In 1608, on the shores of Britain’s newly formed Virginia Colony, Captain George Kendall was found guilty of spying for Spain and sentenced to death by firing squad. His execution — the first recorded in the colonial New World — began a policy of death-penalty sentencing that continues to this day in the United States, where 3,300 men and women sit on death row. Since 1977 more than 1,200 people have been executed, with the overwhelming majority of those executions taking place in Southern states. One of those killed was Elmo Patrick Sonnier, convicted by a Louisiana jury of murdering David LeBlanc and Loretta Ann Bourque on the night of their high-school homecoming. While on death row Sonnier began corresponding with a Catholic nun in New Orleans named Sister Helen Prejean. Their correspondence, Prejean says, turned her life upside down. Today she is one of the world’s foremost death-penalty abolitionists.
Prejean was born into a life of Louisiana privilege and entered the convent intent on seclusion. It wasn’t until a fellow nun asked, “What are you doing to stop the suffering in the world?” that Prejean decided to leave the cloister and help the urban poor. After moving into a housing project in New Orleans, Prejean became Sonnier’s spiritual advisor. She visited with him in person, right up to the last hours of his life. Sonnier was electrocuted before her eyes, and his story led her to write the Pulitzer Prize–nominated book Dead Man Walking (Vintage), which became an Oscar-winning film starring Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon.
Prejean has since served as spiritual advisor to five more death-row inmates and travels the world to speak in opposition to the death penalty. Her second book is titled The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions (Vintage), and she is at work on her spiritual autobiography, River of Fire. She also assists families of murder victims in New Orleans through Survive, a victims’ advocacy group that she founded. Prejean, who is seventy-one, has received numerous honorary doctorates and been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. She says she is encouraged by recent trends toward abolishing capital punishment: in the last three decades six U.S. states have suspended or abolished use of the death penalty, and 139 death-row prisoners have been exonerated since 1973.
I met Prejean at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where she spoke — with her distinct Louisiana style — to overflow crowds. A cold rain fell outside afterward as she and I sat down to talk. Long accustomed to fighting for justice, Prejean carries herself with a presence that is both firm and tender. When she walks into a room, the atmosphere changes immediately.
Like the best teachers, Prejean knows the path to the heart is through story, and she peppers her talks with moving accounts of those she has encountered in our nation’s prisons. Earlier she’d told the story of Dobie Gillis Williams, who was executed in 1999 by lethal injection. Prejean was with him in his last hours. He had an IQ of 65. His last words were: “I just want to say I got no hard feelings for anybody. God bless everybody, God bless.” Prejean believes he was innocent.
Cook: According to Amnesty International, 93 percent of the world’s executions take place in five countries: China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, and the U.S. Why is our government — supposedly a beacon of democracy to the world — on such a list?
Prejean: The death penalty is a natural outgrowth of our long history of using violence to achieve our ends. We’re a very young country, and violence has worked for us in the past. It began with the settling of this continent and the genocide against Native Americans, then continued when we brought slaves over. Now we tend to blame the poor and see them as a criminal element and use coercion and violence to control them.
Cook: But capital punishment has been practiced for centuries. Is it part of human nature?
Prejean: It’s part of a cultural understanding that says the only way to subdue evil is with violence, but it’s not part of human nature. Look at all the countries in the world that don’t have the death penalty. The very first act of the new Constitutional Court in South Africa, after it got rid of apartheid, was to banish the death penalty. To some extent violence is part of our nature, but compassion is too. Seeking justice for everybody is also part of human nature.
The death penalty is the most important civil-rights issue of our time. It’s a deeply symbolic issue, because it says that the way we’re going to solve problems is by violence. It says that some among us are such a danger to who we are and what we stand for that they must be eliminated. To arrive at this mind-set, human beings have to flip a switch inside themselves. Deep down we know we are brothers and sisters and are all connected. For the death penalty to exist, we have to throw some switch that says, “The Other is not human like us,” and so we can do whatever we want to them. And of course the execution must be removed from the public eye. The chamber is behind prison walls, and we don’t hear about what goes on inside it.
Cook: If we went to death row, who would we find there?
