Dead Man Walking: Extended Interview with Sister Helen Prejean on Decades of Death Penalty Activism
Sister Helen Prejean is one of the world’s most well-known anti-death penalty activists. As a Catholic nun, she began her prison ministry more than 30 years ago. She is the author of the best-selling book, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States. The 20th anniversary edition of the book was just published. The book’s been translated into numerous languages and turned into an opera, a play and an Academy Award-winning film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. Prejean is also the founder of Survive, a victims’ advocacy group in New Orleans. She continues to counsel not only inmates on death row, but also the families of murder victims.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Our guest is Sister Helen Prejean, one of the world’s most well-known anti-death penalty activists. As a Catholic nun, she began her prison ministry over 30 years ago. She’s the author of the best-selling book Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty. The book has been translated into numerous languages, turned into an opera, a play and Academy Award-winning film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. The book was published 20 years ago. Let’s go to a trailer of the film.
ASSISTANT DA: This man, he shot Walter Delacroix two times in the back of his dead and raped Hope Percy and stabbed her 17 times. In the courtroom and at sentencing, he was smiling and chewing his gum. He is an unfeeling, perverse misfit, and it is time.
CHAPLAIN: You have put in a request to be the spiritual adviser to Matthew Poncelet. This boy is to be executed in six days. You must be very, very careful.
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: [played by Susan Sarandon] Well, Matthew, I made it.
MATTHEW PONCELET: [played by Sean Penn] You’ve never done this before?
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: No.
MATTHEW PONCELET: You’ve never been this close to a murder before?
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Not that I know of.
WARDEN: What is a nun doing in a place like this?
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: I just want to help him take responsibility for what he did.
MATTHEW PONCELET: I like being alone with you. You’re looking real good to me.
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Death is breathing down your neck, and you’re playing your little man-on-the-make games.
REPORTER: You’re a white supremacist, a follower of Hitler?
MATTHEW PONCELET: Hitler was a leader. He was on the right track that the Aryan was the master race.
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: You are making it so easy for them to kill you, coming across as some kind of a crazed, animal, Nazi, racist mad dog who deserves to die.
MATTHEW PONCELET: You can leave.
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: I’m not going to do that.
UNIDENTIFIED: You want to be there to comfort him when he dies? This is an evil man.
MATTHEW PONCELET: I didn’t kill him. I didn’t kill nobody. I swear to God I didn’t.
I ain’t gonna get no chair, Daddy.
I’m pissed off at them kids for being parked out in the woods that night, pissed off at their parents for coming to see me die.
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: You blame the government. You blame drugs. You blame blacks. What about Matthew Poncelet? What? Is he just an innocent?
If you do die, as your friend, I want to help you die with dignity. And I don’t see how you can do that unless you start to own up to the part you played in Walter and Hope’s death.
VOICE OVER: From writer, director Tim Robbins...
MATTHEW PONCELET: Don’t cry, Momma. I don’t want to see no crying.
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Don’t execute this man. You can stop this from happening, sir.
VOICE OVER: ...comes the story of one woman’s unquenchable courage...
MATTHEW PONCELET: Will you stay?
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: I’ll be there.
VOICE OVER: ...and one man’s last chance at life.
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: You are a son of God, Matthew Poncelet.
MATTHEW PONCELET: Nobody ever called me no son of God before. Called me the son of you know whats a lot of times, but never no son of God.
VOICE OVER: Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn. Dead Man Walking.
AMY GOODMAN: That was a trailer of Dead Man Walking. And Sister Helen Prejean is our guest, the woman on whom this is based. So many emotions and issues that were brought up by—well, why did you decide to walk into the prison that day? What was it like for you to meet the first person you met on death row? In the film, he’s Matthew Poncelet, but the real person.
