By Joanie Flatt

Special for The Republic

For years I’ve wrestled with the question of capital punishment. On one hand, I’ve cheered when juries meted out the ultimate punishment for perpetrators of the most heinous crimes. On the other hand, doubt has gnawed at my gut. How can a society that makes it a crime to take a human life then turn around and take yet another life in vengeance? Can that truly be the right thing to do?

When Sister Helen Prejean looked me in the eye this week and asked, “The key moral question is . . . do we deserve to kill?” I finally got it.

“I’m facing a culture that legitimizes murder as vengeance,” she said. “And that is not right.” I believe her.
Sister Helen Prejean is a passionate, perky little nun who grew up in Baton Rouge and spent years ministering to poor black residents in St. Thomas, a New Orleans housing project.

At the suggestion of a friend, she wrote a letter to a death row inmate, chosen at random by the leader of the Prison Coalition in New Orleans. That one letter led Sister Helen to a series of experiences that she shared with the world through her book, and subsequent movie, Dead Man Walking.

Sister Helen’s pen pal, Patrick Sonnier, was executed by Louisiana. While he participated in vicious criminal behavior, he was executed for two murders he did not commit.

Today, Sister Helen ministers to death row inmates and families of murder victims. She is a vocal leader of the national and international movements to place a moratorium on capital punishment. And this week, she turned me into a believer.
I ask Gov. Napolitano and the Arizona Legislature to adopt a moratorium on capital punishment in Arizona.
Legislatures in half of the 38 states with the death penalty have considered, or are now considering, stopping executions with a moratorium - or abolishing the death penalty outright. It’s time for Arizona to do the same.
Why am I now convinced that capital punishment is wrong?

Because there are people on death row who are innocent. This is a fact. A hundred-plus defendants have been plucked from death row in the past two decades. That’s about one death sentence reversed for every eight executions. These innocent people collectively lost a total of 800 years of their lives on death row for crimes they didn’t commit.
We need a moratorium to allow the courts to find and release every death row inmate who is innocent.
The Innocence Protection Act, which is currently before Congress and which we should all support, would ensure all convicted offenders have the opportunity to prove their innocence through DNA testing. It would also help states provide competent legal services to criminals facing the death penalty.

The concept that the death penalty deters crime is flawed. States that do not have the death penalty have an average murder rate that is actually lower than states that have the death penalty.

Most of the brutal murders that are committed are either committed in the “heat of the moment” or by mentally deranged monsters like Jeffrey Dahmer or Charles Manson. Give them life in prison with no option for parole.

According to some studies, the death penalty actually costs more than life in prison. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, “Various state governments estimate that a single death-penalty case from arrest to execution ranges from $1 million up to $7 million. Cases resulting in life imprisonment average around $500,000 each, including the cost of incarceration.”

We should adopt a moratorium on executions because, nationally, the death penalty is racially biased. Those who kill White people are four times more likely to get the death penalty than those who kill people of color
The death penalty is also economically biased. People who can’t afford good legal representation are more likely to get the death penalty than those who can pay for experienced capital punishment attorneys. If you’re wealthy and you kill, you’ll likely get life imprisonment. If you’re poor, we’ll probably kill you.

According to the web site, there are 124 inmates on death row in Arizona. Four of these committed their crimes when they were kids. Some of these inmates are mentally retarded. Some are likely innocent.
As Sister Helen explains, murdering the murderer will not bring a loved one back. “Outrage is a legitimate moral reaction (to the loss of a loved one). Violence causes outrage in us because we value human life.”

When she looked me in the eye and asked, “The key moral question is do we deserve to kill?” I finally got it.
(Copyrighted by The Arizona Republic, November 1, 2003)

Joanie Flatt is a Scottsdale resident and owner and president of Flatt & Associates Ltd., an East Valley public relations and public affairs firm. She can be reached at