Prejean: Less than 1 percent of the roughly fifteen thousand people who commit homicide each year are selected for death. Ninety percent of the prisoners who do end up on death row were abused as children. Nearly 100 percent are poor. We haven’t tried hard enough to solve the problem of poverty in this country. We have mentally ill people on death row. The Supreme Court has said that it’s unconstitutional to execute an insane person. So what do the states do? They give legally insane prisoners medication to make them appear sane enough to stand trial. We have some people on death row who don’t know how to read and write. But you also meet people on death row who read books and write profound reflections. Some of them will try to teach their fellow death-row prisoners how to read and write.
I used to think that people on death row would support and love each other, since they’re all in the same boat, but you also see people get into fights over tobacco or coffee and sometimes even throw their feces at someone walking by. There is fierceness and cruelty side by side with kindness.
Cook: You are currently the spiritual advisor to two people on death row.
Prejean: Yes. Manuel Ortiz has been on death row for seventeen years. He’s from El Salvador and was convicted of killing his wife for insurance money, solely on the word of a man named Carlos Saavedra. Saavedra said Manuel had hired him to kill his wife, but there is no evidence that Manuel even knew him. I can’t say too much about his case because his lawyers are in the process of appealing the decision.
Normally I serve only one prisoner at a time, but Cathy Henderson wrote me a letter and asked me to be with her. She is on death row in Texas and is accused of murdering a baby she was sitting. She has always said it was an accident. Her lawyers gave virtually no defense. Prosecutors called her a “baby murderer” and said she deliberately killed the infant. Cathy said she was playing the airplane game so many parents play — swinging him around — and her bare foot landed on something sharp. The baby dropped from her hands, and his head hit the floor. The medical examiner at her trial told the jury it could not have been an accident, but her new pro-bono lawyers have gotten four biomechanical experts to look at the physics of what happened, and all four came to the conclusion that it could have been an accident. The medical examiner has reviewed their findings and signed an affidavit saying that, if he’d had this information then, he would have changed his testimony. The Court of Criminal Appeals in Texas, which almost always rubber-stamps death-penalty convictions, has said there must be a new hearing. So there is the possibility she will escape the death penalty and perhaps be set free.
Cook: You’ve said that death row dehumanizes people. How?
Prejean: Every day on death row you receive indications that you are disposable: the way the guards treat you, the way you’re talked to, the way the courts treat you. No one gives any indication that you are a human being with dignity. That is why I’m there: to say to death-row prisoners that they are human.
On death row they lock you up and count you four times a day and treat you like chattel. In the maximum-security units there is very little human contact, so the people there are virtually in solitary confinement. It is torture. I believe that we tilled the soil for the torture in Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib with how we treat death-row prisoners in the U.S. We have become insensitive to their pain and humanity. Prisons are like fiefdoms, and a warden is like a king who has absolute power.
Cook: In the U.S. we have almost 5 percent of the world’s population and almost 25 percent of the global prison population.
Prejean: Yes, we incarcerate more people than any other country in the world. Prison is an industry from which certain people benefit: Politicians benefit because they get elected by claiming they are tough on crime. Businesses make money off prisons. That keeps the system going. Two-thirds of the people in prison are there for nonviolent crimes, like bad checks or drug possession. Why do we use such excessive punishment? What does it mean for us to take a woman who writes bad checks and separate her from her family for five or eight or ten years? What is the effect of that? Is that what she deserves?
As a society we have to examine our belief that severe punishment is the way to restore order. The main objective of prisons is to keep society safe, not to cause prisoners pain simply because they caused others pain. People who have committed violent crimes need to be imprisoned to keep the public safe, but we must also strive for rehabilitation. We know that prisoners who get an education tend not to reoffend, but we’ve cut most educational programs from prisons — really, any program that might restore humanity to the prisoners. Restorative justice would improve our society instead of simply throwing people away.
Cook: What would “restorative justice” look like?
Prejean: I once visited a women’s prison in Dublin, Ireland, and had I not known it was a prison, I would have never recognized it as such. The prison provided counseling to help the women understand what had led them to commit a crime. It provided a place for their children to come visit them. And it gave them an education and work supervision and lessons on developing relationships. In the U.S. we would call that “coddling criminals.” There they saw it as taking seriously the prisoners’ needs.
We picture all people in prison as terrible criminals. We picture murderers as people who love to kill, but most who commit murder do so in the heat of the moment and without thought of consequences. The only way to change our impressions is to go into prison and meet the people there.
Cook: Are there rehabilitation programs in the U.S. similar to the one you saw in Ireland?
