On September 9, 2003, at the conference “War and Peace: Faiths and Cultures in Dialogue” in Aachen, Germany, Sister Helen delivered a speech, “The Abolition of the Death Penalty: A Target for the XXI Century.” The conference is sponsored by The Community of Sant’Egido which is a movement dedicated to evangelization and works of social justice, in Rome, Italy and in more than 60 countries throughout the world.
I would like to begin my remarks by honoring the spiritual legacy of Reverent Tairu Furukawa. This holy man was a presenter with me at the peace conference in Bucharest in 1998. He spent 40 years of his life working to end the death penalty in Japan and to free two innocent men from death row there. Since Rev. Furukawa’s death, his son Ryuji and daughter, Sayuri, who are with us today, steadfastly continue their father’s campaign for life, a campaign I collaborate in every chance I get. I have accompanied five persons to their deaths in the killing chambers of the U.S.- four in Louisiana and one in Virginia - three in the electric chair, two by lethal injection. Witnessing these premeditated killings has transformed my life, changing me from someone passive and compliant with state killing to a passionate abolitionist. For twenty years now I have devoted the energies of my life to educating people about the death penalty. I serve as chairperson of The Moratorium Campaign in the U.S. and collaborate closely with Amnesty International and other organizations working for abolition. I have been working in partnership with San Egidio to gather signatures for a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty. Mario Marazziti, here today on this panel, has shown great leadership in this worldwide campaign. When in December 2001 we presented three and a half million moratorium signatures to Kofi Annan at the U.N., the community of San Egidio could take credit for having collected most of the signatures.
The moratorium movement is growing in the U.S., although much slower than in European countries and much of the rest of the world. In the U.S. we have a lot more work to do to change minds and hearts about the death penalty largely because most people in the U.S. know very little about the actual practice of the death penalty and do not reflect deeply on its moral implications. Since the early 1980’s, U.S. politicians have seized on the death penalty as a symbol of being “tough on crime” and so-called “justice” for victims’ families. Politics in the U.S. has reached an abysmally low level at the current time; and so we have on our hands politicians driven by expediency rather than by moral principles.
But presently there are hopeful signs that among the American people a new consciousness about the death penalty is dawning. Because of the huge number of wrongfully convicted people freed from death row – 111 at present and growing - many Americans have begun to have doubts about the death penalty. For most citizens it is morally unconscionable to think that innocent people are being put to death along with the guilty.
Within the last two years there has been a steady stream of City Council resolutions, newspaper editorials, and initiatives from faith organizations, particularly Catholic bishops and Catholic social justice groups, calling for a moratorium on the death penalty. My fellow nuns in America are particularly active in visiting prisons and working to end the death penalty. Many churches and chapels across America toll bells whenever an execution takes place in their state. The witness of Illinois Governor George Ryan, a former pro-death penalty supporter, who became so disturbed by the large number of wrongful convictions on Illinois’ death row, that he overturned the death sentences of 167 men, is unprecedented and has had a powerful impact. Since the death penalty was reinstated in the U.S. we have lethally injected, electrocuted, gassed, hung, and shot more than 850 persons, especially in Southern states, which account for 85% of the total number of executions. Presently 3500 other persons sit in death row cells awaiting death at the hands of the government. But perhaps the most hopeful sign is the fact that since the recent awareness of the terribly flawed system, the actual number of executions taking place and new death sentences has dropped by half. The first concrete sign that a moratorium is beginning to happen is that, even though the law has not yet been changed, citizens refuse to impose death sentences. At last that trend is beginning in the U.S.
In my work I try to embody the healing work of Jesus by reaching out to death row inmates and to murder victims’ families. It is not always easy reaching out to both sides, and sometimes victims’ families shun me because they cannot bear the thought that I as spiritual advisor would show respect or compassion to those who have murdered their loved one. In their grief and confusion, some families buy into the retributive “eye for an eye” justice that our government offers them. Of all the countries in the world that practice the death penalty, U. S. politicians are unique in their claim that they support the death penalty for the sake of victims’ families, that the death of perpetrators will help heal these suffering families. I think politicians make this this claim because they are hard-pressed to find legitimate reasons for supporting the death penalty. By now most people, even police chiefs, recognize that the death penalty does not deter crime. Part of my job in educating people about the death penalty is to inform them of the extremely tiny percentage of murderers who actually get a death sentence. Only 2% or less of the perpetrators of the 15, 000 yearly homicides are given the death penalty, and, of these, a much smaller percentage are actually executed. Now, after almost 25 years of practice, it has become abundantly clear that, despite the so-called neutrality in death penalty laws and the guidelines from the Supreme Court, which are supposed to assure that the death penalty is imposed fairly, in practice, the punishment of death is overwhelmingly imposed on poor people and especially on poor people who kill white people. When people of color are killed in the U.S., the death penalty is rarely sought. It is a sad fact of our racist history that white life has always been more highly prized than the lives of people of color. This has its roots in genocidal acts against Native Americans in the beginning of our history and in the practice of slavery, whose legacy continues to infect us today, especially in our criminal justice system. When we look at the geographic concentration of the practice of the death penalty in the U.S., we see that the same states that practiced slavery and lynchings and strict segregation are the same states that carry out over 80% of the executions. By way of contrast, states in the Northeast of the U.S. account for only one percent of executions. The wide disparity in geographical distribution of executions raises a legitimate, very disturbing constitutional question: how can a country, which claims to grant its citizens “equal justice under law” tolerate such a blatantly discriminatory system of imposing death.
