Interview with Sister Helen Prejean, Prominent Anti-Death Penalty Advocate
Sister Helen Prejean is known worldwide for her advocacy against the death penalty. She is the author of the best-selling book Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty, which was developed into a major motion picture and also became the basis for an opera. She currently counsels victims’ families and inmates on death row and is working on a third book, River of Fire, which will focus on her faith. She has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times.
The Politic: I want to start with Patrick, because that seems to be where your journey with the death penalty started. Could you talk about how you got to know Patrick, who Patrick is, and where your relationship with him brought you?
Sister Helen: I was living in the inner city of New Orleans when somebody from the Louisiana prison coalition saw me and said, “Hey Sister Helen, do you want to be a penpal to somebody on death row?” And it was 1982. I just moved into the projects a year before, so I was learning about poverty and how it works and justice. So when he said, “Would you like to write somebody on death row?” I thought, well, if somebody’s on death row in Louisiana they’re poor. I’m here to serve poor people. Sure I’ll write a letter. I never dreamed that they were going to execute this person. There had been an unofficial moratorium for 20 years in the United States starting in the ’60s, and Louisiana was included. Even the Deep South state that had done most of the executions and continued to do most of the executions in the modern era. So I’m writing a letter to a man on death row, and I had never dreamed that I would be with him when he was electrocuted by the state of Louisiana.
Do you think that this was an unexpected path given your religious background or an expected one? In other words, did your faith lead you here, or did you get here in other ways?
I used to think faith—Christian faith—meant prayer and serving people, but I always lived in the suburbs with other white people, so I was very insulated from all the suffering that was going on in my own city in New Orleans. And there’s a mention in the Doctrine of Jesus in the Christian faith which is to feel at the site of those suffering the most, called the Least of These—the poor, thrown away people, the people that people are prejudiced against. In Louisiana, that’s African American people. They’re the ones most thrown into prison, they’re the ones most struggling against poverty. And I was apart from all that and considering myself a pretty good citizen. I was charitable, I was prayerful. I taught kids and I wasn’t beating them up for the rule; I loved teaching. But I was insulated. And it’s this thing of white privilege—it’s this thing of the way Christianity can be lived.
Just look at what’s happening today. You had Attorney General Sessions quoting this Romans 13, the Epistle of Paul, to support immigration policies that tear children from their parents. And I had already encountered in Romans 13 that Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court had quoted it to uphold the death penalty. So we’re a society that basically thinks if something’s legal it must be moral. And radical Christianity is to ask questions. Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s moral. Can children be separated from their parents to declare zero tolerance on the borders and have everybody arrested as criminals who are trying to seek asylum or come into the United States for a better life? Is that moral?
When I moved into the St. Thomas housing project and I began to meet people acting for social justice, I met people from Amnesty International. I met people from the ACLU, who weren’t coming from any particular faith perspective. They’re coming from the perspective of human rights and that’s our common mode—inalienable human rights. And among those are Article 3 and Article 5 [of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights], which were the first ones I learned. Article 3—everyone has an inalienable right to life, which means you can’t be killed, which means that human rights are not given to people by government in good behavior and can’t be taken away by government for bad behavior. So therefore the U.S. government can never claim that they can decide there’s some crime so bad that they can take the life of their citizens. Human rights then became my main moral guidepost.
You talked about the witnessing of this initial execution, and I know you’ve seen others since then. Can you talk about your views on public executions?
Yeah. If you say you’re doing these executions for the public good, and you give your reasons why you think the government ought to be allowed to do that, why hide it from the eyes of the public?
There have been at least two court cases to make executions public and they’ve both been denied. Now, why would that be? I got into a public debate with George Will—he’s a conservative columnist—and he said you can’t make executions public because it could coarsen the conscience of the public. If it’s supposed to be a salutary good for society that you’re going to execute people—and especially in the beginning it was at least hoped that execution of people for murder would deter other people from murder— then why hold back? Why not let people see what the government is doing and make it transparent? And I thought of it many times because it certainly had an effect on my life… to see that act, to see the defenselessness of the person and then to see that act where guards and people are just doing their job. What about them?
More and more guards and wardens have stood up, like Warden McAndrew from Florida who said, “I’ll be in therapy for the rest of my life.” He said, “I took on being warden of that prison as an honorable profession. I was going to run a good prison and I did, and then lo and behold I’m in that execution chamber and I’m part of that process— by being the warden I have to give the signal to the executioner to inject poison.” And he could see the person on that gurney was defenseless. And that’s really what caused the Catholic Church to move. Because the Church [often says] it is [only] in self-defense that you can use violence. But when someone is rendered defenseless and killed by the state, where’s the self-defense in that? Prisons do that. That’s what prisons are for. And that’s why the majority of the 195 countries in the world have abolished the death penalty.\
And what’s been the reason for that? It’s because, through the experience of the government executing people, they’re relying on citizens to do the killing and they recognize the immorality of it. And they say we have citizens to keep society safe. They say we don’t need to imitate the violence and kill the killers to try to show people that killing is wrong.
The United States has been stuck. We’re probably stuck for a lot of reasons. We have been so wedded to violence from the very beginning of our nation, the violence against Native American people, the violence of enslaving people and beating them and lynching them and taking their lives. We’ve been born in violence in a way that a country like Canada wasn’t. It was just part of who we are. Which is really why, in a way, we accept the death penalty, because the death penalty embodies what I consider to be the three deepest wounds of our society—of American society.
One is it’s only poor people selected for death. Ninety-eight percent of people on death row are poor. And they couldn’t get a good attorney on the court. And when you look at the pattern, it’s when white people were killed. Whereas when people of color are the victims of homicide, it is seldom used. So racism, poverty, and then that means that we have been sold on the use of violence to keep social peace— that violent solutions are required, and that’s what the death penalty is. And all of that is just part of who we are.
It seems like where this gets complicated is where it gets personal—when people themselves have experienced the loss of a family member and want the murderer punished. And you’ve talked about loving or being there for the person that is left behind and that that’s what Christianity mandates, but how do you also fulfill your mandate to those people who have been hurt, who are on the other side of the crime, and who also need to be healed and helped?
What prosecutors have used and what politicians have used is to say we’re doing this for the victim’s family. If somebody killed your child, wouldn’t you want to see him dead? And they use that. Well, what’s been happening is that victims’ families themselves have begun to stand up and to say the death penalty re-victimizes us. First of all because of the so-called justice requirement: we get to witness as the state executes the one who killed our loved ones. It puts us in this holding pattern, waiting, waiting waiting. When we get our justice, then our lives can move on. When we see the person killed who killed our loved one that is going to heal us, that is going to give us peace, that is going to satisfy our need for justice. And they wait and they wait and they wait. And then what we also see in the pattern of it is that only certain people are given this justice. When people of color are killed, those families are never given that justice. So the racism still holds.
Ten years ago, when the New Jersey legislator was looking at a bill to abolish the death penalty, sixty-two murder victims’ families came to the hearing of the judiciary committee saying “Don’t kill for us.” Victims realized it was never going to heal them.
If somebody killed my mother or killed my brother, I know I’d go through that stage—I’d probably say I want to get him with my bare hands and squeeze the life out of him. I’d gladly kill him myself. But most people don’t stop there. And we have to get back to government rights. Can government say we will be the deciders of all the murders that happen and some of these victims’ families are going to get this justice and we’ll be the deciders of who gets killed for a crime and who doesn’t? We can’t let government have that power to decide.