By George P. Matysek Jr.
Catholic News Service

BALTIMORE (CNS) – Standing beneath a large crucifix in the sanctuary of a Baltimore church, Sister Helen Prejean, internationally acclaimed death penalty abolitionist, stretched out her arms and intently fixed her gaze on the hundreds of people who filled the pews.

“The cross has become a symbol of the suffering caused by murderers and capital punishment in America,” the Sister of St. Joseph of Medaille told the crowd at St. Pius X Church.

“On the one arm of the cross are the murderer and the murderer’s family. On the other… are the victim and the victim’s family,” said Sister Helen, whose book inspired the movie “Dead Man Walking.”

Speaking with the nun at the church Sept. 20 were Chris Conover and Kirk Bloodsworth, whose death-row convictions were overturned when DNA testing exonerated them years after their murder conviction.

Sister Helen has firsthand experience “entering into the mystery” of the cross, she said. She was the spiritual adviser to Patrick Sonnier in Louisiana. She accompanied the convicted murderer to his execution by electrocution, which she recounts in her book, and later accompanied five more men to their deaths.

Sister Helen also founded Survive, a group that provides counseling and support for the grieving families of murder victims.

The time has come to help bring healing by abolishing the death penalty in America, Sister Helen said. Marylanders can take the lead by making their state one of the first in the country to do away with capital punishment since it was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1976, she said.

Last year, an effort to repeal the death penalty in Maryland and replace it with a sentence of life without parole failed to reach the Senate floor by just one vote. A similar measure, which has the backing of Maryland’s Catholic bishops, is expected to be introduced in the upcoming General Assembly.

Calling the death penalty nothing more than “legalized vengeance,” Sister Helen said the gift of being a Catholic is embracing the “seamless garment of life” – respecting the dignity of life from conception until natural death.

“We don’t cause life, so is it our job to take it away?” Sister Helen asked. “Is it our right to trust a human, fallible system of capital punishment to take it away?”

Sister Helen said she believed two of the men she accompanied to their deaths were innocent.

Since 1973, more than 120 men and women have been freed from death row after evidence demonstrated their innocence, according to Maryland Citizens Against State Executions.

Conover, a former parishioner of St. Pius X who received his first Communion there, stood in his hometown church and explained how he spent 18 years in prison for a double murder he didn’t commit. He was freed on the basis of DNA evidence.

Conover, who now lives in North Carolina, challenged those who support the death penalty to ask themselves if they are willing to let innocent people die in a flawed system.

Bloodsworth, an Eastern Shore native who was the first death-row inmate to be released as a result of DNA testing, told the audience that he and Conover are living reminders that innocent people will inevitably get swept up in the capital punishment net.

“If it can happen to an honorably discharged Marine like me, with no criminal record, it can happen to you,” said Bloodsworth.

In an interview with The Catholic Review, Baltimore’s archdiocesan newspaper, Sister Helen said Catholic attitudes about the death penalty are shifting. Recent polls showed that only 41 percent of young Catholics under age 30 support the death penalty, she said.

Sister Helen raised questions about how the death penalty is applied in Maryland, noting that all the people the state has executed and the five people currently on death row have killed white people.

“Eighty percent of the homicide victims of the people in Maryland are people of color,” said Sister Helen, who had breakfast with several Maryland lawmakers during her visit. “So why is it the death penalty is given only for those who kill white people? People are waking up to racism.”

Sister Helen said ending the death penalty isn’t about letting murderers off or making society unsafe. Quoting Pope John Paul II, she pointed out that prisons in modern society can safely keep convicted murderers off the streets.

“Even those who have committed terrible crimes have a dignity that must not be taken from them,” she said.