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The death-penalty nun

02 November 2006

SISTER HELEN Prejean never imagined that hers would become a household name. "When I first made vows as a young nun, expecting for the rest of my days to teach youngsters in a classroom, I never dreamed that one day, when people inserted ‘death penalty nun’ into a global internet search engine, my name would appear," she says today.

Sister Helen was catapulted on to the public stage in the 1990s as a result of her ministry to prisoners on death row and her campaigning against the death penalty, which grew out of that experience. In 1981, as part of her work with the poor in New Orleans, she agreed to write to Patrick Sonnier, who was convicted of killing two teenagers and was awaiting execution. In time, she became his spiritual adviser, and accompanied him to his death in 1984, where, she says, she "watched in mute horror as the state of Louisiana killed him in the electric chair"

The experience changed everything. She set up the Death Penalty Discourse Centre to start people discussing the issues, and continued working with condemned prisoners. She has now accompanied six men to their deaths.

In 1993, she wrote a book, Dead Man Walking: An eyewitness account of the death penalty in the United States, based on her experiences. To her amazement — "My publisher and I knew that it would be a miracle if a book on such a grim topic, written by a Catholic nun, became a best-seller," she says — it shot to number one on the New York Times list, where it stayed for 31 weeks, becoming an international best-seller in the process.

In 1995 the director Tim Robbins turned her story into a movie, also called Dead Man Walking, starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, which was distributed worldwide and picked up four Oscars. In 2000, the film became an opera, and, two years later, a stage play, which tours schools and colleges in the US.

Today, Sister Helen has travelled extensively, giving lectures in the US and beyond. She has become an acknowledged expert on the death penalty and its legal complexities. She is the first name that the media seek out in the debate on capital punishment (and thus the Google notoriety), and appears regularly on TV and radio. Along the way, she also picked up a number of honorary degrees and a host of awards, the most recent of which was the 2005 Peace Prize of the City of Ypres, awarded every three years by the young people of the city.

Now she has written a second book, published in the UK this month. Like Dead Man Walking, the new book, The Death of Innocents: An eyewitness account of wrongful executions, is about her journey accompanying men on death row to their executions. The difference this time is that she is convinced that the two men whose stories she tells went to their deaths innocent of the crimes of which they were convicted.

"Dobie Gillis Williams and Joseph Roger O’Dell were innocent," she writes in the preface. "The courts of appeal didn’t see it that way. Once the guilty verdicts were pronounced and death sentences imposed, every court in the land put their seal of approval on the death sentences of these two men without once calling for a thorough review of their constitutional claims." She adds: "I used to think that America had the best court system in the world. But now I know differently."

Much of The Death of Innocents is concerned with the fine detail of their cases which, she believes, proves their innocence, and the trail of negligence that, she argues, led to their sentences. The second half of the book argues more widely the injustice and inhumanity of the death penalty in the US, and the flaws in the moral arguments that are repeatedly employed in its favour. (For example, Justice Antonin Scalia, a devout Roman Catholic, argues that the only reason Europe has abandoned the death penalty is because it is a post-Christian society.)

Sister Helen believes that the death penalty is not only morally unacceptable, but seriously flawed, because it condemns the innocent with the guilty. Since 1973, 119 people in the US have been exonerated of the crimes that sent them to death row in the first place. "Our broken death-penalty system puts us in constant danger of killing innocent people," she says. "It’s intractable: the people on death row are poor, and they don’t get adequate defence. The truth doesn’t come out at trial, and then the gates seal.

"Take Kenny Richey [the Scot who has spent 17 years on death row in Ohio]: he had poor defence, the forensic evidence was skewed, and the truth didn’t come out at trial. Now there is new evidence, but they won’t let it back in. The courts rely excessively on procedural requirements.

"To put a conscious, imaginative human being in a place as tiny as a small bathroom for 17 to 20 years, expecting their death, is mental torture. The US has signed up to the UN Convention Against Torture, yet is practising torture in this way."

The US leads the world in incarceration per capita: more than two million people — one in 142 Americans — are currently in prison. And there are strong links between race, poverty, and imprisonment: one in three African-American males aged between 20 and 29 is behind bars. More African American males are currently incarcerated in the US (4834 per 100,000 of the population) than were incarcerated in South Africa at the height of apartheid (when the rate was 851 out of 100,000). Furthermore, although African- Americans make up 12 per cent of the American population, they account for more than 40 per cent of those condemned to death.

Sister Helen discovered these unpalatable truths when she moved from "a manicured lakefront suburb" in one part of New Orleans into the "noisy, chaotic St Thomas Housing Project" to work among poor African-Americans in the 1980s. Born into a comfortably-off family in Baton Rouge in 1939, she had joined the Sisters of St Joseph of Medaille aged 18, and trained as a teacher. The great change in her life began when the sisters felt increasingly called to work with the poor.

  "Geographically, I had travelled less than five miles. Spiritually, I had crossed a galaxy," she says. "It seemed that I had changed countries: gunshots in the night or in broad daylight, blood on sidewalks, open drug deals, pregnant teenage girls, horrific encounters between young men and police, plenty of funerals and weeping mothers, and, for most young male residents, greased tracks straight into Angola Prison. Every family in St Thomas seemed to have a relative in prison. Young men in St Thomas talked about ‘doing time’ the way my Catholic students talked about going to college."

WHILE her first book opened up the ambivalence created by people’s natural sympathy with the victims’ families and their natural revulsion at letting state officials kill people, she hopes that the new book will get people thinking about the constitutional issues.

  She feels there are grounds for optimism. "The climate is changing. In the end it comes down to the practice of the people. In British history, when you had the death penalty, what began to happen was that juries did not enforce it.

"In New Jersey they have just passed the legislation to stop the death penalty. Nebraska and New Hampshire have tried to pass the legislation, but were overruled by their Governors. In New York there is an unofficial moratorium. These are all signs that the death penalty is beginning to slow down."

Even in Texas, which she calls "the buckle of the death belt", the figures are plummeting: the number of death sentences has halved in the past five years. During his six years as governor of Texas, George W. Bush presided over 152 executions, more than any other governor in the recent history of the US. But when John Kerry became the first presidential candidate in recent years to stand against the death penalty, Bush did not publicly challenge him on this. "I think he was trying to pull away from the image," she says.

 Less happily, she was saddened by the execution of Tookie Williams in California just before Christmas. Mr Williams, who admitted to a violent past, maintained he was innocent of the gang killings for which he was condemned, and during his time on death row became a vocal anti-gang crusader. "It was hard to lose Tookie Williams," she says. "It suggested redemption meant nothing, the restoration of a life meant nothing. When [Governor] Arnold Schwarzenegger denied him clemency, it meant the state was showing the same moral code as the gangs: you kill, we kill. It was not prepared to hear how someone had changed.

"But it’s going to get harder for Arnold Schwarzenegger: the next person due to die in California is a 74-year-old diabetic amputee. Gandhi said: ‘Oppressors will stop oppressing us because it just gets to be too costly.’ That’s why the British left India, why the images of Martin Luther King on TV were so powerful, and why New York has put aside the death penalty."

Sister Helen says she will carry on campaigning until she sees an end to the death penalty. She reckons on eight to ten years of hard work educating people.

 "We hold on to this one issue because it is a gateway issue. The death penalty epitomises the deepest wounds in our society," she says. "Poverty has risen by 17 per cent under George Bush. Hurricane Katrina exposed that: those scenes in the Superdome showed the ‘other’ America. People in prisons are the other America, too."


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