Prejean: John Sage runs Bridges to Life in Texas. His sister Marilyn was brutally murdered, and he took the pain of her loss and directed it toward helping people in prison. He works with prisoners who are going to be released and teaches them job skills. He also helps them take responsibility for their crimes. They have to meet a victim’s family — not the family of their victim but one that suffered a similar loss. The family helps the prisoner understand the pain he has caused.
Cook: If someone is guilty of terrifying violence, what should his or her punishment look like?
Prejean: I can tell you what it should not look like. Any kind of punishment that degrades a defenseless human being and takes away his or her dignity is immoral. That is the basis for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Conventions. No one should be subjected to cruel punishment or torture.
We tilled the soil for the torture in Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib with how we treat death-row prisoners in the U.S. We have become insensitive to their pain and humanity.
Cook: African Americans represent approximately 15 percent of our population and 50 percent of our prison population. Theologian James Cone has claimed that African Americans are being lynched once again by our prison system. Is he right?
Prejean: It is legal lynching, absolutely. When you look at Louisiana State Penitentiary, over 70 percent of the inmates are African Americans. You see them going out to the fields with hoes over their shoulders, followed by guards on horseback with guns. Basically a young man sentenced to life there will spend his days working on a farm for four cents an hour. The most you can get, after twenty years, is twenty-one cents an hour.
Cook: In your years of public speaking, what arguments have you most often encountered in favor of the death penalty?
Prejean: The most common argument is that death is a just punishment for those who have taken the lives of innocents. The murderer did not respect the life of the victim and therefore deserves what he or she gets. Anything less would devalue the victim’s life.
Cook: Former New York mayor Ed Koch once said, “It is by exacting the highest penalty for the taking of human life that we affirm the highest value of human life.”
Prejean: I’ve heard district attorneys say something like “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, we are going to ask you for the death penalty, because that is the only way to show how much we respect the innocent life that’s been taken.” Most people who make those kinds of rhetorical statements have never been there in the final hours and watched what it means to take people who are alive and strap them down to a gurney or in a chair and kill them. They are removed from the results of their actions.
I also hear religious arguments. Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia has said that Christians should support the death penalty because we expect to be punished for our sins. He believes that part of Christianity is to suffer pain and pay atonement. Scalia has also called execution by lethal injection “a quiet death” and “enviable” compared to how the victim died. A Supreme Court justice shouldn’t use those words to talk about torture and killing. Human beings have imaginations, and the condemned die a thousand times in their minds before they are executed.
Some people approve of the death penalty because they think it is cheaper than life imprisonment. Actually the death penalty is more expensive. That’s why more and more states with budget crises are doing away with it. A capital-murder case, as one prosecutor says, is the Cadillac of the criminal-justice system. It takes multiple trials, requires airtight evidence, and uses more expert witnesses than any other type of case. Then you have to build a special section of the prison and hire personnel to staff it. Often death-row prisoners are not allowed to work to defray the cost of their board and keep. In California it costs millions of dollars a year to house more than seven hundred people on death row.
In response to these arguments, I share stories about people I know. When New Jersey did away with the death penalty, sixty-two murder victims’ families testified that the death-penalty process had only prolonged their agony. They had been told it would provide “closure,” but in reality it meant they had to witness the death of another person, often after waiting ten or fifteen years to do so, and this death would do nothing to bring back their loved ones. During the waiting process, their story is in and out of the spotlight. It makes their wound public, and the healing doesn’t come. Many murder victims’ families have been prominent in the abolition movement.
I also point out that the death penalty is not reserved for the most terrible murders. It’s more common in cases where the victim is white, for example: approximately 80 percent of death-penalty cases involve the murder of a white person, yet 50 percent of all homicide victims are people of color.
Whether the death penalty is sought comes down to the decision of the prosecutor. Thankfully juries have to be told now that they can sentence someone to life without parole even when the prosecutor is seeking the death penalty. In the past juries were not given that information. They thought the death penalty or freedom were the only options. Even in Texas death-penalty sentences have diminished because of this. Juries — which are made up of ordinary citizens entrusted with godlike power — have a terrible responsibility.
Cook: What an enormous — and perhaps unethical — burden for ordinary citizens to carry.
Prejean: Yes, we put twelve people behind closed doors for hours or days and let them decide whether a person lives or dies. They don’t have the tools to do that. They don’t know what evidence may have been hidden from them in the trial. Even if they know for sure that this person is guilty of the crime, do they get to look at mitigating circumstances? Parents of the victim ask the jurors to “please kill this bastard who killed my boy”; parents of the accused beg the jurors not to kill their son. What’s a human being to do with that? Each juror has the accused’s life in his or her hands, because it must be a unanimous decision for death. If one person dissents, the accused lives.
