'The Death Penalty Is About Us'

'Dead Man Walking' scribe Sister Helen Prejean speaks in town tonight

The year Sister Helen Prejean published her bestselling book Dead Man Walking – 1993 – was the same year the World Wide Web was born. The youngest voters today were born the same year – 1995 – that the film version of the book was released, resulting in multiple Academy Award nominations and an Oscar for Susan Sarandon who played Sister Helen.

A 2oth anniversary edition of Sister Helen's book – newly subtitled “The Eyewitness Account Of The Death Penalty That Sparked a National Debate” – was released earlier this year with a new preface by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and new afterwords by Susan Sarandon and director Tim Robbins.

A Roman Catholic nun whose famous biographical account is based on her experience accompanying Elmo Patrick Sonnier to his execution, Sister Helen has accompanied others in their last moments and served as spiritual adviser and pen pal with other prisoners, including Cathy Lynn Henderson. She will speak and sign books at the Friends Meeting of Austin (Quakers) Meetinghouse (3701 E. MLK Blvd., 512/452-1841) tonight at 7pm. The event also serves as a benefit fundraiser (the reissued books will be available for purchase) to support Henderson, whose death row sentence was overturned on appeal; Henderson will be retried for the 1994 Travis County death of a baby in her charge, although prosecutors say they will not seek the death penalty.

We caught up with the most widely known advocate for the abolition of the death penalty to discuss what the future of capital punishment looks like in our society.

Sister Helen Prejean (image courtesy of www.sisterhelen.org)

Austin Chronicle: This year marks the 20th anniversary of your book, Dead Man Walking. Please tell me how you got started and why you decided to write the book.

Sister Helen Prejean: In 1982, I got a letter to write a man on death row, and I saw it as part of justice for the poor, so I wrote him a letter. Two and a half years later, I am with him when he is killed in the electric chair. That is the story of Dead Man Walking. I had begun to learn all about the death penalty, how it works. … But also in the process, which at first I did wrongly – I didn’t reach out to the victim’s family because I didn’t know what to do with them – I didn’t think they’d want to see me.... I kind of downplayed it in the first draft, and [my editor] helped me put it up there front and center, that I had done. … Can executing somebody and their family watching it – can it really heal them? ... So I tell the two stories – getting involved with the perpetrator and the victims. ...

My second book The Death of Innocents is about how mistakes [are made] and … also how the courts work. That if you have an ineffectiveness of council, a trial, and you’re sentenced to death, and part of the ineffectiveness of that lawyer was that they did not raise an objection when certain things happen when your constitutional rights weren’t respected. For example, Dobie Gillis Williams, who is the first story in The Death of Innocents. He’s a black man accused of killing a white woman in a little small town in Louisiana, and he looks out at the jury of – the impartial jury of his peers – and sees all white people. And it had been a white woman killed. How in the world is that black man going to get justice with an all white jury, when it had been a white victim, a woman, and most of the people on the jury were white women? I mean, if we put that shoe on the other foot for half a second and could picture a white person going on trial for their life and they look out and they have an all black jury it wouldn’t take any time for courts to just go, “You know the constitutional rights of a white person with an all black jury have not been respected.”...

The aim [of the reissuing of the book] is to get it out to as many people as we can, because I know the book does good work. It’s a readable book. …I’m coming to Austin because I’m visiting a woman –

Austin Chronicle: Cathy Henderson.

Sister Helen Prejean: Cathy Henderson, yeah. So I don’t know what you know about her case –

Austin Chronicle: Well, our paper has written about Cathy Henderson’s case multiple times. I went back and read those articles and blurbs updating it, but I’d like to ask you to update us and also tell me a little bit about a) how you got involved with Henderson and b), what her new situation shows in terms of progress for your cause.

Sister Helen Prejean: I want to begin this … with sensitivity to the Baugh family who lost their child and went through a tremendous suffering ... to have a child disappear and not know if their child is alive or dead.

Austin Chronicle: I cannot imagine.

Sister Helen Prejean: I cannot imagine the terrifying grief of those parents, and there is a whole part of me that can understand that when the state prosecuting attorney said “We’re going for the death penalty for this woman who killed your child – and murdered your child,” I can well understand that those grieving parents, they would have had to be super human to say, “No, we don't want the death penalty.” And especially where they're in a culture, like Texas, where the death penalty is so roundly supported by people. … But as this gets extended now, I’m sure they have experienced that the removal of the death penalty has been a betrayal. It’s a betrayal of the death of their child because that’s the way the death penalty is framed. ...

