'Dead Man Walking' author Sr. Helen Prejean discusses death-penalty, repeal efforts

Dead Man Walking author Helen Prejean discusses death penalty

On October 21, 2012

Sister Helen Prejean, anti-death penalty advocate and author of Dead Man Walking, talks about Oregon's death row and the death penalty in general.

In 1982, at the suggestion of a civil rights activist, Sister Helen Prejean wrote a letter to a man on Louisiana’s death row.

Her correspondence with Patrick Sonnier, convicted of the murders of two teenagers, would lead Prejean into a life of challenging the death penalty and the morality of a legal system skewed against minorities and the poor.

As Sonnier’s spiritual advisor for two years, Prejean witnessed his execution in Louisiana’s electric chair, eventually writing a Pulitzer-Prize nominated book "Dead Man Walking" about the experience. She has witnessed six executions and is the spiritual advisor to two death-row inmates, one of whom whose sentence was recently overturned.

Prejean, who is working on her third book, is visiting Oregon this week for several events in Portland and Eugene. She met with The Oregonian at the University of Portland to talk about her views on the death penalty nationally and in Oregon. The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: Since 2007, there have been five states that have abolished (the death penalty) and now California's voters will decide … Do you think that this wave of states abolishing capital punishment is going to continue … and where do you see it happening next?

A: Yeah it is… There are a number of states. Kansas is close to doing it. California is actually close to doing it…
You know Americans are practical. So let’s take this death penalty thing that’s supposed to deter violent crime. So let’s look at the states that are practicing the death penalty the most. And we see roughly states that do have the death penalty have double the homicide rate of states that don’t have the death penalty...

Then another factor is the money. All states are under budget crunches. ... And so like California spends $185 million a year to keep their death penalty machinery in place. The average waiting time for an execution is 20 years.
I bet you Oregon is close to that because you don’t actually practice it. So it’s almost like you’re holding this symbol in place, a political symbol. That’s basically what it boils down to because (for) politicians, it’s the easiest symbol in the world to say ‘I’m tough on crime.’ It ‘s got nothing to do with dealing with the roots of crime and violence.

Q: In many of the states that have abolished the death penalty recently, it was through legislative efforts. And here in Oregon, we have a situation where it most likely will have to be referred to voters. Do you think that increases the degree of difficulty at all?

“Oh yeah, absolutely… But it means, like California and we don’t know because the jury is still out. If they can get enough money to do those ads on TV and radio spots to just get in those facts to the people, we’ll see what happens. But it means you got to get out there and you really got to educate the people. And I guess my hope is -- because I’ve seen people respond -- that if they can hear about it, they’re not tied to vengeance, they’re not saying, ‘Oh no, we got to kill,” and there’s a whole part of us that knows we can barely trust the government to fill the potholes… And (to) let you set up this system of deciding life and death?

Q: In Oregon, the governor last year issued a reprieve to Gary Haugen who I know you’ve met with, and said there will be no more executions…

A: And he’s mad and he’s suing him.

Q: He views it as his right. He believes it’s his right to be executed -- that he doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life in this tiny cell 23 hours a day…

A: He’s asking for suicide and asking the state to help him do it. And the state won’t. This time.

… But hey, you have me sitting in a cell for 20, 30 years and everyday you wake up to the same walls... It takes a very strong person inwardly to deal with the boredom, to deal with the lack of human interaction, and stimulation not to go nuts. I don’t kno what I would do under the stress. That human beings would say ‘I want it to be over, I’ll take my chances on the other side’ is really understandable to me.

Q: Do you think if inmates want to voluntarily waive their legal appeals that they should be allowed to force the state to carry out this death sentence?

A: Look how complex this is. What kind of mental state is it that a person is asking for the state to kill them?... How do you determine insanity? What is mental stress to the point that you’ve just given up?

What this shows me is we’re the last ones on earth to have the wisdom to be able to make these kind of complex decisions about human life. We don’t know.

… And so whatever criteria we’re going to put or whatever format we’re going to put on this to try and say here we have a deliberative, reasonable process to decide on life or death, it never holds up. Because a deeper wisdom is required of us and actually it’s beyond us.

… We're not the authors of people's lives and so look at the arrogance where we feel we have the wisdom to decide. From a religious point of view or from a human rights point of view. From a religious point of view, 'God’s finished with you, Bud. You’re never going to be redeemable so we’re sending you into eternity.'

What makes us think we can do that?

From human rights, from a Universal Declaration of Human Rights... Everyone has a right to life… No human being shall be subjected to cruel and degrading punishment or torture.

Q: What do you say to victim’s families, many of whom sit through trials that go in grotesque detail about what happened to their loved ones and at the end of it, their view is that this jury, our system of justice, has chosen this sentence… And they do view this as justice being done if a death sentence is carried out. What do you tell them?

A: The other victim's families are representing it better than I ever could... You know when you see them come out of a courtroom. Sometimes with the ‘v’ thing like we got a victory. We won, we got the death penalty. And they’re still waiting, 10, 15 years.

And their wound is open and public… Anytime there’s a change in the status of the case, another hearing or execution delayed, the media’s at their door. ‘Well, how do you feel now?’ How do you heal in that? …

I see it as a terrible manipulation and injustice to victim’s families to give them that kind of promise. ‘Now, you wait, and then you’re going to get your justice, or your closure, or your healing.’ And that is so illusory and it is so patently false. Because as one victim’s family said, ‘Even if I could watch the execution of the one who killed my daughter, when I come home after the execution the chair’s still going to be empty where my daughter sat.’ What does it mean? What does it mean really to heal us that way? That doesn’t heal anything.

Often it’s the mothers themselves who have lost someone who say, ‘And then there’s another mother that’s going to buryer child?’ How many deaths is it going to take for us to know that we’ve got to stop this?

Q: How would you assess Oregon’s chances of abolishing capital punishment, especially considering the moratorium now on executions. Does it in a way take away some momentum to do something more permanent?

A: Well you can just see the momentum in the country. We’re in diminishment.
… It’s momentum in the direction of (abolishment) and you’ve never been serious about practicing it anyway… I think the governor just declared what in fact is a fact.

Q: Do you think that there is the organization and the political will to make that extra step when for all intents and purposes, the death penalty is not carried out.

I think practically speaking that’s the way it’s been for about 25 years in Oregon. You’ve never been a serious practicioner of doing it. So what’s the difference? I think the governor just declared what in fact is a fact.

…The death penalty is not in people’s minds. It’s not something they reflect on. And that’s why I’m out on that road… Why we have the book, why I’m glad about the movie, the film, because that awakens consciousness.

-- Helen Jung

By Helen Jung, The Oregonian The Oregonian



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