Cook: Your work as a death-penalty abolitionist began in January 1982, when a friend asked you to write a letter to Elmo Patrick Sonnier, an inmate on Louisiana’s death row. Your correspondence turned into what you have called your “second life.”
Prejean: It was a rebaptism. Being a witness to Patrick’s death — he was alive one minute and then killed before my eyes the next — changed me completely. It was an act of oppressive force against someone who was defenseless. I had known him for two and a half years, and I asked him to look into my face when he was being killed, to make sure that the last thing he saw was a face of love. I didn’t realize it would change my life. It made me see that the general public doesn’t know about the horror of executions. And the killing will continue until more people find out.
I’d been living with poor people before I met Patrick. That, too, was a revelation: that people in the city were suffering and dying, and there I’d been in the suburbs, almost in another world. There is a huge separation between classes and races here. People in the suburbs do not see directly the injustice and the unfairness of the criminal-justice system, and so they tend to believe the bland lies that politicians tell them.
Cook: You’ve said that if executions were made public, people would realize the brutality of this system and work to end it. Yet, in our past, crowds would show up for public executions, some with picnic lunches. In our age of violent media, what makes you so sure average citizens wouldn’t applaud the execution of a killer they were certain was guilty?
Prejean: There would be some, no doubt, who would pull out a beer and cheer that this terrible murderer had been killed. But for most people who see it up close, capital punishment is very unsettling. The head of the Department of Corrections in Louisiana has to arrange the protocol for executions, and part of that is gathering witnesses. At first he thought he’d have a line of people stretching across the Mississippi River waiting to get in, but soon he realized that no one who witnessed an execution asked to come back. When you’re in the death chamber, you see when they have to jab the needle eighteen times into the arm of the condemned. You hear the stumbling last words of those who are killed: “Mama, I love you,” or “I’m so sorry.” Imagine an ordinary American family having their evening meal, and the news comes on, and the kids ask their parents, “Isn’t this murder too?” and, “Why are they putting antiseptic on his arm if they’re going to kill him?” It would not take long for people to cry out against this, and that’s why it will never be public. You have to keep it from the eyes of the people.
Cook: You have served as spiritual advisor to six men who were executed. What were their last days, their last hours, like — for them and for you?
Prejean: Being with someone who’s about to die is surreal. When you’re with someone in the hospital who is dying, it’s at least a natural process; you can see them leaving you. When someone is fully alive, and you’re talking to him the way you and I are talking, you cannot get your mind around the fact that in two hours, now one hour, now forty-five minutes, he’s going to be killed.
The death itself is almost scripted: Now they’re walking in. Now I’m telling him goodbye and kissing him on the back. I’m praying for him and asking him to remember me to God. Now the guards have me by my arms. They are sitting me down in a witness chair. A lawyer who’s on our side takes my hand. I hold my Bible. Now they’re strapping him in the chair. There’s the big clock on the wall. There’s the exhaust fan, already turned on, that will suck from the room the stench of the human body burning. There’s the blank glass with the executioner on the other side. They’ve already tested the chair. It’s run on a separate generator, so nobody can prevent the execution by throwing the main switch. The lights are bright fluorescents. There are two red telephones on the wall: If one rings, it is the court issuing a stay of execution. If the other rings, it’s a pardon from the governor. Neither phone rings. The victim’s family is sitting in the front row to watch. The other witnesses and I are sitting behind them. There are the two newspaper reporters writing vigorously on narrow spiral pads. And the condemned man is looking at me. And I put my hand out. And he can see my face. Then they put the leather mask over his face, so tight I worry he can’t breathe. How quickly they strap him in the chair and step away. It’s an oak chair. They put a cloth soaked with saline solution on his shaved head and then the metal cap. A thick, curled wire runs from the cap to the generator. And then the straps go across his chest.
I didn’t look the first time, because I knew with the mask on he couldn’t see me anymore. With lethal injection he can see me, but not with the electric chair. I closed my eyes and heard the sound of it. This huge, rushing, powerful, grinding sound of the fire being shot through his body. Three times. They run 1,900 volts, then let the body cool, and then 500 volts, and then 1,900 volts again. What’s terrifying is that they’ve done autopsies of people who have been electrocuted, and the brain is mainly intact. We don’t know what they feel. We really don’t know, when we kill a human being, what’s going on inside, the pain of it.
