May 26, 2020


Sister Helen Prejean and the Death Penalty: Decades of Fighting Capital Punishment

Sister Helen Prejean has dedicated her life to opposing the death penalty after she witnessed an execution in her home state of Louisiana. Her efforts have sparked a national dialogue on capital punishment and she has helped shape the Catholic Church’s position on the topic. In 2011, she donated her personal archives to the university to help the DePaul community continue to learn from her work. On this episode of DePaul Download, Sister Helen talks about life’s work and what keeps her going.



​LINDA BLAKLEY: Welcome to DePaul Download. I'm your host, Linda Blakley, vice president of University Marketing and Communications.

Today's guest is a well‑known advocate against the death penalty. For five decades, Sister Helen Prejean has led a national dialogue on capital punishment. She is the author of three books. One of them, Dead Man Walking, an eyewitness account of the death penalty in the U.S., inspired a play, an opera, and an Academy Award‑winning movie. 

If that wasn't enough, she also helped shaped the Catholic Church's position on the topic, urging John Paul II and Pope Francis to establish the Church's opposition to capital punishment under any circumstance.

In 2011, Sister Helen generously donated her personal archives to DePaul so that our community could continue to learn from her work. Normally, she travels each spring from her home in Louisiana to DePaul's campus to meet with the University community. However, as a result of the COVID‑19 pandemic, this year's visit was canceled.  With such an incredible body of work, DePaul Download still wanted to catch up with the advocate even if it meant talking to her from afar.

Sister Helen, I'm so glad to have this opportunity to speak with you today.

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Thank you, Linda. Good to be here.

LINDA BLAKLEY: For those who might not be familiar with your journey, can you share a brief summary of how you joined the fight against capital punishment?

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Yes. I gave the account of waking up to social justice in the book I just wrote, River of Fire. And when I woke up to the gospel of social justice, I moved into a poor African‑American neighborhood and began to really get an education about the other Americans and how things worked.

And while I was working there, one day a friend from the Louisiana Prison Coalition Office asked me if I'd like to write a death row inmate. And so I said, yeah, I could do that. I was an English major.

I thought I could write letters, never dreaming how it was going to change the trajectory of my life, because two and a half years after I started writing the letters to Patrick Sonnier on death row in Louisiana, I witnessed his execution by electrocution and came out of that execution chamber and knew that I couldn't walk away from it, that I had been a witness where few other people had been, and that I must tell the story and that I must devote my life to helping to wake up Americans and to wake up my own church about the death penalty and that we need to abolish it, and so I've been doing it ever since. That was back in 1984 when Pat was executed.

LINDA BLAKLEY: If you had a moment to explain why you believe the death penalty should be made illegal, what would you say?

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: I believe it should be made illegal because it is immoral.

The reason it is immoral, and this was the heart of my conversation with Pope John Paul II, is that it entails taking a conscious, imaginative human person and putting them in a small cell for many, many years and then strapping them down and rendering them defenseless and killing them.  It's the practice of torture, because conscious, imaginative human beings anticipate dying, picture dying, die in their minds a thousand times before they die.

The other part we really have to look at is imagine turning over power to government officials in the United States that they will have the wisdom to be able to determine who should be killed, for what crimes they should be killed, how to distinguish what they call the worst of the worst murderers from all the other murders that happen in the United States, and that we would be able to set up a court system in which we would absolutely be sure that we only executed guilty people. 

Thus far, 168 wrongfully convicted people have been exonerated off of death row because mistakes were made - prosecutorial misconduct, hiding evidence, having lying witnesses up there against the defendant. 

And we're beginning to see how terribly flawed it is, and the reason it is flawed and will always be flawed is because it's up to the discretion of individual prosecutors whether to seek death or not, and politics then plays 95 percent of the role, because prosecutors run for office and want to be reelected, and if they are in a part of the country, which in the beginning was almost every part of the country, now it's mostly just a few states ‑‑ decide they want to go for the death penalty, they determine whether or not a human being is going to live or die. 

It was impossible that we would set up a system like this to think that we could play the God role and decide that some of our fellow human beings could be killed. It also gives juries an inscrutable task, because here's a person who's done a terrible crime. 

