Sister Helen at St Joseph CollegeBy Laura Sheehan,
Saint Joseph College, West Hartford
Wednesday November 5, 2008

A sense of calm permeates our campus, one that is reflected in the stately Georgian brick architecture, the pastoral grounds, and the quiet hum of daily activity. Visitors should not mistake us as a quiet little campus “lost in time,” though. Saint Joseph College, in the business of educating leaders, connects fully to the complex issues of contemporary life. Beneath our peaceful exterior lies a pointed sense of purpose that is driven by the College’s living mission. This purpose, which merges the development of the individual with that of society, is factored into all the College’s academic endeavors. We are a community that probes the most pressing issues of our times –  issues like terrorism, human trafficking, sexual assault, and capital punishment – through a blend of critical analysis, research, and discussion.

Over the past two years, the College has delved into the topic of capital punishment. The best-selling book, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States, was assigned to all first-year students as part of the Common Reading Program. Designed to ease students’ transition into college, the Program incorporates critical thinking and the discussion of challenging topics through a shared reading experience. Dead Man Walking proved an ideal choice with its personal account of a Religious woman’s struggle with the subjects of violence, guilt and, ultimately, retribution.

Beyond the classroom, the College sponsored multiple events for the community at-large intended to initiate an ongoing dialogue on the divisive and timely issue of capital punishment. Events included a lecture by Dead Man Walking author Sister Helen Prejean H’98, a discussion by New York Times legal reporter Adam Liptak, a visit from exonerated death row prisoner Kerry Max Cook, a panel discussion on “Perspectives on the Death Penalty” organized by the student chapter of Amnesty International, a Queenes Companye theatrical production of Dead Man Walking, prisoner art exhibitions, viewings of The Shawshank Redemption, and more. Each event offered participants the opportunity to express opinions, ask questions and broaden their views.

While the College is obviously committed to a Catholic education, it was careful to present both sides of the debate and to encourage students to form their own opinions. Pro-death penalty supporters set up tables in the lobby of The Bruyette Athenaeum; panelists at the Amnesty International discussion were well-rounded in their representation. Most importantly, though, was the balanced classroom environment. As Dr. Agnes Curry, associate professor of Philosophy and First-Year Seminar (FYS) instructor, said, “Dead Man Walking is told from Sister Helen’s perspective and she holds a strong position on capital punishment. We don’t advocate that students agree with her. College is about developing one’s own position and we want students to consider the strengths and weaknesses of the author’s opinion while they work to develop their own.”

The overarching goal is that students educate themselves on the complexities of a significant social issue and form a thoughtful response. To the wider audience, the College hoped to establish a forum for discussion – a safe place to analyze and debate a topic of personal and communal magnitude.

And so it hosted a series of speakers. In November 2006, the College welcomed national legal reporter Adam Liptak. Calling the death penalty “one of the most fascinating subjects in American law,” he discussed its standing in the federal judicial system. At that time, Mr. Liptak said, “Sixty five percent of Americans consider themselves pro-death penalty, but are increasingly less willing to sentence prisoners to death. That decrease suggests that when juries confront execution, they harbor serious doubts.” Consequently, more inmates are sentenced to life in prison, an issue with its own legal and moral problems. The justice system, Mr. Liptak ascertained, works against prisoners to the point of being unreasonable. “You are better off getting a death sentence than being sentenced to life. At least a death sentence will get you the resources to fight your conviction,” he said. The burden, he reasoned, must fall back on the legal system. Procedural rules like the federal law that makes it difficult to reopen cases work against prisoners’ rights. “The question is, are we willing to tolerate a burden on the courts when faced with the possibility of killing an innocent person?” he asked.

Since Mr. Liptak’s visit, things in Connecticut have changed. No one could have predicted the brutal home invasion and murders in Cheshire and the way that event drove capital punishment to the forefront of our collective consciousness. Clearly, the climate surrounding the topic has changed; so, consequently, has the timbre of the College’s discussion. Students who read Dead Man Walking this past fall, came fresh off the intense publicity that detailed the horror of that particular crime. Whether they were pro- or anti-capital punishment prior, they approached the book with the understanding that unspeakable crimes can hit close to home.

Tracy Lake, director of Student Activities/ Orientation Programs and FYS instructor, recalled, “At one point, we had an in-depth class discussion about the murders in Cheshire. Some students were local to that area and we talked about how the crime affected their support or opposition to capital punishment. Over the course of the semester, they all started to see various points of view that altered their original opinions.”