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Yeah. I got ratcheted into it, because I—it was a spiritual awakening that the gospel of Jesus was not just about being charitable to people and being kind to people, but it was about justice and being on the side of the marginated. And so, I moved into the St. Thomas housing projects, and then I was just asked one day to write somebody on death row. I didn’t even know he was going to be killed, because we hadn’t had an execution in Louisiana in 20 years. There had been an unofficial moratorium. Death penalty was just coming back. So I wrote a letter. Patrick Sonnier, he was the first. And he wrote back. And so, then, he had nobody to visit him. So I went to visit him. I didn’t know—
AMY GOODMAN: What was that first visit like?
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: It was scary, as I’ll get at. And in the film, you know, you see Susan with those big eyes, scared out of her mind. It’s the way I was. It was like—I had never been in a prison before. You go in through all these metal detectors, guards. They’re going, "Woman on the tier!" People are shrinking back. I’m going, "Man, I’m going into the belly of the beast!" I had never done it before. And then I was kind of scared to meet him personally, too. I was glad we were locked in different rooms. He was behind a heavy mesh, you know, screen, because, of course, my image was like anybody’s. Well, you know, anybody can write nice letters, but I never talked to a murderer for two hours before. What is—is he going to be like human? Are we going to be able to have like a normal conversation?
And when I saw his face, it was so human, it blew me away. And I got a realization then, whatever he’s done, and I know I’m going to find out, and it’s going to be terrible, but he is worth more than the worst thing he ever did. And the journey began from there. And I knew nothing, didn’t know what to do with the victims’ families, made a terrible mistake, didn’t reach out to them. And, actually, my journey is what’s in the book, to take the reader there, because the American public needs to navigate these waters, as well.
I was just in England at Oxford University, and people in England always say, "What is it about the American people—you all are so vengeful—that you hold onto the death penalty?" And I have found—this is 20 years of talking to the American people—that people are not invested in the death penalty; they just never think about it. And I had been brought in as a witness. And when they killed Pat and the five other human beings I’ve been with, I just said, "I’ve got to take the people there." What you do is—when people are removed from seeing something, and you make people in your mind—the Supreme Court has said the death penalty is supposed to be for the worst of the worst, so everybody has this picture of monsters in their mind. They look at the crime, say they deserve to die. How do you break that open to a deeper reflection? And so, I speak, I travel, and the book. I put this book into people’s hands, knowing when they open that page—I tell them sometimes, "Fasten your seat belt, because it’s going to take you on a journey." And it does. It does. And the book—see, I didn’t know the power of a book. It’s a very powerful thing, because it’s so intimate, and you’re not debating with anybody, and you’re using your imagination to go across the divide, over the victims, over to the one being executed. And I found that deep reflection, that people’s hearts go—most people just say, "I didn’t know it was like that."
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Sister Helen, I’d like to turn to another clip from Dead Man Walking, which doesn’t paint a very flattering portrait of death row inmate Matthew Poncelet, who’s played by Sean Penn. In this clip, Sister Helen Prejean, played by Susan Sarandon, confronts Matthew about racist, violent comments he’s made during media interviews just days before he’s scheduled to be executed.
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: [played by Susan Sarandon] I’m reading these interviews, thinking you’re some kind of a nut, admiring Hitler, wanting to come back as a terrorist and blow people up?
MATTHEW PONCELET: [played by Sean Penn] I’d say no about people. Buildings, government buildings, not the people.
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: How can you bomb a building without hurting somebody?
MATTHEW PONCELET: Hey, I ain’t got no love for the U.S. government is all, all right?
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: You’re a fool. You are making it so easy for them to kill you, coming across as some kind of a crazed, animal, Nazi, racist mad dog who deserves to die.
MATTHEW PONCELET: Is that what you think?
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: You’re making it so difficult to help you.
MATTHEW PONCELET: You can leave.
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: I’m not going to do that. It’s up to you: You want me to go, you say so.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Sister Helen, that was another clip from Dead Man Walking. You’ve said, though, that the moral position on the death penalty is not predicated on an assumption that the person to be executed is a sympathetic figure—
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Absolutely.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: —but an unsympathetic one.
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Yeah.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, could you elaborate on that?