Cook: You believe that the days leading up to an execution amount to torture.
Prejean: I don’t say this lightly. According to Amnesty International, torture is “an extreme mental or physical assault on someone who’s been rendered defenseless.” Just imagine if somebody took you hostage and kept you in a room and said that in twenty-four hours they were coming in to kill you. And, when that time comes, they put the gun to your head and pull the trigger. It clicks. It is an empty chamber. They laugh and walk out and say, Not today. Maybe tomorrow. That’s torture.
Everybody I’ve known on death row has had the same nightmare: they dream it is their time, and the guards come and drag them out, and they are screaming and sweating, and then they wake up and realize they are still in their cell. Just think about when you have to go to the dentist for a root canal. If the appointment is on a Friday, all week you are living in dread. That’s just for a root canal.
It’s hard for the U.S. to recognize “enhanced interrogation” as torture, because the Supreme Court won’t recognize the death penalty as torture. Justice Scalia gave an interview to the BBC and said that what goes on at Guantánamo isn’t punishment, because punishment happens only when you’ve been convicted of a crime. The suspected terrorists haven’t been convicted of a crime, so we can do whatever we need to do to extract information from them. That’s the kind of legalistic thinking that enables you to torture a human being. As Thomas Merton said, “The end of the world will be legal.”
At a 2002 conference in Chicago, Scalia said that individuals must do what Jesus says: forgive and don’t hate or try to get even. But the state, he added, is the minister of God’s wrath and can carry out God’s vengeance in the world — this from someone who’s supposed to be a thoughtful graduate of Georgetown University. It’s a woeful misunderstanding of Scripture. The ignorance is palpable. I sometimes ask audiences to shout out a quote from the Bible that supports the death penalty. They all chime in, “An eye for an eye.” And then I remind them what Jesus said about an eye for an eye: that we should refuse to give in to hate and forgive even our enemies.
Now they’re strapping him in the chair. There’s the big clock on the wall. There’s the exhaust fan, already turned on, that will suck from the room the stench of the human body burning.
Cook: One poll found that Christians are more in favor of the death penalty than non-Christians.
Prejean: The Jesus of our suburban churches speaks great platitudes about loving everyone, but those churches try to shut down soup kitchens in their neighborhoods, because they don’t want riffraff about. Where is Jesus in all this? The Gospels are radical, but poor Jesus has become domesticated.
For the first several hundred years of Christianity, to be a follower of Jesus meant you could not serve in the military or be involved in killing people. In the fifth century, when the barbarians began to bang on the doors of Rome, Saint Augustine said evil ones could be coerced with the sword, which inevitably led to heretics being tortured in the name of orthodoxy. “Kill the body to save the soul”: I hear people talk like this about the death penalty.
Augustine’s decree has filtered down to the death chamber in Louisiana today. We have a born-again warden at Louisiana State Penitentiary named Burl Cain. The other day I saw a picture of him and television evangelist Billy Graham’s daughter in the death chamber, saying a prayer beside the lethal-injection gurney, which looks like an inverted cross. Their prayer was not about resisting the death penalty but about participating in it. They have taken the idea of a God who will sacrifice his own son to atone for the sins of humankind and translated it into the belief that those who commit crimes should die for their sins to purchase eternal redemption.
I’ll never forget talking to a Catholic member of the board that pardons death-row prisoners. He told me that God is for the death penalty, because Jesus was executed, and God didn’t stop it; God accepted the death of his son. I was speechless. The heart of Jesus’s message is found in the Sermon on the Mount, where he says that we are all one, and we are to reach out to the marginalized and the voiceless and the despised. We must practice that at every level. People can quote the Bible in a selective fashion, but the movement of the Scriptures is toward liberation and nonviolence and love.
Cook: In Dead Man Walking you write about the death-row prison guards and wardens who keep the system running. You describe them as having never considered the moral implications of their job.
Prejean: Guards are trained not to trust prisoners, because they might get conned. The guards often come from a long line of prison guards. It is what their great-grandfather, their grandfather, and their father did. They have authority over others, and this can bring out the worst or the best in people. Good wardens have the wisdom to know they are far outnumbered and cannot run a prison without the cooperation of prisoners. That’s why prisoners have television and sports and a gym and jobs and activities: to keep them occupied and prevent violence. Sadistic wardens do not last long — there will be riots.
