Thursday, November 18, 2004
By Kit Kadlec / News Staff Writer
Daily News Transcript

While most people have an opinion on the death penalty, few have ever witnessed an execution in person. Yesterday at the Noble and Greenough School, Sister Helen Prejean of the St. Joseph order described her own experience getting to know and then watching convicted murderer and rapist Elmo Patrick Sonnier being killed by electric chair in a Louisiana prison. Click here to read the full story.

Today, Pennsylvania stands at a crossroads. In a matter of weeks, Hubert Michael, a man suffering from severe mental illness, may die. His would be the fourth execution in Pennsylvania since the death penalty was reinstated here nine years ago.

Many of Pennsylvania’s death row inmates are mentally retarded or mentally ill. Two years ago next month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the execution of the mentally retarded is unconstitutionally cruel and unusual. However, this ruling might not save Pennsylvania’s mentally retarded or mentally ill death row inmates. Hubert Michael is one of those men.

Pennsylvania’s death row, with 227 men and five women currently awaiting execution, is the fourth largest in the nation. Over 90 percent of these Pennsylvania death row inmates could not afford a lawyer at their trial, and were therefore represented by the same state that sentenced them to death.

Isn’t it time for Gov. Ed Rendell and Pennsylvania legislators, as well as all interested Pennsylvanians, to re-examine this system? Many groups, including my congregation, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille, have been calling for a moratorium on capital punishment in Pennsylvania and throughout the nation.

Gov. Rendell has the opportunity to follow Illinois Gov. George Ryan. After the release of 13 death row inmates based on findings of innocence, Ryan enacted a moratorium on capital punishment in January 2000, stating that the system was “fraught with errors.”

Errors may exist in any state’s system of capital punishment. In all, over 100 people have been exonerated from death row since 1978, including six in Pennsylvania. One of these men, Nick Yarris, spent 22 years in solitary confinement on death row for a crime he did not commit. He was exonerated after DNA evidence proved his unequivocal innocence. I’ve accompanied five men as they died by the hand of the state, and I personally believe two of these men were innocent.

These experiences cemented one of my strongest convictions: That it is a profound moral contradiction to give the state the power to kill in order to prove that murder is wrong. This may not be your viewpoint. Indeed, there are many views on this subject, all of which are profoundly expressed in the opera “Dead Man Walking,” shortly to be presented in Pittsburgh.

The savage and heinous crime of the rape and murder of innocents is not ignored in the production; rather, it is fully revealed. The excruciating emotional pain experienced by the victims’ families is explored. Viewing this opera, you experience not only the journey of a death row inmate awaiting execution, but also the unimaginable journey undertaken by the family of two murdered teen-agers.

“Dead Man Walking” is an artistic work reflecting what occurs behind the scenes — away from the public eye — when collectively as a society, we execute a person.

Experiencing this opera took me to a deeper place. It is my sincerest hope that this will happen for others, too. I firmly believe art provides a channel for emotions and discoveries that we may not be able to access in other ways. So, please, join my congregation and me. There need be no argument or debate.

It is my hope that by listening and watching this opera we may share more than an exchange of words. Look for me at the Benedum Center in Pittsburgh this June. I’ll be the sister with the Louisiana accent, comfortable shoes and round glasses.

(Sister Helen Prejean is a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille. The Pittsburgh Opera production of “Dead Man Walking,” based on her book published in 1993, will make its local premiere from June 5 through 13. The opera follows the Academy Award-winning film of the same name.)

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