“River of Fire”: In New Memoir, Sister Helen Prejean Reflects on Decades of Fighting Executions

StoryAugust 14, 2019
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The Trump administration is moving ahead with plans to resume the death penalty after a more than 15-year moratorium. This week Attorney General William Barr proposed fast-tracking executions in mass murder cases, and last month ordered the execution of five death row prisoners beginning in December. The federal government has executed just three people since 1963 — the last being in 2003. The death penalty is widely condemned by national governments, international bodies and human rights groups across the world. Experts say capital punishment does not help deter homicides and that errors and racism in the criminal justice system extend to those sentenced to death. We speak with Sister Helen Prejean, a well-known anti-death-penalty activist who began her prison ministry over 30 years ago. She is the author of the best-selling book “Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty,” which was turned into an Academy Award-winning film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. Her new book, “River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey,” is out this week.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, the Trump administration is moving ahead with plans to resume the death penalty after a more than 15-year moratorium. Last month, Attorney General William Barr ordered the execution of five death row prisoners beginning in December. The federal government has executed just three people since 1963, the last being in 2003. On Monday, Barr proposed fast-tracking executions in mass murder cases.

ATTORNEY GENERAL WILLIAM BARR: We will be proposing legislation providing that in cases of mass murder or in cases of murder of a law enforcement officer, there will be a strict timetable for judicial proceedings that will allow the imposition of the death sentence without undue delay. Punishment must be swift.

AMY GOODMAN: Attorney General Barr’s comments echoed President Trump’s remarks from last week in the aftermath of the El Paso and Dayton shootings.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Today, I am also directing the Department of Justice to propose legislation ensuring that those who commit hate crimes and mass murders face the death penalty and that this capital punishment be delivered quickly, decisively, and without years of needless delay.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Experts say capital punishment does not help deter homicides and that errors and racism in the criminal justice system extend to those sentenced to death. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, more 160 people who had been wrongly convicted and sentenced to death have been exonerated since 1973. The death penalty has been abolished in 106 countries, while another 28 have moratoriums or effectively do not use the practice. The United Nations has called for a global ban on the practice, and Amnesty International calls it “the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.”

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by Sister Helen Prejean, one of the world’s most well-known anti-death-penalty activists. As a Catholic nun, she began her prison ministry almost 40 years ago. She is the author of the best-selling book Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty. The book was turned into the Academy Award-winning film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. Her new book is just out this week. It’s called River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey. Sister Helen Prejean is also the founder of Survive, a victims’ advocacy group in New Orleans. She continues to counsel not only prisoners on death row, but also the families of murder victims.

Sister Helen Prejean, it’s great to have you back here in our New York studios.

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Great to be here, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Congratulations on your book, as you hear, in the last weeks, the surprise announcement of the Attorney General William Barr that they are basically restarting the federal death penalty, and they immediately said they would kill five prisoners who have been on federal death row, and then, in the wake of the El Paso and the Dayton killings, saying — Barr just announcing that he will particularly go after mass shooters. In this country, it may be that many people agree with him. What are your thoughts?

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Well, I’m not surprised that William Barr did this or the Trump administration wants to expedite federal executions. It’s their whole way of approaching everything, that the way is through violence to try to solve social problems.

The federal death penalty is not going to be any more equal justice under law than the state death penalties have been. The mood in the country is to shut the death penalty down, first in practice and then gradually, state by state, to repeal it. The way the federal death penalty has always worked, it’s been up to the discretion of individual federal prosecutors. So, we’ve had, side by side, whereas in Manhattan, in New York, the federal prosecutors never went for the death penalty, over in Texas, they were always going for the death penalty. And this will be no different.

So, I’m not at all surprised they’re doing it. They also seem to have no understanding about how the courts work. They can claim all they want that they’re going to fast-track this and speed up these executions, but there is the Constitution, and there are the appeals. And so, I’ve been talking to federal defenders of these cases. And, of course, they’re going to do everything they can to save their client’s life.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, in your new book, it’s more of a recounting of your life story in terms of how — your own journey, from a child in Louisiana, was this? Could you talk about how you developed, first in your ministry and when you decided to go into prison ministry?

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Yeah. I mean, it’s called River of Fire. And the epigraph in it is from Saint Bonaventure: “Ask not for understanding, ask for the fire.” The fire part was when the passion in my own soul erupted, that I can’t just ask God to solve the problems of the world, or just be charitable to the people around me, but that the deepest dimensions of the gospel of Jesus called me to justice. So I got involved with poor people in New Orleans, African Americans, who became my teachers, helped me understand what white privilege is, helped me understand what institutional racism.

