Helen Prejean

Louisiana, 1977. Brothers Patrick and Eddie Sonnier admitted mugging David LeBlanc, age seventeen, and Loretta Bourque, eighteen, one autumn night, but each blamed the other for murdering them and raping Bourque. Eddie was sentenced to life, Patrick to death by electrocution. In the summer of 1982, Sister Helen Prejean had moved into St. Thomas Housing Project, one of New Orleans’s most violent neighborhoods, when a friend asked her to be a pen pal to Pat Sonnier. Viewing the proposal as an extension of her ministry to the poor, Prejean agreed, and opened her eyes to the underworld of life on death row. She accompanied Sonnier through the next two years, until the day the state shaved his head for the electrodes, strapped him into the chair, and executed him. Thus began for Prejean a lifetime commitment to the abolition of the death penalty. She recorded her experiences in her deeply moving best-selling book, Dead Man Walking. Made into an acclaimed motion picture (for which Susan Sarandon won an Oscar in 1995 for her portrayal of Sister Helen), the book and movie’s publicity propelled Prejean’s worldwide campaign against capital punishment. The United States is the only western country that administers the death penalty: nearly four hundred people currently await executions there. Meanwhile, recognizing the needs also of the families of victims of violent crimes, Prejean created SURVIVE, an advocacy group with which she continues to work. Her second book, The Death of Innocents, was published in 2004. She is currently the honorary chairperson of the Moratorium Campaign.

The death penalty legalizes the torture and killing of our own citizens and imitates their violence in order to deter or punish. I came to this realization only after my first witnessing of a state execution. When I came out of that execution chamber with Patrick, I was clear, clear inside. You are either paralyzed by something like that or you are galvanized. And I call being galvanized the resurrection principle of life—overcoming death, and resisting evil. You know how Gandhi said you have to expose evil and you have to actively resist? That day, my mission was born. Patrick was dead but I didn’t have a choice. It was just something I had to do because I knew I was a primary witness and I would take people there through my stories. So for fifteen years I have been working to stop the death penalty.

But I see in my audience a distancing from the death penalty: “This is off my radar screen, these are just a few criminals.” You have to bring people over to the victims. You’ve got to deal with outrage. When people meet a criminal through a story and then meet the victims and see what really helps victims to heal and what doesn’t help victims to heal, at the end of it many people are crying. Even though they know the person has done a terrible crime, the experience of the dignity of a human being is there, also. That’s why it was so hard to kill Karla Faye Tucker, because so many people met her on Larry King Live. You could see this was a loving woman. Yet the only thing we knew to do was freeze-frame her in the worst act of her life, judge her by that act—and kill her.

The death penalty is not a peripheral issue about what to do about a few criminals who have done terrible crimes. It epitomizes the three deepest wounds in our society that we need to attend to and heal. The first wound is racism, because the criminal justice system is permeated with racism—starting with who is a victim, and who cares. When white people are killed that is always considered the greatest crime in this country. So 85 percent of the people chosen for death are there because they killed white people. A recent study in Pennsylvania shows that racism also shows up in the disproportionate punishment given people of color who do the same crimes that white people do.

The second wound is the assault on the poor. It is not an accident that the thirty-six hundred people selected for death in this country are all poor. They don’t have the resources to get a Johnny Cochran defense team. It is not an equal playing field when they go into court. Supposedly, in our adversarial system, you have the prosecution and you have the defense. The jury is going to listen to arguments from both sides and make a decision. But all the resources are on the prosecution side and when the defense comes in, they can rarely prevail. We consider it poor people’s individual deficiency that accounts for their poverty. In Europe they have much more of a social sense. If crime begins to proliferate they ask, “What are we doing wrong as a society?” They look at the fabric. They look at the soil. In America we think, “That apple is bad, get another barrel, burn the bad apples.”

The third wound is our penchant to try to solve social problems through violence. We have been doing this for a long time. Our country was built on violence: violence against slaves, violence against Native Americans, and the kind of violence born by not allowing everyone to have a voice—such as women who, for a long time, could not vote.