Nevertheless, Sister Helen Prejean faced a formidable task when she came to campus in February and spoke on abolishing the death penalty. She did not shy away from the horror of murder and its lifelong impact on victims’ families. “We all struggle with the death penalty,” she said. “ I remember a victim’s father saying to me, ‘You think they’re on death row, Sister? We’re on death row’ and I know the truth in that statement.” Equating the topic of capital punishment to the two arms of the Christian cross, Sister Helen acknowledged the tension between the two sides:  “Our culture says that criminals deserve to die and that victims are afforded rights. But I want to show you both arms of the cross and ask you to sort it out for yourselves.”

She shared her own journey into the world of social justice and advocacy. For years she lived and worked in a New Orleans public housing project. In a place where “everybody had a relative in jail,” she agreed to be a pen pal to a death row inmate. “That was all fine until the day he wrote back,” she recalled. “From that point on, I got to know him as a person and was forced to see him as a child of God.”

Sister Helen’s friendship with Patrick Sonnier and her role as his spiritual advisor are the basis of Dead Man Walking. She cites the true hero of the book, though, as one of the victim’s fathers. “He taught me what true forgiveness is. It is when we do not let the love that is within us become overwhelmed by the evil that has been done to us,” Sister Helen said. Over the years, she has been actively involved in victims’ rights, while still pushing to abolish the death penalty nationwide. “There is no doubt that the criminal justice system is broken. We cannot be the arbitrators to life and death. Let us take death off the table and leave it to God,” she urged.

A subsequent speaker, Kerry Max Cook, put a human face on the concept of death row. The author of Chasing Justice: My Story of Freeing Myself After Two Decades on Death Row for a Crime I Didn’t Commit, Mr. Cook told how he was arrested at the age of 19 for the rape and murder of a woman he barely knew.

His is a heartbreaking story of unimaginable suffering, wasted potential and the obstruction of justice. A troubled teen from Texas with a juvenile record of non-violent crimes, Mr. Cook was targeted by law enforcement officials zealous in their pursuit of an arrest. Although he spent an evening with the victim the night prior, the victim’s roommate identified an ex-boyfriend as leaving the scene of the crime. Somehow, that testimony was thrown out and she later identified Mr. Cook. Another witness came forward and said Mr. Cook made a jailhouse confession to him. Mr. Cook replied that at the time the “confession” took place, he was in solitary confinement and never saw another prisoner. The jailhouse records of that time period were “missing” and the testimony was allowed to stand. Mr. Cook was convicted on two fraudulent reports and spent two decades on death row.

“I went to death row as a ninth grade drop out who could barely read and write,” Mr. Cook recounted. “I had to free myself from my cell of ignorance, so I began to study the law.” His only contact with the outside world was his brother, who sent him occasional books. Day-to-day life was unbearable. “Death row is primitive and violent; everything is resolved by violence,” he said. “I was raped, tortured, beaten, and stabbed. Words were carved into my body. Solitary confinement became the safest place to be.”

His lowest point came a decade into his sentence when the Supreme Court finally responded to his appeal. The Court upheld his conviction and that same night he was told of his brother’s murder. Despair set in and Mr. Cook attempted suicide. His emotional state descended until his 18th year on death row, when, as he said, “ I lost everything and found God. I decided that He didn’t want me to be filled with hate, so I asked Him to remove the hatred from my heart and I practiced forgiveness. When people raped me, I forgave them. I was going to a better place where there was no more pain and suffering. Forgiveness gave me the ability to move forward and gave me clarity. Only then did miracles begin to happen.”

The first miracle came in the form of a front page article in the Dallas Morning News questioning his conviction. The tide turned and the inmate who testified against him recanted his story. Mr. Cook was freed, the charges were dropped and the only apology he ever received was from that inmate. The prosecutor who falsely tried him was never held accountable; in fact, he became a district judge in Texas.

Mr. Cook did not shy away from the difficult challenge the public faces when debating the death penalty. To use Sister Helen’s analogy, how does one reconcile the two arms of the cross? Mr. Cook responded by serving as an example of what he calls “collateral damage.” He asked the audience to think deeply about executing prisoners while knowing that innocent men will die. “There are horrible people who do horrible things and society needs to be protected from them. I’m not some liberal saying everybody is innocent. Most people on death row are guilty … but enough of them, like myself, are not.” And that reason alone is worth the effort of a conversation.


Resources on Capital Punishment in the United States

Sample listing from the Common Reading Program Web site