From the February 21st, 2005 edition of Time Magazine
By Amanda Ripley

Photo Robert Durell, Los Angeles Times

Photo Robert Durell, Los Angeles Times

Sister Helen Prejean’s 1993 book against the death penalty, Dead Man Walking, became a movie and even an opera. At 65, she’s only getting angrier. In The Death of Innocents, she escorts two men to their executions - and this time she’s sure they are not guilty. Prejean spoke, barely pausing for breath, with Time’s Amanda Ripley about the Pope, politics and hypocrisy.

How many executions have you witnessed? Six. The man I visit now on death row in Louisiana, Manuel Ortiz - I believe in his total and absolute innocence. So that would be the seventh, and three have ended up being people I believe were innocent.

In his state of the union speech, President Bush praised DNA exonerations and called for money to train defense attorneys in capital cases. Do you feel reassured? Hardly. See how many people in Texas can get access to DNA evidence even today. And in Texas, attorneys are appointed by judges. You can look at the pattern of judges appointing over and over again the same attorneys [whose clients] almost always get the death penalty. Honestly, it’s hard to look at [Bush’s] face on television because everything he says is so untruthful.

Like what? He claimed Karla Faye Tucker’s execution was a crushing weight on him and said, “God bless Karla Faye Tucker,” and then, after she was executed, he mimicked her. I hate the way he uses religion. It’s a sacrilege to me. As Governor, he had the power to save a woman who had completely changed her life.

There were 59 executions last year - the lowest number since 1996. Is that hopeful? Yes, very. Over the last five years, death sentences have declined by 50%. The turning point was 2000 when [Illinois] Governor Ryan had the courage to do a moratorium. In North Carolina, they are close to a moratorium. In New Mexico, they are close to repealing it. I can see the difference on the road tour.

How so? With Dead Man Walking I had to put my trowel in the ground and go through rock, shale and stone to make every argument. Now the bookstores are packed, and they’re sold out.

Some bishops have said pro-abortion politicians should not receive communion. But they didn’t extend that call to death penalty proponents. What do you make of this logic? If you look at the history of the church on moral issues, there’s always been great emphasis on anything to do with sex. But it’s gotten easier; the Pope has taken leadership on the death penalty and put it up there with other pro-life issues. And well, you know, the bishops try to be obedient to the Pope, so that’s a real calling card.

You must get hundreds of letters from death row. How do you decide which to answer? It’s not a highly logical procedure. I promise to pray for them. I try to hook them up with a group in their state that helps people. But it’s impossible. I could spend all my time doing it. Some of the saddest letters are from mothers.

The book includes a section on Abu Ghraib. What’s the connection? I’ve seen the death penalty up close, and I know it’s the practice of torture. Anybody who is led to an execution chamber has shackles on their hands and feet. They’ve been kept in a room shorter than cells in Abu Ghraib, and for 15, 25 years.

You also write that we execute innocent people “all the time.” Who says that? I believe you do. Nuh-uh. I’m on page 10. Oh yeah, I do say it. Well, everything points to it. I mean, the 118 death row exonerees. Are you overstating it, though? I might be. But conversely, can someone say with assurance that we have not executed an innocent person? Especially when you see how they’re saved by flukes. It’s hit or miss.

If we could tell for sure who was guilty, would it be O.K.? It isn’t and never will be because of what it does to us. There’s a death of innocence in all of us. Look what happens to Supreme Court Justices who do these nuanced constitutional arguments and send people to their deaths and never touch the human cheek, the suffering. So I say, for our own sake as a society, let’s take death off the table. We can’t handle it.

Mastodon