When I witnessed the killing of Patrick Sonnier in Louisiana’s electric chair on April 5, 1984, I left the execution chamber traumatized. Driving home afterwards we had to stop the car because I had to vomit. I could hardly believe that I had just witnessed my state government killing a human being in such a deliberate and calculated protocol of death. I realized that very few people were ever going to be allowed to witness what I had witnessed, and from that moment, my mission was born. I had been a witness so I must tell the story, I must be the one to take people on the spiritual journey I had taken so they could be brought face to face with government killing. In taking people on this journey from vengeance to compassion, I am careful to bring them over to both sides of the issue: the suffering of the victims’ family and their search for healing on one side and the suffering of the condemned and his or her family on the other. I compare the two sides of the death penalty to the two arms on the cross, on which Jesus was crucified, and on this cruciform template I wrote Dead Man Walking, which was published in 1993. I know that what we must do to abolish the death penalty is to get people to reflect on the issue, and the only way to do that is to have massive public discourse. So, I rejoiced when Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon translated my story into a feature film, which was distributed in U.S. theaters in January 1996; and, after Susan Sarandon got an oscar at the Academy Awards, the film rapidly made its way around the world. In the year 2000 in San Francisco the operatic version of Dead Man Walking premiered, and is now traveling to cities in the U.S., even to cities in Texas, the execution capital of the U.S.. Just a few weeks ago the opera had had its first international venue in Adelaide, Australia. Opera is particularly powerful as an art form because it utilizes fully the power of both live drama and music, taking its audiences on an incredible spiritual journey. At the end of the opera the audience comes as close as they will ever come to witnessing an actual execution, which in the opera is carried out in silence. Presently Tim Robbins is working to produce the play of Dead Man Walking, which will allow it to be performed by community and university theaters, thus expanding public discourse exponentially. The wider the circle of discourse, the deeper the reflection; the deeper the reflection, the quicker we end government killing.
What’s important in the educational process is that we help people recognize the human face even of those who have done terrible crimes. In helping people navigate their way through the issue of the death penalty, we must help people deal with the feelings of outrage they feel when terrible crimes are committed. In fact, we want to legitimize those feelings of outrage as morally legitimate feelings. Who can help but feel outrage when innocent human life has been wantonly violated? We must help people to get past the visceral response of an “eye for an eye” vengeance. Transforming hatred of an enemy into compassion is what lies at the spiritual core of all religions. Certainly it is the energizing heart of the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Deep at the core of every religion is the belief in the sacredness of all life, the dignity that each being possesses, and that every human being is made in the image and likeness of God and possesses an inviolable dignity. And following the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Pope John XXIII’s encyclical, Pacem in Terris, we hold that this dignity belongs not only to the innocent but also to those guilty of terrible crimes. Our deepest spiritual traditions teach us that no human being should be killed or tortured, no matter what crime they have committed. As Amnesty International puts it: human rights are inalienable; which means such rights cannot be alienated or separated from human beings. They cannot be bestowed by governments on people for good behavior, nor taken away from people by governments for bad behavior. From this it follows that the killing of human beings by governements can never be tolerated. New realization about these inalienable human rights is what has spurred on the dramatic disuse of government executions in the majority of nations in the world.
The death penalty is not a peripheral moral issue; it is the core paradigm of all forms of government killing. The basic components of the paradigm are: target an enemy, dehumanize the enemy, and kill the enemy. This applies to “street criminals” for domestic crimes and in U.S. foreign policy to Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein and endless other enemies around the world. It is military thinking, which knows only how to use violence to solve human problems. In this paradigm, demonizing the enemy is important because if we put a human face on the enemy it becomes impossible to kill him or her. And demonizing the enemy means elevating outselves to a higher dimension of morality. We are good; the enemy is bad. Without such dualisms the paradigm cannot function. President Bush recently framed the violence happening around the U.S. occupation of Iraq as a war between “civilization” (the United States) and “chaos,” (“terrorists”). As the saying goes, when presented with a nail, a hammer knows how to do only one thing.
To further public discourse on the death penalty I am presently writing another book, tentatively entitled The Machinery of Death. In it I tell the stories of two innocent men whom I accompanied to execution: Dobie Williams in Louisiana and Joseph O’Dell in Virginia. U.S. courts legally upheld these deaths, but the readers, learning of the ingregious injustices done these men during their trials, will be outraged when they read this book. This is healthy outrage because it is outrage at injustice. And, please God, these stories and the analogy of the system which they provoke, will add even further momentum to public discourse and debate on the death penalty. In this relentless discourse lies the hope and promise of ending the practice of the death penalty in the 21st Century. To this I give my life, and, in the spirit of Rev. Furukawa, Martin Luther King, and Mohatma Gandhi, I urge you to continue giving your life. It is a privilege to participate in such sacred, life-giving work. Thank you for your presence here today and for the work of your hands to further peace in our world.