Sister Helen Prejean reflects on her decades of fighting the death penalty and why she has met multiple times with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was convicted in the Boston Marathon bombing case.
AMY GOODMAN: This is __Democracy Now!_, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Sister Helen Prejean is one of the world’s most well-known anti-death-penalty activists. She’s the author of the best-selling book Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty. Her new book is just out this week. It’s called River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey.
We ended the conversation by talking about, Sister Helen Prejean, what’s happening in this country. On the one hand, you have the Trump administration, in a surprise move a few weeks ago, saying they are basically going to restart the federal death penalty. I don’t think people even understand the distinction between the death penalty at the federal level and the states. And you also have this trend in the states to end the death penalty, in legislature after legislature. When it passes, becomes the majority of states — right? — it will become illegal in the country, is that right? Because it becomes cruel and unusual?
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Hopefully, that the Supreme Court will declare that. But it happens in the people first, Amy. And that’s where the legislatures are. I mean, that’s how it happens. What we really see as an interesting thing is, it happens in practice. Amnesty International has pointed this out. In practice, people begin to stop using it. Then the last thing is the official repeal on the books in the legislatures. And probably the very last thing will be the Supreme Court. But the main thing is that you stop the practice.
So, that’s why it’s so out of sync for the Trump administration to make this big declaration. It’s unsurprising, because we know the way they handle everything is that you just use force and violence to get what you want. But when you look at the practice of the federal death penalty all along, you could have, like in Manhattan, federal prosecutors that never went for the death penalty, whereas over in Houston, Texas, you had prosecutors going for it. It’s no different as in the states. Right now 2% of prosecutors in different counties — 2% — account for 50% of all the death penalty sentences. It’s always been that way, because it’s up to the discretion of prosecutors.
But the people are seeing that it’s costly. They are appalled at the huge number of mistakes. We never dreamed we could get it wrong. We thought we had the best court system in the world. But we didn’t know, I didn’t know how it worked, that when people are poor and they can’t get good defense, there’s no adversarial system of coming to truth. Prosecution has all the evidence, and then they get sentenced to death and go to death row.
AMY GOODMAN: Who is executed in this country? I mean, obviously, the vast majority of people, more than 99% of people, who murder others are not executed.
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: No. That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: So, who is executed?
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: They’re not even convicted. I mean, who actually gets executed and who’s on death row, you can look at the profile. We’ve killed over a thousand people. We’ve gassed them and electrocuted them, you know, lethally injected them. Over these thousand people, and you look, they’re all poor, and almost all of them killed white people. That is the pattern you can count on.
AMY GOODMAN: So it’s most likely determined by the color of the skin of the victim.
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: And the geography. Are you in the microculture where the DA keeps getting elected because he’s for or she’s for the death penalty or not? That’s how it’s determined.
See, when the Supreme Court put the death penalty back, in Gregg, we had an impossible criterion. They said it’s only going to be reserved for the worst of the worst. Who knows what that means? And then you leave it up to the discretion of the prosecutor. So, white people killed, you’re going for it, because that victim has status. Ninety percent of the people killed in New Orleans are black homicide victims. But yet you see the death penalty never sought for that. So, it was skewed from the start. It was wrong from the start. And we’ve never been able to do it right.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to Bryan Stevenson, death penalty lawyer, founder and —
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: I love him!
AMY GOODMAN: — executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, the nonprofit behind the country’s first-ever memorial to the victims of lynching in the United States. We just went down and went to Montgomery to visit that remarkable memorial. Well, I asked Bryan Stevenson how he went from being a death penalty lawyer to creating this historic monument.
BRYAN STEVENSON: I think the death penalty is lynching’s stepson. And because it is so racialized and biased, I felt like I had to address it. But I’ve always thought of myself as a social justice lawyer, and I think of this work as consistent with that challenge, that calling, to do social justice.
AMY GOODMAN: Why do see this also, Sister Helen Prejean, as a social justice issue? And then talk about your upbringing and how you came to be this outspoken advocate for ending the death penalty in the United States. Where did you come from?
