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Author-nun decries capital punishment

By Dan Heuchert

The 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.

Stephanie Gross
Sister Helen Prejean

"You 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?"

In 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 the poor.

Prejean later addressed a larger audience at the Charlottesville Performing Arts Center.

"It's all about putting your boat in a current," she said. "It's like Woody Allen said: 90 percent of life is showing up."

Her 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. I didn't get it about justice."

The 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.

"If you read the Gospels carefully, they are radical documents."

Inspired, Prejean moved in 1981 into New Orleans' notorious St. Thomas housing projects, an experience she described as being "like a boot camp for me. 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.

"Everybody's 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.

That is typical, she said, declaring that eight of every 10 people on death row today were convicted of killing a white person.

She 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," she said.

Prejean 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.

Friends 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.

Often 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.

Prejean 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."

Finally, 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 come.

"Who can say that's not torture?"



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