Interview: Helen Prejean

Reprinted from The Common Good, no. 20, Pentecost 2001

Sr Helen Prejean is the world’s leading advocate for the abolition of the death penalty. Her landmark book, Dead Man Walking, published in 1993, was made into a 1996 movie starring Susan Sarandon, who won an Oscar for her portrait of Sr Helen. A Catholic nun since 1957, Sr Helen travels the world speaking out against the death penalty and was recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. She lives in New Orleans, and was interviewed by FOR executive director John Dear on 14 March, 2001.

Fellowship: Since 1984, you have visited Death Row in Louisiana’s Angola prison almost monthly. Despite the success of your book and your constant travel, you still visit Death Row. How many people have you accompanied over the years?

Prejean: I’m with my sixth person on Death Row now. Five have been excecuted: four from Louisiana, and one in Virginia. To me the visiting and accompanying of people on Death Row is not an extra; it’s like the hub of the wheel of what I do.

Fellowship: I remember once you told me how the warden orders the condemned man to have a last supper with him and to pray together an hour before the execution.

Prejean: He doesn’t order it, but he likes to try to be a good guy, to show that he is a Christian. And so two people I accompanied actually had that last supper with the warden. They held hands and prayed, sang hymns, and ate together. But when it came to Dobie Williams, my friend who was executed last year, he asked me to ask the warden if he could not go to the meal. As he put it, ‘It’s not real Christian fellowship because at the end of the meal, they’re gonna get up and kill me.’

I keep thinking about what Dorothy Day said: ‘We have to build a society where it is easier for people to be good.’ That includes wardens, guards, politicians – everybody.

Fellowship: Texas Governor George W Bush has presided over 118 executions, including a recent execution of a grandmother. Can you tell us about your visit with her shortly before the execution?

Prejean: Her name was Bettie Lou Beets. I visited with her two weeks before she died. She had been a battered woman and she had a terrible attorney. Not only was he inefficient, but he had a contract to make a movie about her. He neglected to bring out vital information to the jury, including her life of being battered. What struck me the most about Bettie was that only when she got a good attorney for the appeals, did she realize that she was a battered woman. As she said, ‘I didn’t know about learned helplessness’. She told me she had been silent for fifteen years on Death Row. She had given no interviews. But then as it got close to her death, she decided to tell her story, because it might help one woman somewhere who is battered and doesn’t know it.

Fellowship: Tell me about the moratorium campaign.

Prejean: There is great momentum toward a worldwide moratorium. The UN Commission on Human Rights has called for a moratorium on executions for the last three years. Each year more and more countries support it.

In the US, there are two groups actively working: ‘Moratorium Now,’ run by the Quixote Centre, tries to get endorsements by city councils, religious groups and others. ‘Moratorium 2000’—which I work with directly—has a petition asking individuals to sign a statement calling for a moratorium on the death penalty in the US. Those petitions will be delivered to the UN, Congress, and state legislatures.

The Coliseum in Rome has become the world symbol of the ending of the death penalty. It’s lit whenever a country abolishes the death penalty or calls for a moratorium, when there is a stay of execution, or when another million signatures is added. Europe already has two million signatures for the moratorium. The Coliseum has been lit up ten times since 10 December 2000—Human Rights Day.

Fellowship: A key part of your journey has been walking with the family members of murder victims. How do family members learn to forgive and find healing?

Prejean: The rhetoric of the death penalty and the way politicians try to legitimize it promotes the death penalty as justice for the victim. They’ve lost a loved one to murder, and the only way they can have justice is to demand the death of the one who killed their loved one. But first, you have to remember how few victims’ families are given this so-called ‘justice.’ There are 17,000 homicides every year in this country and 1.5 to two percent of people are sentenced to death. It’s a very small percentage.

Second, we cannot presume that victims’ families are all of one mind about the death penalty. I know a family in Baton Rouge that is split right down the middle. Their sister was killed. The brothers are for the death penalty; the sisters are against it. The poor mother whose daughter was brutally murdered now has her children divided and not speaking to one another over the death penalty.

The healing that I have found comes from love, community, and faith—from the chance to have someone accompany them who will listen as they vent their loss, their grief, and their outrage; who can give real help when they lose their job; or health care, or counseling. Those are the real things that make a difference to people.

