Busted: Sr. Helen Prejean

BustedHalo talks with the real-life nun behind Dead Man Walking about her newest book The Death of Innocents

BH: In Dead Man Walking You tell the story about Pat Sonnier and his brother, what they did. The graphic details, these are the only details the public hears. At the beginning of this new book, you talk about how the stories will break your heart. How difficult was it for you to write about this?

HP: Media feeds on drama. What’s the greatest drama? The death of a human being. That’s why on the nightly news no matter what peaceful things happen, they draw out all the acts of violence. And when there’s going to be an execution, the person about to die, all the graphic details, the murder victims’ families, then they have the full drama. Spirituality is always about getting underneath to get into the deeper story. The gospel of Jesus is about we are all brothers and sisters. No one, no matter who they are or what they have done, can be cut from the web of life, we are all family, to love as Jesus loves us.

Christianity in the United States has become Americanized. We say, ‘this is tough love,’ we try to use the same categories, but we change it in its substance, like an eye for an eye. What many of our politicians do, to legitimize the death penalty, they say the reason for the death penalty is… look at the suffering of those victims, look at the mother and father sitting there, they’re never going to see their daughter… the way we’re going to show respect for life, is that we’re going to ask the ultimate penalty, only a death will do, and that’s how we’re going to honor the victims’ families.

“I understand why the death penalty is such a controversial issue. All of us struggle inside ourselves when we hear about the death of an innocent person who?s been violently killed. That outrage is justified. Outrage is a sign of moral decency. We should
be outraged. But it’s what we do with that outrage.”

This same kind of language has been used by the Supreme Court of the United States, they have refused to acknowledge that, even though life without parole is possible, they are disrespecting the dignity of a person. They actually have a statement that you can uphold the dignity of the person, even as you execute them. The language fills the courts, the political rhetoric for the death penalty, that we need the death penalty, if we don’t ask for the ultimate penalty of life, then we are dishonoring the victim. Think of it, How morally bankrupt we are as a society that we will say to a victim’s family who has lost someone to violence. Summon them fifteen to twenty years later to witness the death of the person who killed your loved one…that will heal you. That’s supposed to restore justice to a community and that’s what we need to do as a society? It would give you closure because this person would be dead too? One woman whose loved one was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing said “You close on a house, you never close on the death of your child. You can heal, you can cope. Close, like you close the chapter of a book… no.”

I end my new book with Bud Welch [father of one of the victims in the Oklahoma City bombing who has now become an activist in the fight to abolish the death penalty]. He says, “Most of the victims’ families, when it came to the execution of Timothy McVeigh figured they didn’t have to go his execution. They figured out that whatever happened, if he were executed, or given 168 life sentences and disappeared behind prison walls, their spiritual task was to deal with [their own loss]. They had lost a loved one who was unique and irreplaceable and that’s what they had to deal with. The rest was diversionary.”

I understand why the death penalty is such a controversial issue. All of us struggle inside ourselves when we hear about the death of an innocent person who’s been violently killed. That outrage is justified. Outrage is a sign of moral decency. We should be outraged. But it’s what we do with that outrage.

BH: In your new book The Death of Innocents, we see some of that outrage. You especially reach out to those who experience fierce ambivalence about the death penalty and to young people.

HP: Our culture has been telling us you have to choose sides. The way of Jesus is to stand with the dignity of life on both sides. Never condone the crime, but at the same time, do not allow the state to legalize vengeance and imitate the violence. To young Catholics I say, you have to dig in to the question of what pro-life really means. What does it mean to care for all of life? And it’s important not only to dig into the faith issues of the death penalty but also the constitutional issues. As you see what is going on in our courts, may you be impassioned to devote your lives to soul-size work. I hope what you learn from this book sets you on fire.

BH: What is your sense of the future of the Catholic Church?

HP: There have always been institutional sins and scandals. Just try to be faithful to the gospel of Jesus. For me, the true Church is the Eucharist, my faith community, St. Gabriel’s Church in New Orleans, and my religious community, the Sisters of St. Joseph, all have a connection to justice. The closer we are to the poor and the struggle for justice, the more we keep the gospel of Jesus alive and become a true Church. The litmus test is how we identify with the suffering people of society. If there’s one thing we know about faith, it’s like a river. It moves. It’s alive. That’s why I constantly awaken to the gospel of Jesus and the call to be on the side of the outcasts and the poor.

In The Death of Innocents, Sister Helen takes up the case of death row inmates Dobie Gillis Williams and Joseph Roger O’Dell, both of whom she believes were put to death despite their innocence. She blames a court system that is guided by, among other things, race, poverty and politics in determining who lives and who dies. There is hope. Support for the death penalty is its lowest in 25 years. A 2004 Gallup poll shows 64-percent of Americans support capital punishment, compared to 78-percent a decade ago. Among Catholics, a 2004 Zogby poll shows less than half (48-percent) favor the death penalty. Support for capital punishment shrinks even more when people are given a chance to choose between death and life without parole combined with restitution for victims’ families.

Since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976, more than 100 people on death row have been found to be innocent, with some just hours away from execution. In 2003, then-Illinois Governor George Ryan granted clemency to all 167 of the state’s death row inmates and issued a moratorium on executions after finding a system that has “proven so fraught with error.” DNA technology and the findings of so-called “innocence projects” staffed mainly by pro-bono attorneys and college students also rekindled the nation’s debate on capital punishment. Death rows across the country are also seeing change. For the first time in 30 years, the Justice Department reports a decrease in the number of persons on death row, a number that has fallen consistently for several years.

But for Sister Helen Prejean, change is not coming fast enough. She is now spiritual advisor and the face of hope for Manuel Ortiz of El Salvador, a death row inmate in Louisiana.

Death of Innocents by Sister Helen Prejean is now available in paperback (Vintage Books). For more information, log on to www.deathofinnocents.net.