Granted, you're horrified at what they've done, but then you are asked to go behind closed doors and decide if they should live or die. And the stories now, we've been doing this over 30 years, are coming out about jurors making those decisions and then later the agony of having participated in a decision to kill a fellow human being, their regrets, their guilt, as well as all the stories we're getting now of the guards and the wardens and the people who directly participate in executions.

The deepest moral question for us Christians is that we're called to follow Jesus. It couldn't be more opposite to the gospel of Jesus that if you killed, it's okay that we kill you.  We will match your actions. We will imitate your actions and call it justice. I mean Jesus has taught us to forgive. Jesus taught us mercy. Jesus taught us to love, even to give our own life for others, much less to make decisions that we could kill our fellow human beings. It's the opposite of what Jesus stands for.

LINDA BLAKLEY: So how then, do you handle the delicate balance between supporting the convicted and supporting the victim and their family and friends?

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: To support victims' families who have experienced a violent death in very positive ways is to help them first to have groups of support who can pray with them, walk with them, and accompany them through healing. 

The states that execute also have a responsibility because they're charged with the welfare of their citizens, and so when violence happens through weakness in society where people are killed, they need to have, every state ought to have a victim assistance program and help that's vigorous. Often families, people lose their jobs, they can't focus after someone's been killed.  There's all kinds of need for counseling of families.

I was talking to one whose sister had been killed, and her parents then were so consumed with the grief and the wanting to get justice for her sister that she fell through the cracks.  She said, "They always remember my sister's, the date she was killed, but they forgot my birthday." So victims' families need real help. 

And then you need to expose the absolute hypocrisy of the state claiming that the way they can help these victims' families to heal, very few of these families by the way almost never an African‑American or a family of color get this.

In fact, that's one of the things about the death penalty is so racist. Overwhelmingly people who get the death penalty it's because they killed white people. But then they say to them, "Now, you wait and when it's time for the justice to be done," which means an execution, "you're going to get to sit on the front row and watch, and that is what we're going to do for you to heal you." 

And now all the stories we have of victims' families that are coming out that wanted this and waited for this justice and what it did for them. As Bud Welch said, he's a wonderful friend, his daughter Julie was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing and he had his own journey to make, of course, about Tim McVeigh and those that killed her in that bombing. And he just said, "Look, even if I had gone with the 100 and other, 168 other people, families that were represented in that killing and I had watched Tim McVeigh be executed, when I would come home, the chair that my daughter Julie Marie sat in would still be empty." 

And his key, he recognized that his spiritual journey was to deal with her loss, and he had to deal with not letting the anger and vengeance take over his life so that he'd lose his life as well.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Through years of work by you and others Pope Francis changed Catholic teaching to fully reject the death penalty in 2018. Can you talk about how you helped make this change possible and what that moment meant for you?

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Sure. I mean, I want to situate myself right away in the context of community. When change happens like this, it happens through community. I'm part of it but it does happen that I did get to play some role in helping the Church to end the death penalty.

And the way it happened was in my second book, The Death of Innocents, I talk about two innocent people that I accompanied to execution and one was Joseph O'Dell in Virginia. And so I got involved with his case and Italy got involved in trying to help him. The Italian Parliament was sending people over. They were faxing letters to the governor of Virginia not to kill Joseph.  He had an abysmal trial. The evidence, you know, it was just terrible what had happened to him and here he was innocent.

So because Italy got so involved with the case of Joseph O'Dell, Pope John Paul of course had heard about it too. And I had a chance then, because of Joe's case, to write a letter directly to Pope John Paul. 

And here's the heart of the discussion and the moral dilemma and issue of the death penalty for Catholics. The traditional teaching always said that the purpose of capital punishment was to defend society. And when you look back in the days of Thomas Aquinas in the 12th century where he said we must, you know, terminate the life of violent criminals to protect society, it was always about defense. It was not this recent thing of, “oh their crime is so terrible that we have decided that they deserve to die."

