, that—little did she know—was one step that would forever change her life. Two years later she watched his execution in the electric chair.
“If I knew that when I wrote the letter, I wouldn’t have said ‘yes.’ God doesn’t ask that but just to be faithful to the ‘yes.’”
She wrote Sonnier that first letter without much thought, and he wrote back. She came to learn that he never had visitors and that over 80 percent of executions in the past 25 years have taken place in former slave states. She learned how 80 percent of death penalty cases are sought when a white person is killed, but 50 percent of all homicide victims are persons of color. She also learned of the crime Sonnier had committed—killing two teenagers who had gone to a lover’s lane after a football game—and of the utter despair endured by the victims’ families, through her friendship with the father of one victim, Lloyd LeBlanc.
She had seen LeBlanc at the courthouse, and he asked her why she spent all her time visiting with the criminal and had never prayed with him. Eventually LeBlanc, a Catholic, shared with her their devastation, recalling memories like going to identify his son’s body in the morgue and feeling helpless, waking up at 2 a.m. often to find his wife in another room weeping, and avoiding Mass where he had to look at the back of parishioners, which reminded him of the bullet that had pierced through the back of his own child’s neck. She learned from him the meaning of forgiveness. But she also developed the passionate conviction that killing the perpetrator of a crime is not the way to honor the victims, to reduce crime or to heal the excruciating pain.
Sonnier asked her to be his spiritual advisor, and she saw his execution, which launched her on a fight to end the death penalty.
“I made an assumption he must have had adequate legal representation. When I found out (the opposite) we were trying so hard to save his life … His lawyer had visited him for two half-hour periods, one on the morning of the trial,” she continued.
She believes the Gospel of reconciliation calls one to love and accept the dignity of both the victim and the killer.
“You hear politicians say we’re going to give the death penalty for the victim’s family… and that is going to heal them. Look at the moral bankruptcy of that and the despair in that—that is what we do as a culture, as if further killing of someone can heal a human heart.”
Sister Prejean also believes the death penalty should be ended because of the serious inequities in the implementation of the law on capital punishment and the fact that more and more are later exonerated. She believes it epitomizes the deepest wounds in society: racism, an assault on the poor and the need to solve social problems through violence. Now the point of discussion is all the wrongful executions, she added.
One case in her new book is that of Joseph Roger O’Dell who was convicted of murder in 1986 despite highly circumstantial evidence. For 12 years O’Dell sought DNA testing on the forensic evidence, which he claimed would exonerate him, but the courts refused. After his execution the state destroyed the evidence. Sister Prejean said that as she wrote the book one man who testified against O’Dell in the trial told her that he had lied on the stand. She presents her arguments for why she believes he was innocent in her book by reconstructing the crime with evidence that was withheld.
Although she was unable to accept an invitation to go to Rome regarding this case, which the Italian Parliament had taken up, she wrote the pope, praising him for his strong stance against the death penalty in the encyclical Evangelium Vitae but asking him to take out the language saying it is only acceptable in cases of absolute necessity, which she argued makes it permissible.
She presented her argument, explaining, “How do we build moats to protect human life? And when we take a position that it is okay for us as a society to decide that some among us are finished, it’s time to meet God. They can never change, and we have to kill them; we’re in dangerous waters,” she said. “And our symbol—every time we come to Mass—of Jesus, of an executed person, the Son of God, saying ‘Father, forgive them,’” she said. “We have in the Gospel a cross-section, an interface, of the profound message of the Gospel. And it’s not easy to be Christian in this culture.”
It worked, and the language was removed from the catechism. It now calls on authorities to limit themselves to “non-lethal” means of punishment and notes that the church’s teaching holds that the death penalty should not be used when “non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor (because) these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person.”
Sister Prejean explained further, “Even though they have committed a terrible crime they have a dignity that cannot be taken away from them.”
As for changes in opinion on this issue, the Supreme Court ruled the death penalty was unconstitutional in 1972 because it was arbitrarily capricious, meaning there are no set guidelines by which to judge which crimes deserve death. But the court then reversed the ruling in 1976, saying only for the “worst of the worst” crimes could one receive the death penalty. Both were Georgia cases. Pointing out the flawed reasoning behind the death penalty, Sister Prejean asked how can one fairly judge which crime is despicable enough to deserve death, as when a killer murders even only one woman, that woman’s child is devastated.
She challenged those attending to ponder her words and reflect on their own call to social justice.
“I hope you will see my words to you as an invitation to go deeper.”