Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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Sister Helen Prejean brings opposition to capital punishment to Spokane
by Scott Cooper, for the Inland Register
(From the Feb. 8, 2007 edition of the Inland Register)
Sister Helen Prejean, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille, came to Spokane last month to speak at the Lair Student Center Auditorium at Spokane Community College, where she shared insights into her journey of changing hearts and minds – including her own – about the death penalty.
Sister Helen spoke Jan. 25 on the occasion of Human Rights Day 2007, sponsored by the Student Awareness League on campus.
She is the author of Dead Man Walking, about her personal experiences ministering to convicted criminals on death row. In her latest book, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions, Sister Helen describes her progress from accompanying convicted criminals to accompanying the families of murder victims.
When asked how she can spend time with convicted criminals, she responds, “I’m with human beings, and some of them have done horrendous things.”
She recounted her upbringing in a privileged family that included the help of servants. At the time, she said, there was little connection between the Church and the secular world, beyond acts of charity and prayer. She says she “woke up” to the power of Jesus’ Gospel being on the side of the voiceless, the poor and oppressed when she moved into the St. Thomas Housing Projects in Louisiana as an act of solidarity with the students she taught. When she saw firsthand the structural effects of racism and poverty among the families in the St. Thomas Projects, she was changed forever. All of the young men living in the Projects she met fully expected to spend at least part of their lives in prison.
Seeing injustice, she said, is always the first step.
The Death of Innocents relates Sister Helen’s experiences walking with two other people to their executions, both of whom she believes innocent of the crimes for which they were killed, unlike the men she wrote about in her first book. Rather than considering the death penalty as a peripheral issue about a few bad people, she believes the injustices inherent in the United States justice system speak directly to issues of racism and poverty in America.
Nowhere, she says, does the very real racism in the United States country spell itself out more than in prisons. More specifically, while roughly half of those on death row in the United States are white and half are black, approximately eight out of 10 were convicted for the killings of white people, a statistic that does not accurately reflect the racial breakdowns of murder victims.
In other words, some people are valued more than others, so that when they are killed, the whole machinery of justice is employed to bring about restitution, she said – but only for some people. When a homeless person is murdered on the street, or a black man is murdered in a poor neighborhood, their convicted killers are far less likely to face the death penalty.
She said she had often meditated on the Parable of the Last Judgment from Matthew 25 without it making much of an impression on her. Those on death row are frail human beings, as is everyone else. Human beings are worth more than the one worst thing they’ve ever done. The criminal justice system freezes an individual’s entire life on one moment, identifying that moment as that individual’s essence.
While a pure, perfect theory of retribution might sound good, all theories must be put into practice and it is the practical application of who receives the death sentence that sparks her greatest outrage.
She says that society must reconsider its use of capital punishment for purely human considerations as well. What does calculated death-dealing say about a society? What happens to the victims’ families as they wait for this “justice?”
Society has a “penchant for solving social problems with violence,” she said, drawing overt connections to current military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Similarly, as millions of dollars are spent on prisons, millions of Americans go without health care.
Sister Helen presently ministers to two death row inmates: a woman in Texas and a man in Louisiana. The process of accompanying people in their journey to execution, she said, is a gift to her and gives her life, although it is certainly taxing. It is part of her spiritual practice to take the grief, anger and energy and pump them into loving work.
Her new book also discusses what she sees as a change in the Church’s teaching on capital punishment. She writes of her meetings with Pope John Paul II, and how the Church modified the catechism to support the concept that the death penalty is practically always avoidable, because societies can be made safe without it.
Currently, the United States is one of only a handful of countries in the world that still resort to capital punishment. The practice has been banned by 168 countries. Along with the United States, capital punishment is still practiced by China and Iran.