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Yeah, I mean, that’s the journey of the book, to look unblinkingly at the crime that this person has done. I had a wonderful editor, Jason Epstein, when I wrote Dead Man Walking, and he really helped me shape this story. And he said, "You wait far too long," in the original draft, "to take people into the horrible crime that this man has done. And people are going to think you’re overly sympathetic. You’re a Catholic nun. You’re a spiritual adviser. Jesus said forgive. They’re not going to read the book. And so, you’ve got to go there." And so I did, reshaped the story to go there. And then Tim Robbins, in doing the film, he saw that. He said, "This isn’t going to be about an innocent person. It’s about somebody really guilty, and you don’t like him, and you want to see him die." Because that’s the moral journey that we all have to go on—not about the innocent, but of what about the guilty? What about the guilty ones?
AMY GOODMAN: Sister Helen Prejean, you were the spiritual adviser to Robert Lee Willie, who was executed in December of 1984 for raping and murdering an 18-year-old named Faith Hathaway. I wanted to go to a pro-death penalty group who criticized your involvement with the case.
PRO-DEATH PENALTY VIDEO: In the movie Angel on Death Row, Sister Helen Prejean shared a one-sided story. The story she told revolved around Robert Lee Willie, not his victims or his horrific actions. She was asked to be Willie’s spiritual adviser because he was on death row.
He raped and killed one of his victims. Later, he raped another victim. Sister Helen Prejean looked at Robert Lee Willie’s case from his point of view. She did not look at the victims’ side. The victims should be a priority.
Thankfully, Debbie, one of Willie’s victim, was not murdered and was able to go to the police to persecute Willie. Sister Helen Prejean only looked from his point of view. He victimized himself. Prejean didn’t look at the real victims or their families. When Sister Helen Prejean wrote a book about Willie and his victims, she didn’t even approach Debbie or Faith’s family to hear their side. They had to relive the horror of their past without any choice in the matter.
An innocent victim was harmed unjustly. Justice is served when an abuser is given the ultimate punishment: death. There are some crimes that cannot be forgiven. Murderers shouldn’t be forgiven; they should be punished.
AMY GOODMAN: Helen Prejean, could you explain what this video is, this sort of young person’s analysis and criticism of you and Dead Man Walking?
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Yeah, and the summary comes in the last sentence: This man shouldn’t be forgiven; this man should be punished. And it’s the victim’s family, connected to Faith Hathaway, who was killed by Robert Willie and another man named Joe Vaccaro, and then another young woman who had been abducted by Robert Willie and then who lived. And so, she said, "She gives a one-sided view. It’s just about being sympathetic to the criminal." And, you know, I disagree with that. I believe I bring people solidly over to both sides.
But I understand victims’ families—and she’s connected to those families—who had suffered so terribly. And there’s societal pressure on people, as well, that when you’ve had the ultimate loss, you seek the ultimate punishment, which is death. And not to do that looks like you didn’t love that loved one. And that’s the cultural language that the death penalty is embedded in for the victims’ families.
But what’s interesting is that there’s a growing number of murder victims’ families who are speaking up saying, "The death penalty further harms us." When New Jersey did away with the death penalty five years ago, 62 murder victims’ families said—appeared at the Legislature, saying, "Don’t kill for us." It just prolongs their suffering. And they expose, "We’re going to wait 10, 15, maybe 20 years, and they you’re going to call us in when the person’s executed, and we’re going to get to watch you kill the one who killed our loved one, and that’s supposed to heal us?" So, I—any victim’s family who says, "We want to see the person die," I haven’t had a loved one murdered, I understand that they can say that and that they’ll maybe say that until their death. I can understand they will criticize me and say I’m taking the other person’s side, because it’s like a seesaw: You can’t be on their side and on our side, too. And I believe that the dignity of human life is you can be on both sides.