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Well, that was — well, I came from a Louisiana family, a Catholic Louisiana family, said the rosary every night, very pious, and entered the religious life before Vatican II, so we were semi-cloistered. And all the emphasis was on praying for the problems of the world. But I wasn’t connected. And I had grown up with African-American people as our servants in the family — they lived in the servants’ quarters behind the house — completely unaware of white privilege and what it brought me.
So, when I woke up that the real Jesus was on the side of poor people, and not just accepting that they were poor — that’s not God’s will; that’s because of the systems we set up. And I awakened. Social justice is going to be integral, at a deeply religious sense of following Jesus, who was always on the side of poor and marginated people. And so, when I woke up to that, then it’s when I moved into the St. Thomas housing projects, when I lived among African-American people, who became my teachers. And it’s just I had lived oblivious to the suffering, and it’s the suffering that wakes you up. It’s the suffering that sets the fire in your heart. Are you going to walk away from this, of seeing what police are doing to people?
And then, so then I go into the prisons. And then I could see what was going on there, who went to prison, who didn’t, and the legacy of slavery. The prison system is a legacy of slavery. When the plantation owners — when you had all the slaves declared free, how are they going to get their workers? You begin to look at the penal laws. Loitering was a big crime. So a person would be arrested for loitering, put in jail. And then, the time’s up. You’re ready to get out. “Oh, well, you owe us for food and lodging.” And they would put people in these work camps, and then the prison convict system, to work. When you go to prison at Angola, in Louisiana State Penitentiary —
AMY GOODMAN: The plantation.
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: That’s what it is. You get your starting pay, “incentive pay,” is two-and-a-half cents an hour. So, prisons have continued that work system. And it’s overwhelmingly people of color. So I began to learn all this. I didn’t know it. And once you know it, then you’re on fire. And then you’ve got to work to change it. And I realized that’s the heart of what Christianity is: always identify with the poor and marginated and vulnerable people, and getting in there and doing something.
AMY GOODMAN: You begin with with a quote. You begin your book, “Ask not for understanding, ask for the fire.”
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Saint Bonaventure. So, rationally, logically, we go so far, but we have other ways of knowing, deep intuitive sense, that the compassion for others. The reason the death penalty has been allowed has been that disconnect: They’re not human the way we are. We’re doing the same thing with the migrants now, with immigrants. “Oh, these people.” And so they’re demonized. They’re cast as rapists and murderers and invaders. But, in fact, they’re people who have walked thousands of miles to try to get a better life.
And I found that out about people called the worst of the worst, the murderers, that everybody’s worth more than the worst thing they’ve ever done. They’re human beings. And human rights are inalienable. The governments don’t give them for good behavior or take away human rights for bad behavior.
So I learned, and so I got out on the road to share with the people, I mean, and to learn from the people, and been doing it ever since. You cannot sit quietly and say you have a private little religion, where you’re going to be close to God and you’ll just be charitable to people in the circle around you. It’s like you got to get out there, and you got to be engaged in helping to be part of the change.
AMY GOODMAN: Sister Helen Prejean, I wanted to ask you more about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the — Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the convicted bomber of the Boston Marathon. His brother died. But he has been one of the new focuses of this discussion about the federal death penalty. And we talked about this in Part 1 of our discussion. You visited him, what? Five times? In 2015, in prison.
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: So, he’s being held up as one of the people they’re going to execute right away. What is it like to go into prison? What did he say to you? How did he respond to you? You saw him again and again.
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: You know, because of the special administrative procedures around “terrorists,” they have —
AMY GOODMAN: They’re called SAMs, special administrative measures.
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: SAM, absolutely. So, I have to be very careful in what I can say I discussed with Dzhokhar. So, what I go to is what I was finally able to get out on the stand, on the witness stand, when I spoke on his behalf at the trial. And what I got out then was the experience with him that in fact he did feel sorry for what had happened and what he had done. He was the younger brother. He followed his brother. I mean, and that’s what the defense tried to show, this really great team, Judy Clarke and those who were trying to save his life.