And so anyway, so I got to write this letter to Pope John Paul II. And I said, "Your Holiness, does the Catholic Church only uphold the dignity of innocent life? I meet so many Catholics who say they're pro‑life but then they draw a line in the sand when it comes to the death penalty because they say, 'But they're guilty. They deserve to die for what they did.' And, Your Holiness, when I'm walking with a man to execution and he's shackled hand and foot, he's surrounded by six guards and we're about to walk 40 yards to the room where they're going to kill him, and he turns to me and he says, 'Sister, please pray God holds up my legs while I make this walk.'"

And I said to the Holy Father, I said, "Where is the dignity in making a human being completely defenseless and killing them when we have prisons to protect society?  We can defend society."

And the essence of the pivotal point, moral point was you could recognize that you cannot call this defending society, and it's the practice of torture to take a human being, who's imaginative and alive, and strapping them down and making them defenseless and killing them.

So that was in 1997. That's the year Joseph O'Dell was executed and his body was sent to Italy, and they buried him there, the Italian people, saying, "We will not let him be buried in Virginia soil." And so that was in '97.

Then in 1999, when Pope John Paul came to America, twice before he had come, and whenever he spoke of moral issues or pro‑life issues, he had never mentioned the death penalty. And then in '99 in St. Louis, for the first time he put the death penalty in with the other pro‑life issues. And in a public address in St. Louis he said no to abortion, no to euthanasia, no to physician‑assisted suicide and no to the death penalty, which is cruel and unnecessary. And then he added, "Even those among us who have done terrible crimes have a dignity that must not be taken from them." 

And that was a real turning point in the consciousness of everybody and the dialogue. In other words, no matter how terrible a crime someone has done, they have an inherent dignity that they do not deserve to be tortured and killed when they're rendered defenseless. That's the key thing in it. 

And so after Pope John Paul said that in '99, we could begin to see the trends in the other direction. What's so hopeful about it is when they're doing these national polls, because for a while Catholics were above the rest, I mean, people that went to church, all the churchgoers, there was a terrible poll, terrible poll in the mid‑'80s that, it just showed the more people went to church, the more they supported the death penalty. 

And so then after Pope John Paul does this and the shift happens, then you begin to see when they'd ask people their reason for opposing the death penalty, Catholics started coming out stronger and stronger that it's against the dignity of the human person. And now Catholics, we're more or less with churches in the forefront of abolishing the death penalty.

Then after the Pope was strong, then the bishops got stronger. And, finally, we reached the point with Pope Francis on August 2nd, 2018, changing the catechism to say that under no circumstances can we ever allow the State to kill. 

Up to that point, all of the bishops' statements, every time you heard dialogue on the death penalty from the Catholic point of view, they would always uphold the right of the State to take life. And as long as you're going to give governments a right to take life, then you put them in charge of who dies, what the criteria is, what the system is for killing them. And as Amnesty International has amply documented, whenever you give governments that power, inevitably they go after the poor, they go after those that are prejudiced against them in society and those that can't defend themselves.

LINDA BLAKLEY: So over the five decades of work advocating for the abolition of the death penalty, what are some of the most surprising things you've learned about the criminal justice system and the capital punishment process?

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: First of all, how arbitrary and capricious the selection of people to die is, because it's up to individual prosecutors. 

So you can have county by county, a prosecutor and a D.A. that goes for the death penalty every chance they get, and right next door is somebody who never goes for the death penalty, because it's up to individuals to make that decision. If a prosecutor or a D.A. does not make a decision to go for the death penalty, there will be no death penalty. That's one of the things that's really clear. 

And now we can see that there's just a few pockets in the United States where D.A.s are going after the death penalty. We really see the trend that executions are down, death sentences are down and the death penalty is not being sought. That was the first thing I learned.

Second, I learned why poor people are the only ones on death row. And I learned that that happens because they can't hire a really good crackerjack lawyer who's going to really fight for their constitutional rights all through the trial, go get the forensic evidence, do pretrial motions and really resist the death penalty the D.A. is seeking. They're all poor.  

And one of the big shocks and surprises that happened in Pat Sonnier's case, he was the first, and it's been present in every other case, because they didn't have sharp lawyers who were willing and put in the work to file with the judge a formal objection when the constitutional rights were not upheld at trial. 

