Conversation: Sr Helen Prejean, author, death-row spiritual adviser and death penalty opponent - There but for the grace of God ...
By Marilyn Rodrigues
The death penalty is still in place in 38 of the 50 United States, but Sr Helen Prejean (pictured) firmly believes that she will see it abolished in her lifetime.
“I think the tide has gone out and it’s just beginning to come back again because the American people are basically decent,” she says.
“It’s a surface thing for many of them. If you ask them, they say: ‘Yeah we believe people ought to die who do these crimes’.
“But if you help them to reflect on it, you get a very different answer.”
It has been a matter of relevance for Australia, too, in recent weeks with our government securing an understanding that alleged al Qaeda member David Hicks will not face the death penalty as a consequence of his upcoming US military trial.
Sr Helen is the author of Dead Man Walking: An Eye Witness Account of the Death Penalty.
The book, based on her ministry to death-row inmates in her home state of Louisiana, has been made into an Academy Award-winning film and, more recently, an opera.
The 64-year-old Sister of St Joseph of Medaille was in Australia for the first time last month to see the State Opera of South Australia perform the opera, but also to gain support for her mission to have a worldwide moratorium established on the death penalty.
During a brief stopover in Sydney, she spoke to The Catholic Weekly about her work and life.
“I now have 15 speaking engagements a month,” she says.
“I’ve done more travelling than any politician seeking office and I’ve been doing it ever since the movie.
“I was so naïve, I didn’t know a film would do that.
“But it’s a way of being of service; I joined the Sisters of St Joseph to be a teacher, and I’m still a teacher, only my classroom has become very wide.”
In 1981 when she was working with poor inner-city residents of New Orleans, Sr Helen began writing to a death-row prisoner, Patrick Sonnier, the killer of two teenagers. She became his spiritual adviser.
So began her prison ministry.
She is also the founder of Survive, a support and advocacy group in New Orleans for the families and friends of murder victims.
Sr Helen believes that many factors play a part in handing down the death penalty, including race, poverty, religious beliefs and political scapegoating.
“We target the evil person, dehumanise them, and say they’re not human in the way we are, they are totally evil and so we are justified in killing them,” she says.
“That is a way of trying to solve social problems through violence, and people go along with it because they are afraid.
“Once you inject fear into a society of people, they become more and more afraid because they don’t cross over the neighbourhoods and the only information they get about other people is through the media.
“We need a new meaning of pilgrimage, where people get out of their own neighbourhood, go into other places and meet these people face to face.”
Sr Helen says that 80 per cent of America’s executions take place in the southern states.
“These are the states that practised slavery the longest and the lynching of black people the most,” she says.
“Race plays a part as does poverty.
“Poor people get poor defence, then when they have a trial the jury only hears one side.
“Also, people think if you try to look at the background of criminals to see the context of why people commit violence, you are condoning what they did; but Christianity is all about looking at the context, having compassion and saying: ‘There but for the grace of God go I’.
“More than 90 per cent of people on death row had brutal childhoods, they were abused and one day they just exploded into violence.
“By executing them you’re not stopping violence, you’re repeating it.
“Part of the rationale for the death penalty is to help the victim’s family. Well, 98 per cent of all murder victim’s families never get this so called help.
“In fact, victims’ families themselves are the ones who have taught me (that it doesn’t help), that too much anger and hostility in your life is not good for you, it is not healthy.”
But probably the strongest argument against the death penalty is the fact that 108 people on death row have been released from prison since 1976 when new evidence was brought to bear on their case; 13 of those have been cases where DNA testing has proved their innocence.
Sr Helen is grateful that the Catholic Church has spoken more clearly on this issue through the initiative of Pope John Paul II and, before him, Pope John XXIII.
When the new Catholic Catechism was published in 1997, the criteria were removed that had been used for 1700 years of grave or grievous crimes for which the state could execute.
Then came the 1995 Evangelium Vitae (Gospel of Life) papal encyclical and Pope John Paul II’s visit to St Louis in 1999 when he said that the dignity of the human person is “not only for the innocent but for the guilty as well” and that the death penalty is “cruel and unnecessary”.
Slightly ahead of the Church on this issue was the human rights organisation, Amnesty International, and the United Nations 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
“Before that the Church was saying: ‘Well, in these circumstances, you can (execute)’,” says Sr Helen.
“Now the bishops are taking more of an active role in the US and are even putting it in now as one of the pro-life issues.
“The Pope says we need Catholics who are going to be unconditionally pro-life; against abortion, against euthanasia, against suicide, and (that means also) against the death penalty.
“But for a long time the Church would not include the death penalty as one of the pro-life issues.
“It’s great to see the power of the Gospel of Jesus combined with human rights, because they come together.”
Sr Helen is writing her second book and helping to gather signatures calling for a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty. Visit www.prejean.org