`Death penalty nun' sees tide turning

Q and A

Q&a -- Sister Helen Prejean

April 02, 2006|By JENNIFER MCMENAMIN | JENNIFER MCMENAMIN,SUN REPORTER

Sister Helen Prejean was living in a New Orleans housing project, ministering to poor, black families and teaching high school dropouts, when she received an invitation in 1982 to write to a death row inmate.

The Roman Catholic nun accepted, viewing the task as an extension of her work with the poor. Her two-year relationship as a spiritual adviser to convicted murderer Elmo Patrick Sonnier, prisoner No. 95281 on Louisiana's death row, became the basis for her widely acclaimed memoir, Dead Man Walking.

"He was executed in '84, and I didn't even know how my life had changed," Prejean said during a recent interview in Baltimore. "When I came out of that execution chamber that night, I threw up, and then I thought, `I've got to start telling this story.' Then I threw up again."

The audiences at her earliest public appearances might have discouraged a less-determined woman. She remembers, for instance, three people attending a talk with "the death penalty nun" at a New Orleans nursing home. Only one of them was still awake after 10 minutes.

But it wasn't long before Prejean was attracting the attention of much different audiences. First, actress Susan Sarandon called about turning Dead Man Walking into a movie. The film, written and directed by Tim Robbins, received four Oscar nominations in 1996.

A year later, Prejean wrote to then-Pope John Paul II, detailing her objections to capital punishment and warning the pontiff that prosecutors across the country were using the language of his 1995 encyclical - that the state could execute people "in cases of absolute necessity" - to justify the death sentences they sought. Later that year, perhaps not coincidentally, the pope reversed 1,700 years of church teachings when he eliminated any permitted use of the death penalty from the new Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Prejean, 66, recently spoke with The Sun about the status of the death penalty in the United States and her continued efforts to abolish capital punishment.

It's been 13 years since the publication of your first book, Dead Man Walking. How do you think the nation's view of the death penalty has changed since then?

The difference has been that in 1999 we reached a peak in executions, and then, beginning in 2000, word got out about innocent people along with the guilty put on death row. The huge change is a change in practice. Death sentences have been cut in half, even in Harris County, Texas, which has had as many as 200 capital cases in one year. There were only two death sentences there last year. So what we see is that the people are shutting down the death penalty.

Just a few years ago there seemed to be a lot of momentum against the death penalty, with Gov. George Ryan of Illinois commuting the sentences of all 167 death row prisoners and a lot of attention paid to people being freed by DNA evidence. Do you think people have become a little bit less concerned with the notion of an innocent person sentenced to death? Or has the stream of exonerations made each individual case a little bit less shocking?

It shocked people to know that what we thought - myself included - was the best court system in the world could have tolerated this many mistakes. So it shook people's confidence in the process. Now, opinion polls show 64 percent of the American public is for the death penalty. That's the lowest it's been in 20 years. And all of that plays out in the actual practice - prosecutors seek it less, juries give it less.

In the Catholic Church, support for the death penalty has dropped below 50 percent because there's been real development in the Catholic Church in its teachings - now, it has taken a principled stand against the death penalty. That is borne out in the attitudes of the people, who are hearing the issue more from the pulpit and being taught it.

Do you think people have become accustomed to the fact that there are going to be a certain number of exonerations of people who are on death row, that sometimes we're just going to get it wrong? There seems to be a little less uproar each time there is another person freed from death row.

I think that is true to some extent. Human beings have a tremendous capacity to compartmentalize things - [they think,] "Oh, yeah, here we go. Another one of those innocence stories. Well, we know it's not perfect." For some people, it will just mean that sometimes you're going to get the innocent along with the guilty. But that is not most people.

Thirty-seven of the 38 states that have death penalty statutes use lethal injection as their method of execution. Nearly all of them use the same three-drug combination. I'm wondering what you think of the case of Michael Morales out in California - his execution was halted after he challenged the lethal injection procedure - and the couple of Florida cases that the Supreme Court has taken up. What do you think that means for the future of lethal injections?

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