By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published February 17, 2005
Following her talk on capital punishment at St. Brendan Church, Sister Helen Prejean went down to the parish hall where she signed copies of her new book and posed for pictures. A group of student actors from Oxford College in Covington looked particularly pleased to have a picture taken with the smiling sister, who was wearing a grey blazer and a white shirt buttoned to the neck with embroidery on the collar. The students are performing a rough draft of the play, “Dead Man Walking,” which is being developed by Tim Robbins, who directed the movie of the same name. They are also listening to talks on and discussing the issue on campus. Rhiannon Hubert, a Christian, is stage manager for the play and is passionate about the death penalty issue.
“I just feel there has to be a better way,” she said, and executing someone isn’t going to solve anything. She’s inspired by Sister Prejean.
“It’s nice to put a face on what we’re doing. (The play) is not for entertainment. She’s trying to make a point and change the world.”
Also in line for an autograph was Ana Maria Rangel Leao of Brazil, who used to live in Atlanta. She could identify with Sister Prejean’s sense of awakening to social justice issues and noted how when one feels a love and passion about an issue one can find the courage to act. She, too, while running a business with her husband here, felt a calling to do something more, which has led her to move back to Brazil to plan and gather grassroots support to form a new party there and to run for president in Brazil in 2006. She learned of the talk from pastor Father Willie Hickey and came to learn more about the death penalty, as it is not permitted in Brazil but “is a huge issue there” as there’s growing support for it to combat the major crime problem in the country, despite opposition by the country’s “very powerful” Catholic Church. She feels that there’s already a death penalty of sorts in her homeland with extreme poverty and lack of opportunities for education, which fuel an increase in crime.
Nevertheless, she is opposed to the death penalty and hopes to be able to address the root causes of crime and violence by working for social justice in Brazil. She believes that only God can control life and death and that execution denies one the opportunity to change and experience conversion. Even in prison “I think that everybody has a mission in life and that should not be cut off by the death penalty,” she said. “They don’t have the opportunity to change. I do believe God gives you life and He’s the only one who can take it.”
Edward Bell Jr., a member of St. Brendan’s and a Vietnam vet, said it’s difficult for him to accept Sister Prejean’s position, and he feels that when people knowingly commit the most heinous of crimes they deserve to die.
“I believe that firemen, policemen, going out there to protect the public, there has to be something (to deter criminals). If not, they’ll just keep doing it,” he said. “I just think a person should be held responsible for their actions.”
But he wanted to learn more about how much is spent on the healthcare of inmates and about the assertion that it actually costs more to sentence one to death than to life in prison. According to the Georgia Moratorium Campaign, Georgia reverses 80 percent of its death sentences due to serious error, inflating the cost of capital punishment, which is already more expensive than imprisoning someone with life without parole.
Mary Jo Mirynowski leads the pro-life ministry at St. Brendan’s and came to learn more about the issue before speaking on it to parish teens, as she is much more well versed on the abortion issue. She opposes the death penalty but noted how she’s spoken to people who have loved ones who were murdered and knows that she might feel differently if she had experienced that devastation.
“Little by little we have to change the culture of death to the culture of life,” she said, “(but) it’s easy to be that when it’s not your child that’s killed.”
Parish council president Cullen Larson appreciated the Louisiana sister’s respectfulness of those struggling with the issue.
“She was pretty clear that she didn’t come to it all at once.”
He believes being pro-life means a “consistent ethic of life” from abortion to war to capital punishment. “That consistency makes sense in light of the Gospel.”
He and many others signed a petition being distributed around Georgia called the Moratorium Campaign asking for a moratorium on the death penalty until a bipartisan, independent commission can study the racial and economic inequities in the system.
Six men have been wrongfully convicted and released from Georgia’s death row in the past 30 years, and over 30 have been executed. And while almost all of Georgia’s death penalty cases (90 percent) involved white victims, most homicide victims (65 percent) are African-American. The Georgia Supreme Court’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Indigent Defense released a report in December 2002 that confirmed allegations that Georgia’s system for providing the poor with legal defense is woefully inadequate.
Jim Powers, prison ministry coordinator for the archdiocese, noted how if any of the 17 Georgia death row inmates had been killed, “this would be murder by the state, and we are the state so we as citizens would be complicit in such a murder.”
As a member of the Pax Christi Atlanta Catholic peace organization, he visits a death row inmate about every other week and has brought the inmate’s family from southern Georgia to visit him several times. He also helped in the formation of “Georgians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty,” which for the past four years has proposed a resolution in the Georgia legislature for a moratorium on state executions.
Georgia’s first execution of 2005 was held Jan. 25 when Timothy Carr, 34, was put to death for fatally stabbing 17-year-old Keith Patrick Young in 1992. Prayer vigils were held for him at several locations.
Moratorium Lobby Day at the Georgia State Capitol is Feb. 22. For more information visit www.GeorgiaMoratorium.org.