It is an interesting dance between authorities and prisoners. The inmates hate the rookies who come in and assert their authority. They hate the “shakedown crews” that rummage through their possessions to look for contraband. Imagine it: they take your box where you keep the few belongings you have and throw it on the floor; all of your precious papers from your trial are strewn everywhere. If you get into an altercation with a corrections officer, maybe because he says something about your mother, then the next thing you know, you’re in the dungeon. They have that power over you. They can provoke you.
Manuel Ortiz had a particular guard on death row who had it in for him. The guard told him to take a shower. Manuel was in the shower and had just soaped up when the guard came in and said, “Shower’s over.” Manuel said, “I’ve got all this soap on me.” The guard told him the shower was over. “Want to make something of it?” he asked Manuel. Manuel did what he had to do: went back to his cell and got water from his basin to rinse off. Because if he’d said anything, he’d likely have been put in solitary, the prison within the prison, where they grind up your food like dog food, and you can’t have anything in the cell with you. You have to earn points to get served a regular tray of food and receive magazines and write letters.
An African American in a Louisiana prison told me how they were working in the fields — eighteen thousand acres of cotton and soybeans — and being watched by guards on horseback with guns. This prisoner overheard the guards placing a bet on how many men they could throw in the hole that day. One said, “I’m going to get me three niggers in the hole today. Just watch.” The inmate was hoeing, and the guard got in his face and said, “Nigger, what are you going to do?” and called him every obscenity in the book. Finally the inmate couldn’t take it. He pulled the guard off the horse and hit him in the face. And he was thrown into the dungeon.
Cook: I can imagine someone might say, “What’s a shakedown compared to a murder?” Isn’t some harsh treatment justified?
Prejean: Whenever you have people who have murdered someone, anything someone might do to them pales in comparison. If they were taken out of their cells and beaten once a day, that still doesn’t compare to murder. If they were starved and given only the bare necessities, that still doesn’t compare to murder. If they were not allowed to write letters or see their families, that still doesn’t compare to murder. As one victim’s parent said to me, “Our daughter is in the ground dead, and he’s still alive. Even if he’s in prison for the rest of his life, he can talk to his mother and have friends and read books. Our daughter is dead.” That is the huge chasm, because there is nothing worse than the murder of a human being.
But we can’t justify inhumane treatment and brutalization by saying, “Look at what this person did to his victim.” We think that because someone commits murder he or she should automatically be isolated for life. But murderers are human beings, and the six people I accompanied to execution were not alike. Each had a different story and different experiences and wounds and capacities to respond to new invitations that life gave them.
Cook: Moments before his 1984 execution, Tim Baldwin was stopped by a death-row prison guard, who whispered to him, “You’ve got to understand, Tim, this is nothing personal.” Warden Burl Cain stages elaborate last meals for inmates, complete with white tablecloths. They hold hands, sing, and pray — and the next night he nods to the executioner, signaling for the switch to be thrown. How can prison guards and wardens live with such contradiction?
Prejean: They don’t see it as a contradiction, of course. Everybody wants to be a good guy. The inmates are trying to live their last days in peace and don’t want to cause a ruckus. They want to go along and be respectful. They are so large-souled in death. Dobie Gillis Williams refused his last meal, though he worried it would hurt the warden’s feelings. He said to me, “Sister Helen, we’re going to eat and hold hands, and then they’re going to kill me. That ain’t no Christian fellowship.”
Warden Cain is a born-again Christian, and he allows prisoners to go to worship and hear sermons. On the night Dobie was executed, Warden Cain was there with Dobie’s mama, and he was saying how tough it was on everybody — even him. He said he was just carrying out the law and doing God’s will. He said Dobie was doing God’s will too. Cain wants the prisoners to find religion and get straight with God before they die. He really questions whether or not they’ll make it to heaven. He knows he can’t outright proselytize in his position, but he prays with them and holds their hands. And then he nods to the executioner to kill them.
Suburban churches . . . try to shut down soup kitchens in their neighborhoods, because they don’t want riffraff about. Where is Jesus in all this? The Gospels are radical, but poor Jesus has become domesticated.
Cook: What part does religion play in the lives of the death-row inmates you’ve advised?