For example Dobie Gillis Williams, who's the first story in The Death of Innocents, a black man, an African‑American man in this little town of Many, Louisiana, a white woman had been killed in her bathroom. And they did this, spread out this net and just pulled in a bunch of young black men, because supposedly the husband had said, they only had his word. The husband had said that his wife right as she was dying, saying, "A black man killed me." 

So they pull in Dobie. They have him down in the cellar of the police station, got him to confess or supposedly, they said.  And the lawyer his defense lawyer, let an all‑white jury be sat and did not raise a formal objection.

So what that meant was that any appeals court would not look at prejudice in the jury because the lawyer hadn't filed a formal complaint, objection to it. And so no appeals court then, could look at Dobie's constitutional right to a jury of his peers. And he just went down the wash and he was executed.

So I learned what it means not to have a good lawyer. And I fear it is comparable to you have a serious brain tumor and you can't get to a good doctor because you don't have the money to get good healthcare. You don't have good health. I think they're comparable.

And the other thing I found was how the politicians, their ace in the hole, the way they justified themselves the most in seeking the death penalty was they're going to do it for the victim's family. The victim's family. They're going to do it for the victim's family.

And I've been at death penalty trials where I've heard prosecutors do their closing arguments and saying, "Ladies and gentlemen of the jury don't feel sorry for this defendant. Look what this defendant did and look over at that family. They're never going to see their daughter graduate from college. They're never going to see their grandchildren. And do justice for that family."

And what justice means coming out of that prosecutor's mouth, is only death will do. They suffered a loss by death so therefore you got to vote to kill him. And then the jurors get thrown into their own anguish on that.

So the politics. Millard Farmer, a champion lawyer, who was one of my great teachers, took Pat Sonnier's case in the very beginning, said, "The death penalty is 95 percent about politics, 5 percent about criminal justice," because politicians got elected to office by talking tough on crime and they would attack their opponents against the death penalty as weak.

And if you notice this is the first presidential campaign where we actually have candidates for President who said they are totally against the death penalty. We have never had that before.

And the way I see the Holy Spirit moving in us and moving in us as a people is some people get in close to a situation, they begin to witness the horrors of it, they come out, they share with their fellow human beings, "Hey, look at this." 

I mean it's the way we changed slavery. It's the way women got the vote. We get in there; we see the suffering. We see, oh, this is wrong, and we grow together. And I see the Holy Spirit is flapping her wings over us, over the waters of chaos, where these kind of things go on, and gradually the people will wake up.

And if I can say my great discovery in going from city to city across this nation, it has been the goodness of the American people. Most people bought into the death penalty because they were made to be so afraid of these criminals, because these criminals, they're innate killers, the only thing we can do is execute them. And they were made to be afraid, and then they're distanced from the process.

The whole reason for Dead Man Walking, for writing the book, was to bring people close. There's a saying from liberation theology in Latin America, "What the eye does not see, the heart cannot feel."

And so what I do when I go and talk with audiences is to wake up people and say, "Look, here's what I know you've heard about why we got to do the death penalty," and just tick them off, bop, bop, bop, to, you know, to defend society because these people will never, we can't put them in prison. They'll kill guards.  They're innate killers and all that. 

And then I take them through the story of how I got involved and was learning along the way, all along the way and then I take them to an execution. And in my book, River of Fire, in the preface I talk about that as the fire of the book was the witnessing of the electrocution of Patrick Sonnier.

And it goes like this. “They killed a man with fire one night.  They strapped him in a wooden chair and pumped electricity through his body until he was dead. His killing was a legal act.  No religious leaders protested the killing that night, but I was there. I saw it with my own eyes. And what I saw set my soul on fire – a fire that burns in me still. And now here is an account of how I came to be in the killing chamber that night and the spiritual currents that brought me there."

LINDA BLAKLEY: I have one more question for you, if I may. In 2011 you chose to donate your personal papers to DePaul. What made you choose DePaul University and what do you want DePaul to learn or know about your lifelong work?

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Well, what I want to share with DePaul and the people there and everyone is what's in those archives, because it's a story.  

It had letters from the prisoners, just documenting how I wrote Dead Man Walking, what the editor's notes were, how I shaped that story. If I hadn't had that good editor, you never would have heard of Dead Man Walking and all about how the film was made. Everything about and the stories of the people, and the struggle of the victims' families and all.

