Life and death
Sister Helen Prejean of Dead Man Walking comes to CLU
By Shane Cohn 01/26/2012
Sister Helen Prejean started her career in a community of nuns, only to find herself frequently on death row. Prejean, 72, is the Roman Catholic nun whose relationship with a death-row inmate resulted in her Pulitzer Prize-nominated book Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States, which inspired the 1995 film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, as well as a play and an opera.
Instructed to write death-row inmates for a community outreach program, Prejean developed a correspondence with Patrick Sonnier, a convicted murderer and rapist. She became his spiritual adviser until the time of his death in 1984 and has since accompanied five other men to their deaths, some of whom she believes were wrongfully prosecuted. Her firsthand experiences with the death penalty have made her one of the most prominent voices speaking out against capital punishment, and she has been instrumental in the Roman Catholic Church’s newly vigorous opposition to state executions.
“It’s the witnessing that changes you,” Prejean says.
In 2004, Prejean published The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions. She is currently working on her third book, River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey. On Tuesday, Jan. 31, Prejean will be speaking at California Lutheran University, Samuelson Chapel, 7 p.m.
VCReporter: Somebody who obviously disagrees with your take on the death penalty recently wrote on your blog that “Some people are better off being returned to God, especially the souls of cold-blooded murderers and rapists. They own their grievous crimes – the crimes are not put upon them. Why should they not bear responsibility?”
Sister Helen Prejean: Yeah, they need to bear responsibility for what they’ve done. Suffering in prison for the rest of their lives. To make the equation — to bear responsibility — is for us to have responsibility of killing them. Who are we to take it upon ourselves that we will be the judge of who lives and who dies, that we will have the expertise to get to the truth, to know who is guilty and innocent? … We are making more and more mistakes. When people speak like this, they speak over outrage of terrible crimes. They see suffering of victims and they think it’s just not fair they get to keep living, and that the family is suffering and they ought to suffer the same consequences … and that is in us. That is the equation, what we summon. It’s always the first part of the conversation when I talk to people. I didn’t know about any of this when I first got involved. That’s the journey of this. I take them with me on my own journey where you have to deal with that kind of primal outrage.
This reminds me of how Robert Lee Willie (one of the two convicts that inspired the character in Dead Man Walking) said to the victim’s families, “I really hope my death gives the victims some peace.” That quote sort of supports what you were saying, and also the other side, that maybe his death does give the victims some peace, therefore it’s justified. How do you see it?
It cuts both ways, doesn’t it? What you have to do is, by bringing people into the victim’s experience, you will have to go there, to where the DA is actually making the argument, “Look at this family. They will never see their daughter graduate, and what we require of you is to give the sentence of death to honor the victim’s family. This is what the family of the victim needs to have peace in their life.” First of all, the way the system works, these people are going to wait 10, 15, 20 years. We have stories of people saying, “Don’t kill for us. Don’t tell me that I’m going to come in after 15 years and sit in the front row and watch their death. Watching that is going to heal me? And all this time my wound is open in public, and the media can come to me at any change of status of the case. How is that supposed to heal me?” And it’s the murder victims’ families speaking out like that.
You were talking about the journey you are trying to take people on. You’ve counseled six men as they’ve awaited the death penalty and two more cases right now. I’m curious. You are with them the whole way and, when it comes down to that final hour, that final walk down the corridor, is there a common emotion that is identifiable in these men through that last moment? Are they kicking and screaming? Are they at peace?
Most of the time people go peacefully. What I have experienced with people I have accompanied is … whether or not they are guilty or innocent, it is a death imposed on a conscious human being. There is the choice of walking to their death and choosing to spend the last moments of life being spent with dignity or to fight it physically. But they want to walk to death with dignity.
The argument for or against the death penalty often puts God or the Bible right in the middle of the dispute. How do you address the issue of God and the death penalty?
You know, with God as an agent of judgment and death, who does God appoint as the agents to help God out (laughs)? We have to look at who we are, and this quoting of scriptures … I know how to deal with it now … I say, “Look, you know what you’re reading now? Flip over 15 pages and it says we should stone people who commit adultery.” Interestingly, the way people quote the bible is also the way justices on the court quote the Constitution. When you come to text, and the setting out of ideals to live by, the Constitution is also a text. So interpretation of text comes out as a very wild card game.
