At 67, Sister Helen Prejean is still a woman on fire. Her 1993 book “Dead Man Walking,” which chronicled the Catholic nun's counseling of a convicted killer on Louisiana's Death Row and her witnessing his execution, excoriated capital punishment as an act of barbarism, became a best-seller and was later made into the movie of the same name starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. Her writing made her an international figure as well as one of the nation's leading death penalty critics, but she didn't stop there. In late 2004, after witnessing several more executions, Prejean published “The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions.” The book concludes that the death penalty, in any form, is not only unjust, but totally unworkable.
On Friday, Prejean will arrive in Pasadena to lead All Saints Church's three-day Festival of Life 2007, a series of discussions and workshops dedicated to reform of the justice system as well as cultivating personal practices to promote a more equitable world. For more information, visit www.allsaints-pas.org.
Prejean spoke to the Weekly Monday from her home in New Orleans.
— Joe Piasecki
PW: How have things changed in terms of the death penalty since “Dead Man Walking”?
Prejean: This past year, 2006, was really a turning point. It's the first time that when people were asked [in a national Gallup poll] if they prefer the death penalty or life without parole, more people said life without parole. Executions are the lowest they've been since we put the death penalty back [in 1977].
What we're also more clear about are regional disparities. It's becoming so clear that the states that practiced slavery are the ones who do over 80 percent of the actual executions. California is rife with political significance. You have over 650 people on Death Row and you have executed, how many, 13? On average, people on Death Row in California are there for 20 years before you take them out and kill them. What's going on there? The biggest death row in the country and yet you really seem reluctant to kill people. I really think it's because you put the legal machinery in place with decent defense or appeals courts that you've actually blocked yourself from carrying it out, though politicians get points for being for it, from Schwarzenegger on down.
What do you think of Gov. Schwarzenegger? He's overseen three executions, blocked funding to groups that investigate wrongful convictions…
He's an ideologue. Whenever he is speaking, as [actor and activist] Mike Farrell has said, there's an institutional imperative never to be wrong. That ideology — we have the best court system in the world, all these people claim their innocent — means they have no feeling for, compassion for [people], or understanding of the system, nor do they want it. So whenever I hear him talk, I know he's just saying his lines.
Our state Legislature was unable to pass a bill last year that would have stopped executions until a special state commission completed a study of how the death penalty is administered.
That means one thing to me. It means that politicians in California haven't yet gotten the signal that it's not going to be being for the death penalty or not that's going to determine their election. They have no political impetus to stop it, to look at it because so far it's been working fine for them. There's only one way to change that, and that's for the people of California to weigh in to those legislators, and they could do it on cost alone. It's extremely expensive to keep this death machinery in place that you barely ever use, and you just start laying out alternatives to what you could do with all those millions of dollars. Martin Luther King said the most moral document you'll ever look at is a budget. We're spending our resources for political symbolism. So we have to translate it for people and show how it can be parlayed over into life projects that could make a difference for people.
You said earlier that former slave states perform most executions?
It's pretty clear. When you go back and look at the history, what happened is that when slaves were freed, like in Virginia and Louisiana, African-American people were the majority of the population. Terribly threatened by that was all the white people. And don't think this only happened during the slavery time. They did a study within the last six years that showed states that have a significant population of black people, enough to threaten white people, those are the states that have the harshest penal code and tend to practice the death penalty.
And what you always have to look at is climate, and in the Southern states you get political points not only for getting the death penalty, but at times almost outright bragging about it, or using it as a campaign issue. Here in Louisiana, we have two district attorneys that were taking people out for a celebratory meal whenever they got a death sentence. District attorneys have been known to give each other little backroom awards, though they don't show them publicly. They call them the Prick Awards. They show the state bird, the pelican, flying with a hypodermic needle in their talon. When you're talking about climate, the rudder which is supposed to give equal justice under law can't work. Prejudice has taken over. Even in California, you check and see who's on death row and eight out of ten times it's because they killed a white person. Race plays so much into it.
You've witnessed six executions. Your second book details two of them, both of them men you thought were innocent. What allows this?
When you have court-appointed attorneys or overworked, underpaid lawyers, what happens is you don't have an adversarial system at trial of coming to truth, and what happens is the truth is not told. Innocent people go in with the guilty. This is inevitable.
But it's not just what happens in trial, it's also what happens in the court system. If your lawyer is inadequate and does not raise formal objections to what happens in your trial, then you are deprived of that as a constitutional issue to present to the federal appeals court. You can't talk about the merits of the case. You know what it reminds me of? They said black people could vote, then when they would go to vote, ‘Here's a little civics test.' They set up these bars that kept people from being able to practice their constitutional rights as Americans.
Actually watching these executions had to be difficult on so many levels.
Tiles are polished. Everybody's following the protocol. People are even polite, like a hospital, and it's so hard to get your mind around that they're going to kill this person.
I'm with people in that ordeal, and in that passage. I'm totally focused on them. And then afterwards you're going, ‘My God. They killed him.' With Pat Sonnier — he was the first — it was the middle of the night; he was electrocuted, I came out and threw up. I promise each of them I'm going to tell your story until we shut this thing down, and perhaps your death can be redemptive for other people.
Victims groups are often the most vocal proponents of the death penalty and other tough-on-crime legislation. Yet you not only counsel inmates on death row, you've founded a crime victims' advocacy group. Has there been any resistance to that group because of your interaction with convicted killers?
More and more of these families who have lost their loved ones are coming to see the death penalty re-victimizes them. The subtext is this is the way we honor your dead loved one, that if we don't seek the ultimate penalty we're dishonoring them. It's going to give you closure, and the catch-all word is it's going to give you justice. More and more victims are saying that dishonors us and puts us in this holding pattern with this illusory promise. But, culturally, this is the way we show our ultimate love. We ask for ultimate penalty. You imitate the hurt. You make people pay with their lives, and their families pay with them. It's a horrible downward spiral that destroys the social fabric rather than restores it.