But what I learned, and the mistake I made of not reaching out to victims’ families is, when I did go to the support groups of murder victims’ families, the big shock I got was, as you went around the circle and everybody’s talking about their pain, the big shock was, everybody in the group said, "Everybody stays away from us, because they don’t know what to do with our pain." And I realized, they’re pariahs, too, in a way. And so, it’s important to do something very concrete—it may not change the whole world, but something concrete. And that’s why I founded Survive, a murder victims’ support group.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Sister Helen, as part of your advocacy against the death penalty, you’ve also pointed out the profile of the people on death row who are actually executed, saying that the vast majority are poor and responsible for killing white people. Could you elaborate on that?
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: This is a huge constitutional issue, you know? Where my—some of my greatest anger goes is to the Supreme Court of the United States. Supposedly, they set up guidelines in Gregg v. Georgia, when they put the death penalty back. That was going to correct why they had overturned the death penalty four years earlier in Furman, saying that it was arbitrary and capricious then and disproportionately imposed on poor people and minorities.
If they would just look at the practice, the thousand people executed, the 3,000-plus people on death row, they’re going to see a very clear pattern. Overwhelmingly, like 78 percent of people on death row are there because they killed white people. And when people of color are killed, there’s barely a blip on the screen, on the radar screen. It’s a very racist approach to—and I’ve come to understand it better, because you tend to identify with people who are like you, and overwhelmingly the criminal justice system is white. Ninety percent of the homicides in New Orleans are black-on-black murders. But the—very seldom, you’re going to pull out all your resources to go for the ultimate penalty. If you don’t value the person’s life, you’re not going to be outraged at their death. And we have never valued people of color’s lives as much as we have, because we’re a predominantly Caucasian society.
And the Supreme Court will not look at that, and they just simply let the death penalty be carried out, and they never look at the ground, they never look at the practice. And I hold them accountable for the continued use of the death penalty. They could shut it down at 9:00 tomorrow morning. If they would read the sign on the front door of their building, "Equal justice under law," then they could look at the racist way that it’s applied.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting that Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote the introduction to the new book, which has a new subtitle, Dead Man Walking: The Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty That Sparked a National Debate. And he writes, "As we held our national 'Truth and Reconciliation Commission' hearings and worked to rebuild our country, people around the world were making the same connections about the death penalty—how racist, unfair, and broken it is—and slowly a new global movement for the abolition of the death penalty began." So, you wrote this book 20 years ago. Eighteen states have now banned the death penalty. I think most people don’t realize that of the thousands of murders that take place, far less than 1 percent of those cases is a death penalty imposed. And as you point out—so, when people just say, "Well, of course, if you murder someone, you should be murdered," as you point out, you want to look at who actually gets murdered in that very small—who actually gets the death penalty in that small percentage of cases.
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Yeah, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: So what about the fact that 18 states have banned the death penalty and where it’s going today?
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Yeah. We started seeing in 2001 a trend away from the death penalty, in huge contrast to the 10 Southern states that practiced slavery, that do 80 percent of all the executions in this country, and we just have witnessed in Rick Scott, Florida governor, who said, "We’re going to put the death penalty on a fast track. It’s taking too long." And he has the power to do that as governor. And so, there are 13 people who have exhausted their appeals in the courts that he’s lining up on a fast track to be executed. And I just read that his—that he just got bumped up in terms of support of the people.
We have different cultures in this country. The Deep South states have always been the ones with the toughest penal reform. We are the highest incarcerator in the world, and Louisiana, my state, is the highest incarcerator of everybody. And we’re one of the death penalty states. All the Southern states are. And here’s another constitutional issue. Here’s another thing the court never looks at: the huge disparity of practice that 80 percent of all the worst of the worst people, who are on death row, happen to be in the 10 Southern states that practiced slavery. Whereas, when New York had it, when New Jersey had it, and the states that don’t have it—you know, they did less than 1 percent of all the executions. So the Northeast has been the first states to do away with it.
And the Supreme Court could do it, but they say the only way to measure the evolving standard of decency is when we’re going to have a majority of states that don’t execute people, that the legislators are the ones who have done it. So it probably is not going to happen in the South, though we’re working all of the states. But we do see a trend. Executions are down, the lowest number in the last two years. Death sentences are down. And even in Texas death sentences are down, because now jurors, when they’re given—they have to be told that the alternative is life without parole. Most jurors do want to choose life.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Sister Helen, I’d like to turn to the Dead Man Walking School Theatre Project, a way that you and others have incorporated your book into young people’s education. This is a clip from a student production.
