27 Feb 2021

Sister Helen Prejean: Fighting to end the death penalty

From Saturday Morning, 8:10 am on 27 February 2021

81-year-old Roman Catholic Sister Helen Prejean is a leading American advocate for the abolition of the death penalty, and a spiritual adviser to men and women on Death Row.

The New Orleans-based Roman Catholic sister is best known as the author of Dead Man Walking, which was made into a film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn.

In her most recent book, A River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey, she says praying for justice is not the same as acting for it.

Sister Helen Prejean

Sister Helen Prejean Photo: supplied / Scott Langley Photography

She is also the subject of a recent documentary, Sister.

Sister Prejean tells Kim Hill that William Barr and Donald Trump’s decision to reinstate the federal death penalty in the United States killed 13 people and sparked fierce debate.

“This was after 17 years where there had been no federal executions and suddenly, because [Trump] had the discretionary power to kill, he did. And he killed 13 people in the last six months of his presidency.

“What it showed and ignited was, how can you have this power over life and death in the hands of individuals like Trump.”

Trump’s decision to reinstate the federal death penalty contrasted with movements at the state level where the death penalty is being shut down one by one, the last of which was Virginia.

“It’s the first ex-Confederacy state which for 414 years executed people and they have just shut the death penalty down. So, while the death penalty is being shut down by the people at the state level, Trump’s killing spree really laid bare the fault line that’s been in the Supreme Court decision from the beginning which said ‘only the worst of the worst’.

“Nobody knows what that means so it leaves the discretion solely up to prosecutors to pursue death or not.”

Sister Prejean says that, at the state level, fewer prosecutors are going for the death penalty because they’re aware that people don’t view execution favourably in the current climate.

Part of the reason for that is Sister Prejean’s book Dead Man Walking. She says she wanted people to get an inside look at what really happens when a person receives the death sentence and be morally outraged that it can happen, particularly to innocent people.

“There are now 185 wrongfully convicted people who managed, with luck and the grace of God, to get off death row and it’s astounding the number of mistakes. For every eight executions that happen in this country, one person has had to be released because we made a mistake.”

Sister Prejean has accompanied six men through the process and right up to their execution and is now accompanying the seventh. She says most people who receive the death penalty are poor, black, and have committed a crime in a majority white area. Due to their lack of money, the legal defence they receive is lacklustre and they often fail on appeals.

“There’s a huge number of constitutional protections you’re supposed to have, a jury of your peers, due process of the law, the resources for a good attorney at your side, all that.”

She says 95 percent of executions happen in former slave states.

“Guess how ‘worst of the worst’ gets interpreted by prosecutors in the deep south when they’re going for the death penalty. It’s always ‘did you kill a white person or not’. It’s not across the whole United States but it’s very prominent in the deep south where they’re embedded with systemic racism.”

The first man Sister Prejean accompanied as a spiritual adviser was Elmo Patrick Sonnier who faced execution with an electric chair. She says that she vomited after seeing him executed.

“No religious leaders protested the killing that night, but I was there. I saw it with my own eyes and what I saw set my soul on fire, a fire that burns in me still… my mission began in those early morning hours.

“For most people, the death penalty is an issue that’s just out there and they don’t reflect on it very deeply. They hear about a terrible crime and say, 'that person deserves to be executed'. But I knew if we could bring people close and educate them, we’d shut the death penalty down.”

She says that even whether you believe someone deserves to die, we need to ask who deserves to kill.

“In Dead Man Walking I told the story of the guards who have to do the killing and what happens to them, the wardens and what happens to them when they do the killing for us.”

Sister Prejean says it was important to not downplay the horrific crime involving rape and murder Sonnier and his brother committed and it makes up the first ten pages of her book. From there, she had to show that despite what they had done, he should not have got the death penalty.

“That’s the starting point of the journey. We have to stand squarely and look at the outrage of the killing of innocent human beings, and then we have to make our way from there."