Prejean: Some were not explicitly religious. For others religion was a solace and a source of peace and strength. The remorseful ask for forgiveness from God and the victim’s family. Religion helps them hold on to their dignity and reminds them that they are worth more than the worst thing they’ve done in their life.
Cook: The Christian cross, in addition to being a religious symbol, is a depiction of capital punishment. What is its meaning to you?
Prejean: After I got involved with death-penalty opposition, whenever I walked into a Catholic church and saw Jesus hanging on the cross, it shook me. Jesus was executed because he was an insurrectionist and troublemaker. I see the cross as a banner of resistance, a call to end suffering and reject the kind of theology that says God is pleased with pain and blood sacrifices. I don’t believe in that kind of God.
Cook: Since you began your work, how have your prayers changed?
Prejean: My prayers changed as soon as I moved in with the poor of St. Thomas Parish in New Orleans. I heard their stories and witnessed their suffering and powerlessness and voicelessness. Before moving to St. Thomas, I had never been in the presence of people who had no resources. My family had servants when I was growing up, and I never even knew their last names. I never saw them as full persons.
I used to pray and ask God to take care of me. I’d ask him to help me remember that I am “the eyes of Christ, the hands of Christ, the mind of Christ.” After living in St. Thomas I understood what that prayer meant: that if we see injustice, we need to act. Not only do I pray for death-row inmate Cathy Henderson, who gets terrible medical care; I’m doing whatever it takes to find her a doctor and get her the medical care she needs. As a spiritual advisor, I have the option of just walking with the prisoner and helping him or her be calm in those final moments, but I cannot do just that. I have to commit to him or her with my whole person. As the poet Rilke said, “Being swept along is not enough.”
Cook: Lloyd LeBlanc is the father of David LeBlanc, who was murdered by Patrick and Eddie Sonnier, the men whose stories are told in Dead Man Walking. You’ve said that Lloyd is your hero. When Ms. Sonnier was being harassed by neighbors for her sons’ actions — they were throwing dead animals onto her front porch — Lloyd came to her door with a basket of fruit. He told her he was a parent too, and that children make their own decisions, and he didn’t hold her sons’ actions against her. How does the parent of a murdered child do such a thing?
Prejean: Lloyd embodies forgiveness — not just as something we can do for others, but forgiveness as an act of self-preservation that says, I am not going to let this anger and hatred kill me. I’m going to remain kind and loving. It is a path, not a single act. One’s commitment to it has to be renewed every day.
Lloyd told me how the sheriff had brought him to the morgue to identify his son’s body. David was a beautiful kid, seventeen years old. He had been shot in the back of the head, and when the sheriff pulled his body out on the cold tray, David’s eyes were bulging; they were “sticking out like marbles,” Lloyd said. Lloyd — who was good with his hands and could fix things — looked down at his son and thought, I can’t fix this. And he began to pray. He came to the line in the Our Father about forgiving those who trespass against us. “I didn’t feel it,” he said, “but I knew that was where I had to go.” And that’s where he went.
Cook: Can you tell us more about your work with victims’ families? How do you help them? Do you work with families who simply aren’t able to forgive?
Prejean: Victims’ families often see me as the enemy. They believe that if I’m against execution, then I must also be against them. But I’m not. I help them through two national groups: Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights and Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation. I share with them stories from my experiences with people like Lloyd LeBlanc, but I also tell them about the Harveys, Vernon and Elizabeth, whose daughter was killed. They couldn’t wait for the execution of the man who had killed their daughter, and afterward they held their own press conference and said that he’d died too quick and they hoped he’d burn in hell. They continued to attend executions and stand outside the prison gates with two signs: Another Murderer Gets His Due and Justice for Victims’ Families. So I tell the stories of families on both sides of the issue.
Some parents of victims see that the path to healing is found in reconciliation and not in seeking more pain. The mothers understand this best. They realize that after the execution, another mother will be burying her child, and nothing will have been accomplished.
I started a local group in New Orleans called “Survive,” because so many victims’ parents were alone. Nobody would talk to them, because nobody knew what to say. I always encourage groups that are trying to abolish the death penalty to reach out to victims’ families and never to require them to take a stand against the death penalty — that is a personal journey — but just help and give love and financial aid if they lose their jobs as a result.
Cook: What happens to those who are able to forgive?
Prejean: They become engaged with life again. They begin to focus on their other children, if they have any, and on their spouse, who is suffering with them. They take part in something bigger than themselves. One woman had a child who was kidnapped and never seen again. Now she goes to schools and talks to children about the importance of not going anyplace with strangers. People also find healing by realizing what values their child or loved one treasured and then working to keep those values alive.