STUDENT: I just want to say, I think killing’s wrong, no matter who does it, whether it’s me or you or your government!
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Sister Helen, could you talk about that, that project?
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Yeah, this is Tim Robbins, in an act of great generosity. He said, "We’ve got to get this issue to the young people of this country." So he wrote a stage play. He never makes a dime on royalties from this. He said, "Because the young people are the bearers of the future, we have to wake them up. And how better to do that?" It’s called the Dead Man Walking School Theatre Project. And over 240 schools around the country, high schools and universities, have done it. And it’s an education, because you not only have the theater department doing it, but two departments have to pick up the issue of the death penalty and study it. They read the book. They get into it. Mercy of San Francisco, Mercy High School, they had it throughout the whole curriculum. Chemistry was looking at the lethal injection. They’re looking at government. They’re looking at the way the Constitution works. They’re looking at, you know, public opinion. They’re looking at everything. And it was throughout the school. So it’s to get discourse going.
Tim Robbins did this. It’s been in operation about seven years. And now DePaul University in Chicago, that has the archives of Dead Man Walking, is now undertaking to be the administrators of the play project. Tim Robbins has been to DePaul with me in April, spoke to the students, talked about the courage to make a film that pushes the edges, gets people out of the box, and not the stereotypical thing that people expect in a film, and showing how with Dead Man Walking you can have a deeply reflective film on a controversial issue. And, he said, "That’s real art. That’s what you do in art: You awaken reflection." So, you know, I love Tim for what he’s doing here, and he just simply entrusted the administration of the play project over to me. He said, "OK, and you’ll administrate it, right, Helen? We’ll turn it over to the nuns to be the fiscal"—I go, "Yeah, yeah, we’ll do it." And so, that’s what’s happening with the play project.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, in the cases of the men who you visited on death row, they were guilty. And that’s—you know, it’s in—
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Not the last two. But these, they were definitely guilty. Guilty.
AMY GOODMAN: Not the last two. Dead Man Walking was based on guilty men who were put to death. There’s also the exonerated—
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —those who have been taken off of death row because it’s been proved that in fact they were innocent, they were falsely put there.
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: A hundred—142, yeah, a lot.
AMY GOODMAN: And you say that the last two men that you visited on death row were not guilty.
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the difference, what your experience is like with the men who were guilty and the men who weren’t, the difference in how it motivates the movement.
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Yeah. The—one of the things that is the reason that the death penalty is going down is—one of the factors is the cost. It’s exorbitantly expensive to kill people. California just had the Prop 34 campaign in October. They came really close. And part of it is it’s millions of dollars to carry on this whole process about the death penalty. It may sound counterintuitive that it costs more, but that’s a fact.
AMY GOODMAN: When Governor O’Malley of Maryland signed the abolition of the death penalty—
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Yeah, right.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s going to go into effect October 1st.
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: He said it costs three times as much as life in prison without parole.
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Yeah, absolutely. People don’t know that. They say, "Well, what’s so costly about getting a few chemicals together to put somebody away? I’m not paying my tax money for them to be in life without parole for the rest of their lives." You’ve got to take them there. You’ve got to show them, first of all, just even up front, district attorneys call the death penalty the Cadillac of the criminal justice system. To even to start off, you have two trials. One is just to determine, OK, he’s guilty, or she’s guilty. Now what will be the sentence? And the sentencing part of the trial can last as long or longer, because every mitigating thing that has ever happened in a person’s life.
It actually brings us to an inscrutable thing for jurors. So, here you have a terrible crime. Here you have that mother saying, "Do justice for me and my dead child." And on the other side, you have the mother of the one who did the crime saying, "Please don’t kill my son." And what is a juror supposed to do with that? You know, it’s talked about the wisdom of Solomon deciding between the two women who were both claiming the same baby. I mean, that’s chicken feed next to what jurors, ordinary people like us, are asked to do. And in most states, each juror knows they hold that person’s life in their hands, because if it’s not unanimous, then the person is going to live. And so, they each hold that life in their hands.