That is why I don’t consider execution a peripheral issue; I consider it central to the social fabric of our country, and an act of profound despair. We don’t know what else to do, so we imitate criminals’ worst possible behavior. We kill people who kill other people because we say, “You don’t deserve to live a life. You aren’t human the way the rest of us are, so you are disposable.” It’s a very dangerous, pernicious attitude. It leads to the death of our citizens in other ways, too. You see, the death penalty is very explicit. We take people who are alive through a process of torture and then kill them.

This begins on a personal level with all of us; we need to be involved in trying to change what we know is wrong. Consciousness is the first step, and the way that happened to me was to get to know people. In our society people wear four sets of gloves. We don’t touch each other. We avoid certain neighborhoods. We never go to prisons. Death row is far away from us. We never see criminals—they are distant from us. So it is easy to do anything to them. Look how quickly that affects how we think and act. Right now a key way for politicians to get points is to outdo each other in mandating harsh punishments for criminals.

The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld that it is not against the dignity of a human person to execute them. Amnesty International defines torture as an extreme mental or physical assault on someone rendered defenseless. Then take a scenario where we hear of a crime that someone took their victim and kept them locked in a house and told them, “We are gonna execute you, we are gonna shoot you in the head Tuesday night at 9:00,” and then when it comes to 7:00 they bring the victim out and say, “Not tonight, another night.” And they bring the person back and they wait again, they take the person out and put the gun to him and say, “Not tonight.” And then add to this that their family is watching while this happens. This is the practice of torture—this is the death penalty. Some people have been brought to the death chamber just an hour from death and received a stay of execution—knowing it might happen again.

One of the things I have found that drives the death penalty is people’s concern for safety: “If we don’t execute them, they are going to get out in a few years and they are going to kill again.” It is important for them to know that most states have long-term sentences, either life without parole or mandatory long-term sentences for people who have been convicted of felony murder or first-degree murder. We can be safe without imitating violence.

Similarly, the death penalty does not make a criminal remorseful. Remorse has to do with a personal transformation, empathy, and compassion, and the ability to experience the victim’s pain and say, “I am sorry.” Some of the people who have committed terrible crimes are limited in their capacity to empathize with other human beings, because in their whole life they had never received that kind of love. And death coming at them does not increase that capacity to feel for others. In fact it can have the opposite effect, because their life is threatened. Self-preservation kicks in. They wrap around themselves tighter and have less capacity to love or to feel for others.

You know the root of forgive? It means “give before,” fore-give. Which means that you are perpetually in a stance of love—that the evil and hatred are not going to overcome you. Some people have a lot of trouble with that: the connotation of forgive and forget, and, closely connected to it, healing and closure. With the victims’ families in Oklahoma City I will always remember one man who stood up in the midst of the sharing and he said, “Let’s not use that word closure anymore.” He said, “By God’s grace we can get back on the current of life, I can learn to cope. But there is not a day in life that I will not think of my daughter. And closure sounds like we have closed that chapter, almost like it is a compartmentalization.” I have known victims’ families who would rather use the word reconciliation: “I can reconcile myself into a love stance. But forgiveness sounds like it is okay. And I can never say that.”

How did Hemingway put it? “Courage is grace under pressure.” Courage for me is very close to integrity. It means doing what you need to. Acting. Getting out there to change things. I don’t call it courage when I accompany someone to execution. That is an act of love. Though they may be courageous in the way they go to their death, holding on to their dignity when they die. But for me, courage comes more in tackling the American system and believing and hoping in people so that we continue to change things. Courage is that steadfastness to continue—even if it means that you are going to be threatened. Like when we did our first walks in Louisiana we would get these threatening calls, “You bleeding-heart liberal, you murder-loving people,” or “I’m gonna give a donation to the group in the form of quarters that are going to be melted down into bullets.” And cars stopped, and people gave you the finger, and they yelled at you. Because violence really does trigger violence. The whole thing of execution is, “Get him, get him.”

My dream is that human rights is what’s going to bring us into the new millennium, that the more and more we grow into the sense of our community, our respect for each other, the dignity of people, that we can learn much better how to build a society. It comes back to me, the goodness, and that goodness inspires, energizes. You know how when Jesus was executed he said, “Father forgive them, they know not what they are doing?” I really think that that lack of consciousness and awareness is what makes us so insensitive to each other, and so we do these things to each other. If we bring people to consciousness and their own best hearts, they will respond. And so that is what we have to do.