Interview with abolition activist Sister Helen Prejean
From IPS Inter Press News Service

WASHINGTON, Jun 18 (IPS) - For over 20 years, Sister Helen Prejean, a Roman Catholic nun, has worked to educate the public about the death penalty. She has been spiritual adviser to eight death row inmates, turning her experience visiting one into the best-selling book, “Dead Man Walking”. In 1995, the book was made into a film starring Susan Sarandon, winning the actress an Oscar for her performance.

Credit:Grant-Guerrero Photography

Sister Helen Prejean, anti-death penalty campaigner and best-selling author
Credit:Grant-Guerrero Photography

IPS Washington correspondent Srabani Roy interviewed Sister Prejean about her long engagement against the death penalty.

IPS: You travel the country and the world giving between 120 and 140 lectures a year on the death penalty. How are attitudes changing towards this ultimate punishment?

SP: Our starting point can be how different it is outside the U.S., especially in Europe. Forty years ago, there were less than 20 countries in the world that didn’t have the death penalty. Because of the increased awareness of human rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we now have seen more and more countries turning away from the death penalty.

I had the assumption when I started this that the American people were more hooked on vengeance and violence than other people in the world. We’re a young country with a very violent history — we’ve used violence against Native Americans, we’ve brought people over in slavery, we didn’t hesitate to drop two atomic bombs killing civilians in Nagasaki and in Hiroshima, changing all the rules of war. Violence is so integral to who we are. And because we’re young and we came into that power early, it’s the modus operandi of the United States. The death penalty is part of that kind of mentality.

The big discovery I made is that people are not wedded to the death penalty or have made a definite commitment that “Yes, violence is what we have to use”. What I have found is people who have never thought about it. It’s not one of the moral issues that affects most people personally.

IPS: Could you give examples of some of the issues, perhaps specific to the U.S., that many Americans have never thought about?

SP: People don’t have any idea how selective the death penalty is. The statistics on how the death penalty is applied are really instructive here. The death penalty is seldom pursued for people of colour who are killed — it’s not even on the radar screen. There’s an identification in that. We are predominantly a white society. Eight out of every 10 people who have been executed so far had white victims; eight out of every 10 people sitting on death row right now had white victims.

The regional disparity of the practice is becoming very clear. In my second book, “The Death of Innocents”, I bring this out. The 10 states that practiced slavery carry out over 80 percent of the executions in this country. It has always been that way.

IPS: If people do not pause to consider this, how do you get them to begin to question the death penalty?

SP: I’m more of a storyteller than a lecturer. So I bring them with me, in my experience — somebody who knew nothing about the death penalty, who got involved with poor people in New Orleans and started writing to somebody on death row. Two and a half years later I am witnessing as the state of Louisiana pumps 1900 volts of electricity through his body and kills him. And I walk out of that execution chamber and I’m never the same again. And the realisation that came to me was that people are never going to see this. Executions are a secret ritual, so people don’t have any close-up experience and they never will. I help people navigate across the poles and I give them a few pertinent facts about how the death penalty is actually practiced.

IPS: One often reads these days about faulty defence representation, jurors disqualified because they are against the death penalty, the alternative option to the death penalty, “life without parole” and exonerations. Are such issues helping to change people’s minds about the death penalty?

SP: All these things are very, very real. When I first got involved with this I thought, “We have the best court system in the world. It would be an absolute fluke if we happened to have (executed) an innocent person because you have this whole appeals system.” But I realised that the appeals court only picks up those issues that lawyers raise in a formal objection during the trial. So if you’ve got a poor defence and they didn’t raise a formal objection that you had an all-white jury and you’re a black man, you are on a grease track to the death penalty.

It used to be that juries would not be told that in their state there was truly an option of life without parole. So it bound them to go for death because it was the only way they could assure the public that they’d be safe. The statistics show, for the first time last year, that more would choose life without parole than the death penalty. Juries, given half a chance, do not want to be burdened with having sentenced a fellow human being to death. Who really wants to give death?

The general public is absolutely becoming more and more aware of all these factors and it’s been through the 128 people wrongfully convicted, people telling their horror stories on television.

IPS: How do you get people to change their minds when they argue that the most heinous crimes deserve the ultimate punishment?

SP: Twenty percent of the population are in principle already opposed to the death penalty. At the other end of the spectrum, I don’t know exactly what number to put on it, are people so set on the vengeance of it that they are impervious to conversation. But the vast majority of people — 60 percent of the American public — simply have never thought about it. And so by even bringing them into the discourse, you’ve got them.

IPS: You said that juries are increasingly preferring life without parole to the death penalty. But isn’t that also inhumane?

SP: When we draw the line in the sand in terms of government power over peoples’ lives, the starting point is we can’t give government power to kill people for crimes. Now life without parole is not humane either in a lot of ways but that’s going to be the next part of the journey here — in fact, we need to work on prison reform.

IPS: What is your reaction to the recent U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Baze vs. Kentucky case upholding the constitutionality of execution by lethal injection?

SP: I was not surprised that the Supreme Court did this because I know their thinking by now. When you have someone like Justice [Antonin] Scalia saying a death by lethal injection is an enviable death next to what happened to the victim, you have a mindset. It’s this de-humanisation and targeting of some people who we say have to be killed in order for us to be safe.

IPS: You also work with victims’ families and founded “Survive”. Do you feel the families of the victims are being neglected?

SP: What the victim’s families are offered in this very selective application of the death penalty is, “We hope you won’t have to wait too long, hopefully not 10 or 15 or 20 years… to sit on the front row to watch as we kill the one who killed your loved one”. And they call it justice. They call it healing. They call it closure. They call it “honouring your dead loved one”.

Families of victims need help on every side. First, they need the companionship of people accompanying them and not leaving them alone. They need friends and the community around them, and they need help with things like funeral expenses. They need counselling, they need support groups in every city and every place.

IPS: Do you really think the death penalty will ever be abolished in the U.S.?

SP: Yes. And we’re on our way to abolishing it right now in practice.