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BTL: US Campaign To Abolish The Death Penalty

Between the Lines Q&A
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release April 25, 2005

Sister Helen Prejean Recounts How She Became a Leader of the U.S. Campaign to Abolish the Death Penalty

Excerpts of a speech by Sister Helen Prejean, death penalty opponent, produced by Melinda Tuhus

Listen in RealAudio:

Sister Helen Prejean is one of the country's best-known and most passionate opponents of the death penalty. She has been speaking out since the early 1980s, when she accompanied convicted murderer Patrick Sonnier to his execution by electrocution. She wrote the book "Dead Man Walking" about her experience, which later became an Academy Award-winning movie with Susan Sarandon playing Prejean in the leading role.

Sister Prejean spoke earlier this month at Yale University's Catholic chapel, where she made reference to Connecticut's death penalty law which was recently challenged and debated in the state legislature, though the law authorizing execution by lethal injection was not abolished. Serial rapist and murderer Michael Ross will be executed in Connecticut on May 11 unless a federal judge rules in the next few weeks that he was incompetent to waive his remaining appeals and choose to die. This would mark the first execution in all of New England in 45 years.

Sister Prejean's talk at Yale followed a recent report in Britain's top medical journal, The Lancet, which argued that some prisoners executed by lethal injection may feel extreme pain because they are improperly sedated as they are put to death.

Sister Helen Prejean: When I came out of the execution chamber on the night of April 5, 1984, I had just watched a man be put to death in front of my eyes -- Patrick Sonnier. I had been asked to write letters to him, when I began working among people in the inner city, and I really thought all I was ever gonna do was write letters. So much for the sneakiness of God, Part One. I never dreamed Louisiana was going to kill him. It was 1982 -- we hadn’t killed anyone since the '60s. The whole country had had a moratorium on the death penalty. I thought I was only going to be writing letters. And then I accompanied him, and found myself, as he said to me right before he was to be electrocuted to death in the electric chair, saying to me, “No, Sister Helen, you can’t be there at the end, because it could scar you, psychologically, to see this. Just pray that God holds up my legs.” And I found myself saying to him, in a very strong voice, I knew what I spoke of when I said this, “No, Pat, there’s no way you’re going to die alone without a loving face to see. You look at me, when they do this, Pat, you look at me, and I’ll be the face of love, I’ll be the face of Christ for you.” And right before they put the mask on him -- the mask, when they electrocute someone, is to protect the witnesses, so they can’t see what happens to a human face when 1,900 volts of electricity would be passed through his body -- he caught my eye, there with the witnesses. And I carry his face inside me.

I walked out, it was the middle of the night, having just watched someone who was alive and was talking to me, and then who was walked down the hall and was killed. And I threw up. And I remember thinking -- it was dark -- the polls in Louisiana all said everybody thought the death penalty was a fine idea. I had been drawn in as a witness, and I remember thinking, “You know, the people of Louisiana are never going to see this.” It’s almost a secret ritual. The politicians talk about it, and it gets in the media. But seeing it, witnessing what we say we want, was never going to be given to the American people. I thought that at that moment, and I’ve followed it ever since -- I’ve been the witness, I’ve got to be the one to bring people close to this, and to talk about the death penalty. And I began to do that right after -- anybody who would talk, or wanted to hear me talk. If you put me on Google, I’m known as the death penalty nun. That’s how you draw me up on Google.

Christianity stretches us. Cultural Christianity, Christianity lite -- just say an eye for an eye, and you’re in there with all the rest, and for the death penalty, right? You don’t have to reflect, you don’t have to dig, you don’t have to deal with this huge ambivalence that most of us struggle with over the death penalty. The outrage over the death of innocent people that we hear about, and then the part of our hearts that knows you can barely trust the government to fill the potholes, right? Much less have a system whereby we’re going to select who lives and who dies in our state? Please. The only reason you in Connecticut are faced with the death penalty is because you have somebody who wants the state to help him end his own life because he’s had enough of it.

There’s none of us that touch the death penalty that we don’t get tainted by it. And now the moral question for us is what happens to us as a society, as we go about implementing in social policy and teaching our children that killing people is the way we deal with social problems. To think that we’ve come to a point in this society that we actually say -- and the language of the Supreme Court of the United States when they put the death penalty back in the Gregg decision -- has language that says, “Executions are not against the dignity of the human person, even though life in prison is available, and there are some crimes so outrageous that only death will suffice.” What kind of language is that?

To have politicians or prosecutors say, to the victims’ families who are undergoing grief and confusion and loss and outrage, “We’re going to heal you. We’re going to offer you something in this society. We’re going to go for the death penalty, because that’s the only way we really show honor and respect for your dead loved one.” And you hear language, sometimes, at trial, “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, we so respect life in this society, and look, this poor woman has been killed, and look her parents are sitting there -- look at their grief. They’ll never see their daughter graduate from college; they’ll never see their grandchildren. The way that we show respect for life, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is, I want you to stiffen your backbone, bite the bullet, and do the tough thing, which is to give the death penalty.” And then to promise to the victim’s family, “Now, you wait, ten, 15, 17 years, and we’ll summon you one day, and sit in the front row, and you watch as we kill the one who killed your loved one, and that will heal your heart, that will give dignity to your loved one who has been lost. That will honor their life.” And people like Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, for human rights in this country, stand before us, they come to judicial hearings at state legislatures, and they say, “Don’t kill for me. Don’t say we’re going to honor the life of my loved one, by now, you, the state, going through this protocol, pre-meditated death of a human being.”

For more information on Sister Prejean's campaign against the death penalty, call (504) 948-6557 or visit her website at Prejean's talk was recorded and produced by Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus.

Related links at :

The Death Penalty Information Center Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation

Melinda Tuhus is a producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 35 radio stations and in RealAudio and MP3 on our website at This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines for the week ending April 29, 2005. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Melinda Tuhus and Anna Manzo.



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