Cook: Recent polls suggest that more Americans are against the death penalty than ever before. Fifteen states have abolished it. Do you think we will see the end of capital punishment in the U.S. in your lifetime?
Prejean: A lot depends on whether I keep taking my vitamins. [Laughs.] It is going to end. It’s impossible to put a day or an hour on it, but I see the practice diminishing. Even Texas is killing fewer people. We are using more DNA testing, and 139 innocent people on death row have been released. This has shaken the confidence of the American public.
Illinois governor George Ryan was in favor of the death penalty until it was proved that thirteen innocent people were on death row. He called for reform, and when the legislators wouldn’t give it to him, he commuted sentences and created a moratorium that’s been in place ever since. A moratorium is often a good first step for a state to take, because it’s usually followed by a bipartisan study. This allows people to step back and take a good hard look at the issue. Once they see how selectively the death penalty is applied, it’s easier to take the next step of abolition.
The death penalty could be ended tomorrow if the Supreme Court would reverse its earlier decision. The Court overturned the death penalty once before, in 1972 (Furman v. Georgia), on the grounds that it was arbitrarily and capriciously applied and used disproportionately against poor people. But in Gregg v. Georgia the justices reinstated the death penalty with stricter criteria, limiting its applicability to only the worst of the worst and taking into account the defendant’s character and record. At that time the Court acknowledged the racism in death-penalty sentencing but said it would be too disruptive to our judicial system to correct the bias.
There was a study in California that looked at every homicide in that state over the past five years. It showed that 80 percent of all homicides were eligible for the death penalty, but those sentenced to death were always poor. So the death penalty is still unconstitutional on the same basis by which the Court ruled against it in 1972. Eventually we’re going to abolish it, state by state, life by life. Mahatma Gandhi said you do what you do not because you see the possibility of success but because your actions have integrity. You do it for the rightness of it.
Cook: Why have so many death-row prisoners been exonerated?
Prejean: The innocent are convicted because the prosecution is in charge of the evidence. They are supposed to turn over evidence to the defense but often don’t. When the defense has to go to the judge, hat in hand, and ask for money to get forensic testing done, as happened in Cathy Henderson’s case, you have an imbalance that leads to abuse. So prosecutorial misconduct is the most common reason for a case to be overturned; usually evidence was withheld or destroyed. The system encourages such misconduct. Trials are designed to be adversarial, not to bring out the truth.
Cook: What is the greatest obstacle to abolishing the death penalty in this country?
Prejean: Most people just haven’t thought about it. Americans’ support for the death penalty is a mile wide but an inch deep. That’s why the arts are so important. Films, plays, and books encourage people to reflect. They’re not so in favor of the death penalty once they think about it.
There are so many people suffering in our society who are hidden from view. Who has spent time with the homeless, hearing what happened to them and understanding how close so many people are to living on the street? Have we spent time with battered women, or young people pulled into prostitution, or people who are sent to prison for a nonviolent crime like forging a check or “conspiracy,” because they were in the car with someone else who committed a crime? When we are in the presence of those people, it is clear we are called to have compassion for them and to stand with them.
I was once one of the comfortable and asleep. It’s not that I was a bad person or intentionally ignoring problems. It’s just that I thought that it was OK as long as people got to heaven. It’s easy to say, “One day you’ll be in heaven with God,” when it’s not your mom or brother or sister who is suffering. If someone in our family were sentenced to death, we’d be outraged. We need to wake people up so their hearts have a chance to respond.
Cook: To finish up, could you tell the story of David Lawson?
Prejean: In North Carolina death-row inmates used to be allowed to choose the method of their execution: the gas chamber or lethal injection. Most chose lethal injection because there appears to be less suffering, but David chose the gas chamber because he wanted them to see they were killing a man. If you are executed in this way, it’s best to take deep gulps of the gas so that it’s over quickly, but David took very shallow breaths and kept saying over and over again, “I’m a human being. I’m a human being. I’m a human being.” Even as the gas choked him and he lost control of his bodily functions, he kept saying, “I’m a human.”
People commit terrible crimes, and we’re outraged at the evil, but people also have dignity, and that must not be taken from them. They can transcend the wrongs they have done. To torture and kill people is to disregard their humanity. David reminded us that even those guilty of murder are still human beings.