And then they walk—and there’s pressure that goes on behind the closed doors. I did write a second book, The Death of Innocents, and I talk about the anguished juror, because he said, "I thought we’d have like a democratic discussion. You know, 'What do you think? What do you think?' It’d be open and free. But, boy, when I said I thought the person shouldn’t be killed, they came down on me, and I gave in to the pressure." And this person, when he was executed in Louisiana, Robert Sawyer, a mentally damaged man, when he was executed, that juror called Nick Trenticosta, the lawyer. He was drunk, and he was crying. And he said, "I tell my boy, 'Never give in to pressure.'" So, he—nobody wins in this thing. It’s inscrutable. And we just don’t have the wisdom to—
AMY GOODMAN: People don’t realize, with death penalty juries, how, if it’s a death penalty case, it skews the jury—
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: —from the beginning, because the entire jury pool that is chosen have to say that they are for the death penalty, whether or not they’re going to give the death penalty in this case.
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Mm-hmm, absolutely.
AMY GOODMAN: And studies show that those juries will be more likely to convict, and there will be fewer blacks and fewer Jews on those juries.
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: You better believe it. Any educated people on it. Of course, they’d knock nuns off, too. I’m an automatic, you know, boot out. But it’s a huge thing, when you think of it. Here’s another thing, the way blacks are excluded. First of all, one way you do it is you just start with an extremely small pool of people, even though like in Georgia and Louisiana you have a huge percentage of black people. But you just start with a small pool of people, and so it’s easy to get them off, and so that you end up with an all-white jury, or most often an all-white jury.
And there, again, the Supreme Court of the United States, when they looked at the McCleskey decision, there had been an extensive study done of the pattern, that clearly when it was white victims. And in the McCleskey decision, they looked at that. They could see. And here’s what’s so terrible. The Supreme Court said, "Admittedly, race plays a part in the administration of who gets the death penalty." And then they said the worst thing of all. They said, "But it would be too costly to the system to remedy it." So they upheld the racist pattern and said it would be too costly to remedy. And that’s going to go down in history against them like Plessy v. Ferguson, where they upheld the Jim Crow laws and for a long time segregated education, saying it’s better for people to be with their own kind, kind of mentality.
And I hold them accountable in the book, because the people are going to get it. The people are beginning to get it. You know, I’ve met so many of the American people in these talks. They’ve never reflected deeply on it. People are real busy. They don’t think about stuff deeply. And what most people say is, "I didn’t know it was like that."
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, that’s precisely—you write in the book, in fact, that the secrecy surrounding executions is what makes it possible for executions to continue.
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Absolutely.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And that you’re convinced, you say, that if executions were made public, the torture and violence would be unmasked, and we would be shamed into abolishing executions.
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Absolutely. And there have been two or three court challenges to try to make executions public, at least by TV. And the arguments are amazing about why we shouldn’t do that, like some of them being, well, the person being executed has a right to their privacy, or George Will said, when we were head to head over this, "Well, it could have a corrupting influence on the public," even after he had said, "Oh, well, the public has a right to express their outrage over this thing."
And you mentioned torture. I believe the reason we’re having a lot of problem with countenancing and supporting torture is because the Supreme Court will not look at the torture that is just integral to the death penalty. Mental—human beings are conscious and imaginative. And put somebody in a small space for 15, 20 years, where they wait for the moment to be taken out by a guard and led down the tier to their death, and they die a thousand times inside their minds before they die. Not to recognize the torture that’s in the death penalty is what has led to Abu Ghraib, our refusal to acknowledge torture—I mean, with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was waterboarded 180 times. I know some of the lawyers who are working in Guantánamo to try to uphold, you know, just the system of justice. And you have people like Dick Cheney saying, "Well, waterboarding is a dunk in the water," that turning that switch—not human like we are, so nothing applies. Justice Scalia, in a BBC interview, where they’re saying to him, "But, Justice Scalia, doesn’t your own Constitution say about cruel and unusual punishment?" and he goes, "Wait, hold on here. We’re not talking about punishment. Punishment happens after you’ve had a trial, and you’re being punished. We’re talking about getting information from people that could save a whole city." And then he said, "Do anything you need to—drive bamboo under people’s fingernails—anything to get that information." That’s a mentality that I think is operative, you know, in the court.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about President Obama’s position on the death penalty. In October of 2004, during an Illinois state debate, then-U.S. Senate candidate Barack Obama, when he was running for the Senate well before the presidency, he laid out his views on the death penalty.
