Sister Helen Prejean, who visited WNC this week, wants people to know more about the death penalty. Once they do, she’s certain they’ll favor its demise.
One of America’s best known death penalty opponents, Prejean watched the state of Louisiana execute Patrick Sonnier in 1984, and she’s been on “the long, hard road of changing social consciousness in people” ever since, she says.
Prejean wrote Dead Man Walking, a book that became a box office hit, with Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn bringing to the big screen the experience Prejean had while counseling convicted murder Matthew Poncelet and accompanying him to Angola Prison’s death chamber. Prejean brought her message to Western North Carolina Thursday for an evening talk at Mars Hill College. The 68-year-old member of the Sisters of St. Joseph Medaille in New Orleans sat down with Mountain Xpress for an interview Thursday afternoon.
Prejean notes that North Carolina re-instated the death penalty in 1984, “and you’ve been one of the high executors. You’ve killed 43 people [since then]. You have 166 on death row.” She points out a regional disparity in how the death penalty is applied: “The 10 Southern states that practiced slavery do over 80 percent of actual executions. Forty-three is more than double the number of people Louisana has executed” in that time period.
And she says the influences of prejudices about race and class can’t be denied. “One of them is a huge one: Who did you kill, and who cares? And when white people are killed overwhelmingly is when the death penalty is sought, and when people of color are killed, forget it. … The structural reason is [that] poor people are appointed defense, and if you don’t have a really active, sharp, intelligent person to access your constitutional protections, you don’t get them.”
Here’s more of the Xpress interview with Prejean:
Mountain Xpress: Who or what is the biggest pain the butt you deal with?
Prejean: I have a file of people I call “ardent foes,” and I would guess the biggest pain in the butt are the religious folks who are quoting the Bible and saying why the God of wrath wants this — and what am I, a nun, doing coddling those murders? Those are the ones probably I have the least patience with; they use religion to back it up.
Who’s the nicest?
The murder victims’ families. They’re so vulnerable, they’re so hurting. … Then I’m amazed at how many people do work themselves out from under this rock of revenge and realize it’s not going to be for their good, their own good, to buy into this vengence.
What do you consider your coming-of-age moment in this fight?
Absolutely the execution of Patrick Sonnier on the night of April 5, 1984.
In there with this man, waiting, the clock ticking, waiting for the courts to call, your heart in your throat whenever the phone rings because it means he could live or he could die. … So as it barrels on down and I realize, “Oh my God, they’re really going to kill him,” I was in terror. I was terrified, and the only way I stayed even sane was to focus totally on him and he was doing the same, saying, “Sister Helen, are you OK?” because I was just traumatized out of my mind. Everything’s so cool. Everything. The tiles are polished. The coffee pot’s percolating. People are coming in dressed in three-piece suits. There’s gonna be something that’s going to happen tonight. What is it? They’re going to kill him. And then to watch it.
I mean, the big thing that happened in me was the realization that people are never going to see this. It’s a secret ritual. I’ve been a witness. You can’t be neutral about some knowledge you get in life, because to be neutral is to be complicit; to be silent is to be complicit. And so I began to give talks, and it’s what led me to write Dead Man Walking.
What’s on your desk or in your workspace right now?
A letter for a death row inmate in Georgia that a prosecutor is really keen on killing and expediting the process. He did do a crime. He did kill a person. He’s been on death row over 20 years. I’m writing a letter for him to the pardon board. You gotta try. I always do anything I can with that.
And then we are beginning to hatch plans that we need to ignite churches. What I love about North Carolina is that you’ve got a great group working here — People of Faith Against the Death Penalty. … They have this bill they’re introducing to the legislature called the Racial Justice Act, because race colors every step of this process. Who did you kill? Was it a white victim? It’s just in and out of the whole process. And to call for racial justice — the American people do want to be fair, and that’s the initiative they’re working on.
What are you reading?
I’m reading a book about Jesus. Dominic Crossan’s book about first-century Palestine. … I’m writing a spiritual memoir. It’s called River of Fire. It’s the spiritual road that took me to death row.
Are you a news junkie?
I follow news selectively.
Where do you get your news?
I listen to NPR and I read. I read. I get the New York Times. In the beginning, especially, I read Sojourner’s magazine because it’s very explicit about connecting your faith with justice, economic justice, the common good of people. … And I get The Nation. … And i just picked up Mother Jones in an airport because it has an article about torture in it. And I think that what happened in Abu Ghraib is related to the fact that we have a death penalty in this country, where the Supreme Court has turned their heads about the mental torture that’s intrinsic in condemning a conscious imaginative being and putting them in a cell … for 20 years and taking them out and killing them. I think it prepared the soil.
What stereotype about you as an activist best fits you?
That I care about death-row inmates. That I believe that their worth is greater than their worst act. That I see a dignity in them as human beings and that they shouldn’t be tortured and killed.
What’s your favorite prayer right now?
“God help me.” [laughs] No, just a prayer really for help and guidance, like “What am I supposed to do?”
What are you happy about right now?
If you can get people to read, you know you can get them going deeper, and that makes me happy.
What question haven’t you been asked that you want somebody to ask?
What role do journalists and the media play in keeping the death penalty in place?
— Jason Sandford, multimedia editor