Fellowship: At FOR, we talk a lot about Dr King and his critique of what he called ‘the triple evils of war, racism, and poverty.’ How do you see the death penalty as part of the larger picture, this whole culture of violence, these triple evils?

Prejean: I didn’t know that Dr King had said that. I say in my talks that the death penalty epitomizes the deepest wounds in our society, which are militarism, poverty, and racism! We’ve got a social problem, so we send in the Marines. We target the enemy, dehumanize, terminate him. It’s that same war-making spirit that makes the death penalty.

Poverty? The death penalty is riddled with poverty. Only poor people are on Death Row, and there are 3,600 of them chosen for death.

And racism permeates the death penalty in two ways. Eight out of every ten people on Death Row are there because they killed white people. You look at the history of racism in this country: it has always been considered the most terrible offense to commit a crime against a white person, or white people’s property. In reverse we see that when people of colour are killed, there is often a shrug of the shoulders and indifference.

Everybody knows about Columbine. Those were all white kids shooting at each other. Drive-by shootings in the inner city have gone on for decades. Why isn’t there the same outrage over that? Is it that we expect violence from ‘some’ people of our society?

Fifty percent of all homicides are against people of colour in this country. So the race of the victim is the first place we see racism. Second, we see a disproportionate number of people of colour who end up on Death Row and in prisons in general. People of colour make up twelve percent of the US population, yet forty-eight percent of the people on Death Row.

Fellowship: You and Susan Sarandon recently joined FOR, which, as you know, is made up of people of all religions committed to peace and justice through nonviolence. What is your understanding of nonviolence?

Prejean: I don’t see nonviolence as a passive thing of what you don’t do. Nonviolence means you don’t kill, you don’t practice violence, but it is also a very pro-active way of life in which you seek justice because that’s the only way you can really have peace. Violence is not just shooting people with guns. Violence occurs when people need open-heart surgery and can’t get it, when they can’t get health care. Violence is structural. So justice means people have what they need to live a decent and full human life, and that is also the meaning of nonviolence for me.

Fellowship: What can ordinary people of faith and conscience do to help abolish the death penalty?

Prejean: They can put their names down on the Moratorium 2000 petition. They can write a person on Death Row. They can pray for and envision the day when the death penalty will end. They can educate themselves, and read Dead Man Walking. If they live near prisons and Death Row, they can go and visit someone. They could accompany one person on Death Row. They can talk to their religious leaders about organising educational forums.

Fellowship: As you continue to work for the abolition of the death penalty, where do you find God?

Prejean: You get found by God more than you find God. You get taken over, you know you are in the presence of God. Dobie Williams was an African-American man with an IQ of fifty-nine, whom I believe was innocent. His last words were to forgive his persecutors: ‘I just want everyone to know I don’t have any hard feelings against anyone.’ You see that strength and peace in him to meet his death in this courageous and loving way—that’s God.

Also the energy and the commitment within myself, this passion that won’t stop in me, that’s God, too. People say, ‘You’ve been at this for fifteen years, doesn’t this drain you?’ The energy just keeps unleashing itself inside of you, and you know this commitment in you is not going to die. That’s divine love, that won’t quit, that keeps us going.

God is a life force, a love force, that’s strong and unrelenting. These are ways that I sense the presence of God.

Fellowship: Where do you see signs of hope?

Prejean: We are just beginning to see a thaw in a huge glacier that we’ve been locked into with the death penalty since 1976. At least six states have initiatives for a moratorium, most recently in Illinois. Polls show that support is dropping. It’s down to sixty-one percent from seventy-five percent. In 1999 it dropped five percent.

I think people are more aware of the eighty-seven innocent people that have now come off Death Row, that the supposed best criminal justice system in the world has a lot of flaws in it. I think it’s raised consciousness about the death penalty, and how we don’t need it.

Fellowship: Do you have any last words for us?

Prejean: I’m just happy to be a part of Fellowship of Reconciliation. I think it’s very important to bring the spiritual dynamics of faith, of people in all religious persuasions, to issues of justice and human rights. I believe the death penalty is one of the essential moral issues of our time.

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