STATE SEN. BARACK OBAMA: I believe that the death penalty is appropriate in certain circumstances. There are extraordinarily heinous crimes—terrorism, the harm of children—in which it may be appropriate. Obviously, we’ve had some problems in this state in the application of the death penalty, and that’s why a moratorium was put in place. And that’s why I was so proud to be one of the leaders in making sure that we overhauled a death penalty system that was broken—for example, passing the first in the nation videotaping of interrogations and confessions in capital cases. We have to have this ultimate sanction for certain circumstances in which the entire community says, "This is beyond the pale." And I think it’s important that we preserve that. But I also think that it’s got to be fair and uniformly applied.
AMY GOODMAN: That was President Obama when he wasn’t president, when he was running for Senate almost 10 years ago in Illinois. What about his position today, Sister Helen Prejean?
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: If I had five minutes with President Obama, I’d say, "But it must be fair." I’d say, "Would you look at the record and see how many times the death penalty is sought when the victim is a person of color?" And to allow the outrage of the community for "certain" crimes, this is a designer death penalty. "Well, when it’s particularly heinous, and we know the person’s guilty, the outrage of the community deserves to be, you know, expressed by seeking the ultimate punishment." There’s no way you can ever apply that fairly, if you look at the track record of the thousand people executed, the people on death row. I would say, "President Obama, that’s a theoretical position. But if you look at the practice, there’s no way we can do that." You can’t take discretion away from DAs, who are the deciders whether or not they’re going to go for death from square one. And we know during election years it bumps up. You’ve got—we’ve got a very human, frail political process in here to apply this thing, and you can never take that away. And that’s why it’s never going to work, and it’s never going to be fairly applied.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, in a groundbreaking ruling last year, the Supreme Court ruled that states may not impose mandatory life sentences without parole on children, even if they have been convicted of taking part in a murder. Democracy Now! spoke to Bryan Stevenson, the attorney who argued the case challenging juvenile life without parole. He’s the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. Here’s how he reacted to the ruling.
BRYAN STEVENSON: We’re very encouraged by the court’s ruling. This is an important step forward. For 30, 40 years we have been sending children to die in prison in the United States. We’re the only country in the world that does that. Some of these kids were as young as 13 years of age when they were sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. And until the court struck down the death penalty for juveniles in 2005, this was an issue that got virtually no attention. So we’re really pleased that in the last three years the court has recognized that child status is critical and important, even in the criminal justice system, where for decades we’ve really ignored the plight, the status, the conditions, the challenges that children have in all communities with regard to sentencing. And so, it’s a really important step forward.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Sister Helen, your response to the Supreme Court ruling and what the attorney, Bryan Stevenson, said?
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: It took them until 2005 even to recognize that juveniles shouldn’t be executed, period. I mean, this is on the death penalty, but it was—if you were under 18, you couldn’t sign a legal document, you couldn’t buy alcohol or tobacco. You couldn’t witness an execution. But you could be executed for a crime you did under 18. We were one of the last countries, along with Somalia, to finally recognize human rights, that young people, who we know are not fully developed—that’s the reason why you don’t sign legal contracts, why you can’t buy alcohol and cigarettes. And yet, we were one of the last to acknowledge that. So it’s not recognizing the person. One of the last two that the mentally disabled shouldn’t be executed.