The reason the death sentence was overturned was the lawyers who took a case in post-conviction got experts to show that in fact it could have been an accident. Which is what Cathy had always said… Now she’s at this stage, and she’s already been on death row, or in prison, for 12 maybe going on 13 years, so in terms of [wanting] a person to pay, “pay” for their crimes – in other words you want them to have punishment – you know, Cathy has been punished. To push it to the ultimate and say, “only her death will do,” I don’t believe that and I don’t believe that is good for anybody, actually. To say that only the death of a human being, which you would allow the representative of her family to watch, could help anybody. And I’m getting that information just working with people’s families over these 20 years. ...

I got involved with her because I had gone to death row to visit with the women in Texas during the time when Karla Faye Tucker was alive. And I’d gone to see the women – do you know the story of Karla Faye Tucker?

Austin Chronicle: Yes.

Sister Helen Prejean: So that’s when I met Cathy, and then afterwards, almost a year afterwards, I get a letter from her because we’d met. She said, you know, “I’m really worried. Texas is really killing women. There have been a number of women executed.” And she said, “Would you be with me? If I’m executed, would you be with me? I think you could help me be calm.” So I responded to the letter and went and visited her and have been doing it ever since, and accompanying her.

Austin Chronicle: Do you get these letters more frequently than you could possibly, as one human being, help with? What is the frequency that people reach out to you?

Sister Helen Prejean: Yeah. I just want to temper that, though, with saying I get a lot of requests in a lot of ways from people who need help. The actual request, “Will you accompany me?,” does not happen that often. That’s usually with people I have met in some way, and I met Cathy. But I do get a lot of requests from prisoners and try to do what I can.

Austin Chronicle: That has to be incredibly – I don’t want to use the word burden, but it seems like a heavy weight for one person to carry.

Sister Helen Prejean: Yes, it is.

Austin Chronicle: I’m wondering if, say, there’s someone who is sort of toeing the line towards investigating personally, like you said reading a book and then formulating their own opinion, what kinds of things would you offer up and do you have any rehabilitation successes that you –

Sister Helen Prejean: Yeah. Well the first thing is to take death off the table. The state that has trouble doing everything, truthfully - I mean you know, getting the taxes right, serving the people who need help the most - cannot put itself in the position of having the wisdom to be able to decide who should live and who should die. The thing is, we have to take death off the table as an option. And what I have found in talking to the American people – because I have crisscrossed this country now for 20-plus years talking to people in all the states – is what most people want is to be sure that they can be safe that the person isn’t going to kill again. So you really have to bring them through what life without parole means. And that the person is not going to get out again. It’s a safety issue for people. ‘Cause they’ve even done books on Americans who are paranoid about crime, and think we’re going to be murdered every second. Because the papers, the press, the TV news at night, just emphasizes all the time violence, violence, violence, robbery, murder, rape. That’s all they hear on the news. You have an exaggerated sense of it. ...

You want to talk about burden? Think of the burden on ordinary citizens who know the person’s done a terrible crime and then they have to face the decision of, do we kill them or not? Then they have on their hands the decision to kill, to have the state kill the person. And they know that they can be given life without parole – before juries weren’t even told this, they didn’t know – now they do. And it gives most people, I find, including on juries, especially on juries, are looking for a way to be able to choose life. Most people realize that they don’t want to have in their hands the responsibility to have a person killed. …

We’ve been at it 30 years. What is the practical difference if you send somebody to prison for life without parole? You’ve got to educate them, of course, that it's not more costly to keep them in prison for life than executions. You’ve got to help them to understand what prosecutors say: That the capital case is the Cadillac of the criminal justice system because everything about it is more costly, and then you have years and years of appeals, and you can’t take that away. So it’s to help people understand and help educate people. …

The death penalty is about us. People do terrible, unspeakable crimes where there’s outrage over their crimes, and that’s a very ethical way – we should be outraged over the death of innocent people – but the death penalty is about us and what kind of people we want to be. Do we imitate the worst possible behavior to try to send a moral signal to call people to a higher moral ground that we should not kill? As if we could do that by killing. And then to recognize our own human frailty and mistakes. 142 wrongfully convicted people have come off of death row because mistakes were made. Mistakes are made because we’re human beings. Mistakes are made because over 90% of the 142 people that have been freed were prosecutorial misconduct. They overreached, they hid evidence that would have proven innocence, they were so bent on winning the case. And so by recognizing more our human frailty – we’re just human beings that take on these God-like powers, that we will be able to discern the worst from among all the different kinds of terrible acts that happen – and so that we’d take a humbler position to let people live. And then we need to focus our attention. Prisons should be places of restoration, of life, of rehabilitation, and not places where we simply warehouse people and cause them pain and punishment, so they “pay” for their crimes.

Sister Helen Prejean will speak and sign books at the Friends Meeting of Austin Meetinghouse (3701 E. MLK Blvd.) on Tuesday, Dec. 3, 7pm.

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Sister Helen Prejean, Dead Man Walking, Cathy Lynn Henderson, Desmond Tutu, death row

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