And it’s while I was in that soil, in that terrain, living among African-American people struggling against poverty and racism, I got an invitation one day to write a man on death row. I never dreamed he was going to be executed. It was in the early '80s, and we hadn't had an execution in 20 years. I wrote a letter to him. He wrote back. And two-and-a-half years later, he was executed.

And that’s the fire, because, I describe it in the preface in the book: “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.”

So I trace my journey of spiritual awakening from private religion, being apolitical, to rolling up my sleeves and getting engaged. If justice is going to come, then we have to be the ones to do it, and in our democracy, in our country. So I’ve had constant dialogue with my church, the Catholic Church — people, first of all, also the hierarchy, but mostly the people. And I’ve seen how that dialogue pays off. Finally, on August 2nd, 2018, after 1,600 years, Pope Francis declared, under no conditions could we ever trust governments to execute their citizens. So, when you love your country, when you love your church, you keep a constant dialogue of what needs to change and helping to make that change happen.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back in time to that film that so rocked this nation, Dead Man Walking, that starred Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, based on your first book. I wanted to go to a trailer of that film.

ASSISTANT DA: This man 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 murderer 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.

AMY GOODMAN: So, there you have the trailer for Dead Man Walking. Susan Sarandon would win best actress playing you; she won the Oscar for that. And Tim Robbins directed. Bruce Springsteen wrote the music. Everyone was nominated. I mean, the power of this film was the power of your accompaniment, the story that is real, and how you started on that process and go through it ’til today. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the convicted bomber of the Boston Marathon, one of the focuses of the new discussion about reviving the federal death penalty, you met with him five times in 2015, and you testified on his behalf, saying, “I presented him as a human being.” Talk about what drives you to do this work. What is it like to meet these prisoners, to accompany them to their death?

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Well, it’s human rights, that human beings can never be identified solely with their actions, that everybody is worth more than the worst thing they’ve ever done. So, like at Dzhokhar’s trial, all prosecution wanted to do was demonize him.

AMY GOODMAN: This is the Boston Marathon bomber.

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Yeah, the Boston Marathon, and he was the younger brother. All I said, all the words I could get before the jury were, “He’s a human being, and he felt sorrow for what he did.” And I showed why I could say that. And it’s —

AMY GOODMAN: Why could you say that?

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Because I had met him. And I, at some point — and this came out and the testimony — I just said, “Dzhokhar, do you hate us all? Would you drop a bomb on all of us?” And he lowered his eyes like this, and he just said, “No, of course not. Nobody deserves to die like that.”

So, you had to be so careful in the language. The prosecutor was holding me to just the language you could use, the judge and so forth. But it’s with everybody I’ve accompanied to death. Some of them, most of them, were guilty. Two of them were innocent because it’s so broken. And they have done despicable things. But the death penalty is about us.

And more and more people are standing up now, including guards and wardens, who have been close to the killing process. We haven’t had an execution in Louisiana in 17 years. There’s no official thing that has said we’re not going to kill people. And that’s going on across the country, a lot of times because the guards who have had to do the killing, and the wardens, don’t want to do it anymore, because it does nothing. And they are so close.

And that’s been the heart of the conversation in the Catholic Church. And I said to Pope John Paul II, I said, “Does the Catholic Church only uphold the dignity of innocent life? Well, when I’m walking with a man to execution, and he’s shackled hand and foot, and he’s surrounded by six guards, and they’re going to walk him down this hall and strap him down and kill him, and he kind of turns to me and says, 'Sister, please pray God holds up my legs.' Can you help the church uphold the dignity of all life, that to take a human being and render them defenseless and kill them can never be justified?” And so, Pope John Paul was the first one, and then Pope Francis finally moved it to completion and said, under no circumstances can we ever allow the state to kill. It’s human rights that drives me, because I get to meet the human beings.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Have you been surprised by the gradual shift in public opinion in this country, and also the fact that most Americans don’t realize what an outlier the United States is compared to —

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — the rest of the countries in the world on this issue?

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: No, absolutely. You know what? When I came out of that execution chamber, when Pat Sonnier — he was the first — had just been killed, it was the middle of the night. I threw up. I had never in my life seen anything like this. And I remember thinking very clearly, the people are never going to be brought close to this. There had been two court cases to try to make executions public. They’re removed from it. They’re made to be afraid: These murderers are evil; they’re going to come kill you; they’re going to get out; they’ll kill people in prison. And you make people afraid, and you keep them from seeing what actually happens.