And then this life without parole for young people, I mean, as young as 14, being tried as adults and put in prison for the rest of their life, we are still doing that. They rule that it can’t be mandatory, but the fact that we even countenance that you could take a young person and sentence them for the rest of their life, that—actually, we do that with other human beings, the massive incarceration of people, that Michelle Alexander wrote about, of people of color, a greater percentage than during apartheid in South Africa. What do you do? You make drugs a felony. The big, big drug people never do this. You get people on the streets, and it’s a massive incarceration of black people. Life without parole is the road I think we’re going to go down to get out from under the death penalty, but we must work for prison reform. And we have 2.3 million people in this country in exile and locked away behind bars without a chance at life. We’ve got to change that. We learned how to recycle cans. We learned how to recycle stuff. We don’t take that approach to human beings, and we just seek punishment, and people profit from that.
AMY GOODMAN: I don’t know quite how to put this question, as we wrap up, but I think the stereotype of nuns in this country is peaceful, conciliatory. Sister Helen, you’re a fighting nun. How did you get to be the way you are?
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: The same reason we got Nuns on the Bus heading on a 10,000-mile trek, getting truth to the people about immigration reform, why nuns have stood up about the Paul Ryan budget, why we stand for healthcare for the poor: It’s the gospel. I mean, it’s Jesus. I mean, we may have a pope, Pope Francis, that slipped through the holy spirit gate, because he has said now, and already exhibited—as soon as he was pope, he’s in a prison and he’s washing the feet of prisoners, including a Muslim and women and prisoners—that the place of us is to be with the marginated and to be with those on the margins. Most of us nuns are educated. We come from privilege. And instead of walking around with just a lot of guilt that—at how privileged we’d been, is to put all those energies into working for justice. This is what nuns do. And there’s a spiritual energy that’s in you, in both of you, and all the people now working for human rights. Human rights gives us a road everybody can go down, that every human being has a dignity that must not be taken. People shouldn’t be tortured and killed. Nuns are just in there with the people.
AMY GOODMAN: Are you for the ordination of women? And do you think we’ll one day see a woman pope?
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: One day we will, because there’s just not substantive reasons against it. It boils down to a very physical, a very physical argument. You had a pontifical association of—I mean, of the Vatican, that looked scripturally and said there’s not scriptural reason. And it just boils down to that women don’t physically resemble Jesus. And we could focus in on this image to exactly what that means. But when you just are boiling down an argument to the fact that it’s been the practice, and it’s going to—I predict it’s inevitable. It’s inevitable that it will happen, that we will recognize what Jesus stood for. It’s not how much you physically resemble; it’s how much you get the spirit of the gospel and what the gospel is about, to live justice and to live peace. And women have that as well as men.
AMY GOODMAN: Would you like to be ordained as a priest?
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: I would be doing a lot of liturgy, and I think I need to be out on the road. And I’m a teacher. I need to be out there with the people.
AMY GOODMAN: So what are your plans now?
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Keep doing this 'til we end this death penalty. That's why I’m so glad about this. We had people that weren’t even kicking the slats out of their cradle when the book came out in '93. We've got a whole new generation that we’ve got to get it to. I’ve accompanied six human beings and watched them be killed. I owe—I have a dedication to them to do this. I can’t walk away from this.
In the prelude of my spiritual memoir that I’m writing called River of Fire, this is the way I begin it. And this is why, Amy, I’m going to be doing this until I die. They killed a man with fire one night. They strapped him in a wooden chair, pumped electricity through his body until he was dead. His killing was a legal act, because he had killed. No religious leaders protested the killing that night. But I was there, and I saw it with my own eyes, and what I saw set my soul on fire—a fire that burns in me still. Now, here is an account of the spiritual journey that brought me to the killing chamber that night and the deep spiritual currents that pull me there.
AMY GOODMAN: Sister Helen Prejean, we want to thank you so much for being with us on this 20th anniversary of the publication of Dead Man Walking. The book has been published again, with a new subtitle: The Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty That Sparked a National Debate. Thanks so much for being here.
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Thank you, both of you.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.