But I chose DePaul, Suzanne Dumbleton was the dean of the School of New Learning there at DePaul, and I got to be friends with her. And she was here in New Orleans one time around my birthday, actually, and we were having a little celebration and she asked a casual question. And she said, "By the way, during in the hurricanes or whatever, what do you do? Where are your archives or where are you keeping all your things?"

And we'd go, "Oh in little cardboard boxes right up here. Right over here in this room." 

And she said, and she was at DePaul. And she had a connection with DePaul and so I went and I visited with DePaul and the Office of Mission and Values, who is, who was in charge of the ‑‑ no. It was Father Ed. So Father Ed takes me and we talk. 

And when I went to the library before I went into the room where you had the special collections, they had all saints who had been involved in justice. And, of course Saint Vincent DePaul was just such a hero of mine. The Vincentians were in New Orleans and working closely at a place in Hope House, where poor people are and I knew them. And I could see that there was a bent at DePaul to connect justice with faith and that was all I needed. 

And so I said, "Okay. DePaul gets my archives." 

And it has been a great experience, Linda. I mean you know working with the archivists, with Morgan and Jamie. And so I'm not physically at DePaul this year, but I've already had Zoom with two classes, Fred Wellisch's the struggle for social justice, for human rights. And people read the book then they reflect. Then I come and have the Zoom conference. 

And I'm amazed at how well these Zoom things work. It's like you're in the room together. The main thing that happens is the conversation. So the students, it's a student‑driven conversation, because they have the questions and so then I can respond. 

And then we just did it also with the class on adaptations, students that were studying film. And so how did the book get adapted into a film?  What was it like to work with Tim Robbins?  What kind of things went into it?  Are you disappointed in anything the film did?  What's the difference, you know, between the film and the book? 

I mean, just all these good questions of even how is the art of how you take a book and translate it into a film or into an opera or music out of it, the whole thing. 

And so it's been very dynamic. So I have a commitment to DePaul.  I have a special commitment to DePaul to work with DePaul. So I said I'll come once a year for a week and go to the different classes. 

I'm especially interested too in River of Fire, which is the latest thing, we've just put the manuscript there of River of Fire, is the change in the Catholic Church and what Vatican II did to change the Church. 

So I talk about my experiences of Vatican II being one of the things that helped wake me up. And it was, in a way, it's seismic because, you know often, before Pope John XXIII brought the council together, we were kind of hunkered down in a kind of fortress church of we've got to defend ourselves against heresy, and it was all about keeping the doctrines right. Jesus is both God and man. 

And then what Pope John XXIII said is that you got to look at the world in which we are and read the signs of the times.

So it put the Church directly in that relationship so that the gospel can be brought alive and live. And we see that in Saint Vincent DePaul, of course because look at what was happening all around him in France. People were starving to death. There had been religious wars. And he gets out there and he gets organized. He gets organized and he starts responding. And he's just such a great model. Just a simple, humble man that just says, "We got to do something." And Louise de Marillac working right at his side. 

And so that's what it's about. It's about the Church waking up, which means we wake up. And I was such a slow learner Linda.  I mean, I was 40 before I got the connection. 

That's what River is about, about the connection that the gospel of Jesus is not just about being prayerful and pious and charitable to people around you. All that's good but it's to see the wider community and the suffering. 

As Pope Francis has said the Church ought to be a field hospital out where the wounded and the suffering are. And now with this COVID‑19 thing that we have upon us, it is epic.

I mean the UN is predicting that half, half of the people of the world are going to undergo hunger and starvation. It's affecting the food chains. It's just such a serious time. And right from Pope John XXIII, read the signs of the times and what is the call of the gospel for individuals, for us to do to respond to that.

LINDA BLAKLEY: You are an incredible example of someone who lives DePaul's Vincentian values each and every day. When I think of someone who strongly believes in the dignity of every individual, you are one of the first people I think of. And for your efforts, we thank you, Sister Helen.

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: I'm glad to be a part of it all. Glad to be awake.

LINDA BLAKLEY: I'm Linda Blakley. Thank you for listening to this episode of DePaul Download, presented by DePaul's division of University Marketing and Communications. ​​​