So that’s why I wrote Dead Man Walking and why I’ve been out talking to the American people, mostly through story, to bring them close like. The death penalty is about us. People are going to do terrible crimes. But we have the most premeditated protocol of taking a person, rendering them defenseless and killing them. We’re better than that. And most of the people I have — in all of these 50 states I’ve been in, they say, “Well, we didn’t know it was like that.” Bring the people close to the reality. They have good hearts, and they get it. And so, I’ve been very gratified to see that happening.

AMY GOODMAN: You said, after you accompanied the first man, Dead Man Walking, that the film is based on, Patrick, that you were sorry at the time you hadn’t reached out more to the families of the victims. But that is something you have done now a great deal over these years. Talk about that experience.

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: You know, I had a great editor, Jason Epstein, when I wrote Dead Man Walking. And when he saw in the first draft that I had kind of downplayed not reaching out to the victim’s family, said I had never done this before, I was so in the human rights of the person being executed, and he said, “Helen, you’re letting yourself off really easy here.” He said, “It was cowardice, wasn’t it? You were scared.” That was absolutely true. And he said, “You need to go back, and you need to rewrite that. Just say what a great mistake it was not to reach out to the victim’s family.”

And see, I just thought they would hate me so much because I was opposed to the execution. And I was wrong. One of the families did in fact take that position. But Lloyd LeBlanc, whom I consider the hero in Dead Man Walking, his son David, 17, had been killed, and he confronted me, when we met, and he said, “Sister, all this time you’ve been visiting those two brothers, you didn’t come see us. You can’t believe the pressure we’re under,” and that I had made a great mistake: I hadn’t reached out to him. And he was the first one who began to teach me.

And then we started the group Survive, to help murder victims’ families. They are the ones rising up more and more, helping to end the death penalty. When New Jersey did away with the death penalty in their Legislature 12 years ago, 62 murder victims’ families said, “Don’t kill for us. The death penalty revictimizes us. We need to be able to grieve, and we need to be able to move on, but you put us in a holding pattern of 15, 20 years waiting for this justice that never happens.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And all of these prisoners on death row, who are, in essence, awaiting their execution, the continued growth of the, quote, “death row population,” even as you say many states are not going through with their executions, what’s your sense of their lives, as well, on death row?

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Well, it’s like a living death in so many ways, because you are waiting for death to come. You’re in an extremely confined environment, like the death row cells in Louisiana. It’s summer. It’s so hot. And constantly, the constant noise. All that you are subjected to, waiting to be killed. And you’re considered disposable human waste. You get a thousand signals a day that you’re not worth anything.

That’s so opposite of what I’ve — you know, what Jesus is about, what Christianity is about. And when I hear religion quoted, like Jeff Sessions, ex-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, just did to justify the separation of children from their parents at the border, pulling in a religious quote from Romans 13, that if something is the law, God’s behind it. It’s with the authority of God. I hate to see Christianity used like this. And I’ve actually had people say, like a member of the pardon board in Louisiana, “Well, Jesus was executed for our sins. If he hadn’t been executed by the Romans, we wouldn’t be saved. We’ve got to have executions.” Like, the image of God behind that is a wrathful God whose sense of justice has been offended and demands a sacrificial death. What kind of God is that? We’ve got to get Jesus right. We’ve got to get Christianity right. And I hate to see religion used to justify violence. It’s the opposite of what Jesus was about.

AMY GOODMAN: You have the federal government, President Trump and William Barr, saying they’re going to resume federal death penalty cases, executions, after almost 20 years. Yet you have the states, one by one — we are, in this country, almost at a majority of states that are saying no to the death penalty.

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Because the Trump administration feels they have absolute power and they could do whatever they want, so they declare, “Well, we’re going to do this.” And we notice a pattern that often the Trump administration has made declarations of what they’re going to do to immigrants or the Muslim ban, and they have no understanding of the courts and the constitutional rights.

AMY GOODMAN: We have 20 seconds.

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Yes. So, please, God, that federal defenders will be in there using the Constitution to block this and to slow it down and make it not happen.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to do Part 2 of our discussion and post it online at democracynow.org. Sister Helen Prejean is the author of River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey. This follows her book Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty. That does it for our broadcast. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. This is Democracy Now!

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