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Sr Helen Prejean Sr Helen Prejean   (Scott Langley Photography)

‘Dead Man Walking’ nun deplores resumption of US federal executions

Federal executions resume in the US as the Covid-19 pandemic lays bare serious structural inequalities of the American judicial system. Anti-death penalty activist, Sr Helen Prejean, reiterates it is time to end the suffering.

By Linda Bordoni

The U.S. Justice Department has set 26 August as the execution date for Lezmond Mitchell, who is scheduled to be put to death in the same week as Keith Dwayne Nelson.

Three other people have been executed over the course of four days in July after the US Supreme Court cleared the way for federal executions after a 17-year moratorium.

This is more than the United States has put to death in half a century. Analysts point out that the controversial decision represents an intrusion by the federal government into matters the states and cities normally handle. They say it is a decision taken despite a series of legal concerns including reservations regarding medical precautions and the opposition of family members of the executed prisoners’ victims.

Sr Helen Prejean CSJ has dedicated her life and ministry to the fight for justice for the men she continues to accompany in death row and to changing hearts and minds in the struggle against capital punishment.  

Internationally known for her best-selling book, that became an Oscar-winning film, Dead Man Walking, Sr Helen told Vatican Radio’s Linda Bordoni that injustice is deeply embedded in the United States’ judicial system.

Listen to Sr Helen Prejean CSJ

The fact, Sr Helen, says, that the Supreme Court’s decision to resume federal executions at a time in which people around the country are demanding justice, equality and accountability, highlights the intrinsic injustice in the system.

She explains that, back in 1976, the Supreme Court defined the criteria according to which a person was deemed "worthy" of death: “it was only the worst of the worst murderers who would be selected,” she says, “and it has proved to be an impossible criterion, because it means that out of all the murders that happen, you were going to select what you call the ‘the worst of the worst’ by the nature of the crime itself, and also by the character of the person.”


This criteria, she says, is based on the belief that “a person is so evil, they can't be redeemed. And so we must kill them”. 

Sr Helen notes that the resumption of federal executions reveals the “deep weakness” in the application of the death penalty because it rests on a prosecutor to determine that he or she is “going to seek death, and to seek it relentlessly.” 

In 17 years, she says, "we haven't had federal prosecutors who want death, and the American people realize the death penalty serves no purpose". What's more, she notes, is has also come to be undertood it is not even helpful for the healing process of the victims’ families.

Cultural legacy

Sr Helen points out the arbitrariness of a system, that depends on the will of individual prosecutors, is underscored also by other kinds of injustice and cultural legacies.

She remarks how the southern states, with their history and legacy of slavery and racism, is where over 75% of executions take place.

This, she says, is a direct result of a certain kind of culture as is witnessed by the fact that a disproportionate number of people of colour are selected for federal executions.

No possibility of redemption

Sr Helen spoke passionately about the suffering entwined in the whole death penalty process and its total lack of the Christian perspective of redemption.

“I have accompanied six human beings to execution. Six! And watched this process of the killing of a human being… and what is so sad about it and so against our Catholic faith, our belief in Jesus and the Gospel, is that it is based on the premise ‘This is an evil person who cannot be redeemed’. According to the criteria we have set, there is no hope, no matter how a person changes."

She reveals that the last man put to death this month, Dustin Lee Honken, quoted the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins as he uttered his last words: “I seek a place of safety and love”. 

He was a redeemed man, she says. He had killed, but “he was sorry for his actions. He learned to love everybody around him.” 

“The man they killed was not the man who had committed the terrible crime. People grow,” she says. The arrogance of the death penalty is: “God has finished with you and we have decided that you must die.”

What the eyes can’t see the heart can’t feel

Sr Helen says the reason she wrote Dead Man Walking and all her other books was to enable people to gain awareness and feel what was happening.

According to a Latin American saying, she says, “What the eyes don’t see the heart can’t feel.” So, her books aim to "bring people close." 

She says her second book, The Death of Innocents”,  is about the plight of so many innocent people who do not receive a fair trial and end up being killed because the truth never came to light.

“We’ve had 168 wrongfully convicted people sent to death row, " she said. "Some of them for 30 years before they could finally get the break" and a good lawyer upholding the evidence to prove that they were innocent. 

Following Jesus's way

Sr Helen speaks of how important it has been that the Catholic Church has taken a principled stand, and of the step taken in May 2018 by Pope Francis when he updated the teaching in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "that under no circumstances can the death penalty be allowed."

It’s a struggle that continues, Sr Helen says. “This is why I just wrote this book River of Fire about how it took me a long time to wake up, to be a Christian, to follow Jesus.”

“I've always tried to follow the way of Jesus, but this also meant to recognize the racism in our system, the injustice and to roll up my sleeves and to get involved."

"I was hungry and you not only gave me to eat, but you visited me and critically analyzed the system that has overwhelmingly put so many people of colour, and only poor people in prison."

For me, she continues, it meant embracing the cause against the death penalty. God, she says, intends for us to use our intellect, as well as our heart and emotions and our deep spiritual ideals:

“I finally awakened to that. It’s what River of Fire is about, about the awakening.”  

Right now, Sr Helen, points out, “we are in the midst of a pandemic in which we have lost more people than those who were killed in the Civil War, when the Confederacy in the South fought against the Union.”

And in the prisons, she concluded, hundreds of inmates (and officers) are being infected and are simply waiting to die in their cells: 

“So where is the leadership to get the testing? to do the tracking? for life, for the people …? It doesn't exist because politics is all that exists at the top… and then to resume executions!

31 July 2020, 08:00