decries capital punishment
death penalty is a military solution to a social problem, says
Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking and one of the
country's foremost anti-death penalty activists.
target the enemy, you dehumanize the enemy, and you kill the enemy,"
she told an audience of approximately 200 in a Jan. 27 talk in
the Wilson Hall auditorium. "When we do that as a whole society,
what happens to us?"
an engaging and folksy manner, and with a honey-sweet Louisiana
drawl, Prejean described her journey from a self-described child
of privilege to Catholic nun to social activist and champion of
later addressed a larger audience at the Charlottesville Performing
all about putting your boat in a current," she said. "It's
like Woody Allen said: 90 percent of life is showing up."
own family's resources made everything possible for her, she said,
but also kept her from seeing the pain and struggle of poverty.
Even when she chose the life of a nun, joining the Sisters of
St. Joseph of Medaille in 1957, she remained sheltered. "My
ministry always took me into the suburbs," she said. "I
wasn't connected to poor people. Š I didn't get it about justice."
turning point, she said, was when she attended a talk given by
another nun, who stressed that those who have, have a duty to
share with the have-nots. "She said that Jesus preached good news
to the poor, and that integral to the good news that Jesus preached
is that they would be poor no longer.
you read the Gospels carefully, they are radical documents."
Prejean moved in 1981 into New Orleans' notorious St. Thomas housing
projects, an experience she described as being "like a boot
camp for me. Š It was like I'd gone to another country."
Drug dealing was commonplace, police brutality was accepted, and
after the all-too-frequent gunshots echoed through the complex,
mothers would all poke their heads out from behind their doors
to see if it was their children who had been shot this time. She
found that being a nun meant "more than just walking around,
being kind to people."
It was during that time that Prejean first began corresponding
with Patrick Sonnier, an inmate on Louisiana's death row. She
came to believe that the lives of the poor, and particularly those
of poor blacks, were not valued as highly by society as those
of the economically privileged, and found that the criminal justice
system embodied that attitude. She became Sonnier's spiritual
adviser, and has called his execution "a second baptism."
The moving book she wrote about the experience was nominated for
a Pulitzer Prize and made into an Oscar-winning movie starring
Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn.
conscious of Columbine because those were white kids in a white
school. How many drive-by shootings have there been since then?"
she said bluntly, then described a Louisiana case in which four
white teens dragged a young black girl into the woods and raped
and killed her. None of the four received the death penalty; two
did not receive life sentences.
is typical, she said, declaring that eight of every 10 people
on death row today were convicted of killing a white person.
also took issue with the argument that the death penalty deters
crime. She noted that the 38 states that have the death penalty
have roughly twice the homicide rate of the 12 that don't. "The
people who do the thinking aren't the people who do the killing,"
admits that when she first began to question the death penalty,
she had difficulty facing the families of the murder victims.
She acknowledges that most of the condemned committed horrific
crimes, and the victims' families have real pain that must be
acknowledged. Toward that end, she founded a support group for
victims' families. "Do you know what I found out? They're
alone, too," she said.
and relatives don't know how to comfort them, while prosecutors
fuel animosity toward the killers. Prejean recalled one family
that came out against the death penalty for the killer of their
child; friends questioned whether they loved her or not.
overlooked, Prejean said, is the family of the executed inmate
-- "another mother weeping for her child. Who's going to
comfort her? When we do the death penalty, we multiply the victims'
families." Plus, the parents of the condemned face an "added
stigma" of having produced a killer.
also took on those who use the Bible to justify execution. While
Mosaic law from the Old Testament specifies death for murderers,
it also lists 36 other capital offenses, many of which in our
society are now misdemeanors. Though some still quote the Old
Testament passages in support of capital punishment, no one seriously
argues for executing livestock thieves or adulterers, she said.
"You can be selective when you quote the Bible."
she argued that execution is cruel and unusual punishment, far
from the seemingly clean and sterile "lethal injection"
administered under medical supervision. Living under a death sentence
for 10 or 15 years is agonizing, she said. "The reason you
can't take torture out of the death penalty is that you can't
take consciousness out of human beings. Human beings imagine death,
anticipate death and die a thousand deaths before their time has
"Who can say that's not torture?"