So how does the Bible maintain such legitimacy in the argument if you can turn 15 pages to find something contradictory to the subject at hand?
You have to realize the bible is literature, all different kinds of literature written as a religious reflection over 2,000 years ago. What you have in the Old Testament, people don’t even have the rudiment and they have a very primitive “eye for an eye” to keep the community intact. … There is development in the Bible. Jesus clearly, clearly teaches to love your enemy, forgive. … If you don’t learn to forgive and heal, you’re going to rip apart. … The story of Lloyd Leblanc in Dead Man Walking, his son was killed. He explained forgiveness to me that I can understand. His son, David, 17, beautiful kid, and Lloyd Leblanc has to come identify him, looks down at the body of his son — and Lloyd Leblanc (a skilled mechanic) was really good with his hands — and he said the first thing I thought was, “I can’t fix this.” The words were a path to him. People were telling him, “Lloyd, you got to be for the death penalty.” He said, “I tried to go there, but I didn’t like the way I felt when I went there. They killed our son, but I’m not going to let them kill me. Not going to let that bitterness and hatred take over me because I’ll be dead, too.” He explained forgiveness to me and it made a lot of sense.
I read that when you would give presentations about the death penalty, you were lucky to have 20 people show up, but then after the movie, there wasn’t a big enough room. Does the movie and story still have that type of impact?
Definitely. The movie still continues to open it up. When I go to universities, they show the film and that gets the book out there. Also, Tim Robbins has written a play, and not just for college drama departments to do. It’s called the Dead Man Walking School Theater Project. … So there is discourse going on in schools, and the more people are educated in this issue and get past that initial white-hot outrage, you see change in people and that is what is continuing.
You have said that the death penalty is connected to the three deepest wounds of our society: racism, poverty and violence. Can you talk about that and also about the politics involved with the death penalty?
The patterns are so clear. When white people are killed, that is when the questions are even raised about whether the death penalty should be sought. Eight out of 10 people who have gotten the death penalty are sitting on death row for killing white people. When people of color are killed, not a blip on the radar screen most of the time. … Everybody knows that if you have resources, you get a good attorney, no DA is going to take you on knowing they could lose. And with politicians, it’s the easiest political symbol in the world to just say, “I’m tough on crime, I’m for death.” There is no substance to it. Now, interestingly, coming into the politics of it is cost. Especially California. States, being under these crunches, are looking at it in a new light, which will be really helpful. … And the last wound, violence, … violence becomes clear that when someone is killed we want to show we are society for life and we are against killing, but we’ll imitate violence as a solution to what they did.
You brought up the money issue. There is the debate about how expensive it is to keep a prisoner for life.
It’s counter-intuitive to think the death penalty is more expensive than life without parole. But all you have to do is look at the figures. Take California, you all are top of the heap. … The DA is using resources to go for the death penalty and everything about the process is more expensive when going for a capital case, the Cadillac of the criminal justice system. There are two trials, one for guilt or innocence, one for sentencing where you have to bring in all kinds of litigation, and it might last as long or longer than the first trial. Then they go to death row and the appeals begin. There was an article in the New Yorker about some guys in California who committed murder who are actually opting for the death penalty because they would have their own cell, be protected from the violence from the prison, and they know it will be 25 or 30 years before they are executed because of this legal system. So there you see the relationship to politics. Who are these people going for the death sentences, knowing they won’t be carried out for 20 years or so? Who is doing that? You know it’s got to be the DA showing they are tough on crime.
Tell me about how you address the need for changing this system from the ground level on up.
Poverty invites chaos, and chaos invites violence. It’s horrendous that of the 2.3 million in prison, two-thirds are there for nonviolent crimes. It’s unspeakable we would do that. Separating mothers from children because of a forged check? There need to be alternative programs, alternatives for putting people to work. … If you got a job, you got education and a way to keep family together, you are not going out to kill and rob people. That’s the road. That is social justice. That is the road we have to go on.