And look at that bizarre thing. Massachusetts, a state that doesn’t have the death penalty. Federal death penalty come in, take over, supposedly, states’ rights. “We’re going for the death penalty.” And what happened —
AMY GOODMAN: And this is significant because this is why William Barr — they’re talking about Tsarnaev.
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Yeah, no, yeah. And so, they are saying they’re going to speed-track these executions. We’re going to select these five people. So, if McVeigh was still alive, Tim McVeigh, they’d single him out. So they just pick people, cherry-pick people. “Oh, look at this terrible thing. This is the worst of the worst.”
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, but —
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: But they don’t understand the constitutional system, that there are appeals there. You can’t just declare this and go do this. So, hopefully, the defense lawyers — I’ve been talking to the federal defense lawyers. There are certain steps you’ve got to go through. You can’t just transcend all that and just say, “I’m going to kill people.” And so, arbitrarily, you, because you have executive power, will declare this. We can’t do that. That’s not the way the Constitution works.
AMY GOODMAN: But describe what it was like to go inside the prison. Now, this is before they have —
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: — rerevved this up and said, after almost 20 years, they’re going to start to execute people. And again, I dare say, most people in this country — maybe I’m wrong — but would say, “Fine.” I mean, in the case of the Boston bomber, he killed three people, injured several hundred others, including 16 who lost their limbs. And then, later, a policeman was killed.
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: When they were making their getaway.
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: So, when you identify someone with a crime, and people hear that, they go, “Well, yeah, he deserves to die.” That’s unreflected opinion. That’s why your work is so important. That’s why books are important. That’s why when you bring people close — now, let’s actually see how this thing is carried out and what it means to give government this kind of control, and what actually happens in the system and all the mistakes that are made. You’ve got to bring them close.
And finally, when you go into a prison, when you go onto death row — the first time I went, I was scared out of my mind. You get all these signals that these people are evil and murderers, and they’re going to kill you. And then you look in their eyes, and you see the that this is a human being. They’re not heroes. You’re not making them heroes. They did an unspeakable act. But then, once you can encounter them as human beings, that’s why human rights are inalienable. You can’t kill other human beings. We cannot do that, no matter how we try to make it legal.
I mean, Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, says, “When the world ends, it will be legal.” Jeff Sessions said it’s illegal for these people to bring their kids into the United States, so we can separate children. You can do all manner of harm and suffering to human beings because you claim it’s legal. The same thing when you had slavery, claimed it was legal.
We are more than just being legal entities. We are compassionate, real human beings, who sense, “Wait a minute. This is another human being.” So that’s the story that I try to convey to people, to bring people into places I know they otherwise would never be, and bring them close. OK, they did this terrible crime. We’re outraged over the crime. But now let’s watch and see what the government is doing to them. Is this who we want to be as a people? Because it’s all about us.
AMY GOODMAN: Teaching people not to kill by killing.
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: I mean, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: I saw one of the families of the El Paso massacre, who lost their — it’s the couple who protected their 2-month-old child, but they were both killed. And already a family member was saying, “We want the shooter to know we forgive him.”
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Lloyd LeBlanc in Dead Man Walking, he explained that journey best to me. He said, “People think forgiveness is weak,” like you’re condoning what they did — “Oh, it’s OK you killed my son.” But he said, “I was so angry and consumed with anger, all I could think of was killing the ones who killed my son.” And then — and he said this. He did this. And then he said, “Uh-uh. They killed my son, but I’m not going to let them kill me,” because he was dying inside from the rage. And so, “forgive” means to give before, not to let the love in us be overcome by the hate. So, then, when the — what the state and the government says, “Well, what we’re going to do” — and they claim to do this for the victim’s family — “what we’re going to do is do to the murderer what the murderer did, and you come watch, and by watching us kill him, that’s going to really help you get peace.” As if.
AMY GOODMAN: In your book, River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey, you have a chapter where — well, first, you dedicate the book to your beloved community, the Sisters of St. Joseph.
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: And to Sister Margaret Maggio, who’s been by my side for 25 years, my co-worker.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about Sister Margaret. Talk about the Sisters of St. Joseph and how they respond to your work.
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Yeah, well, it’s been a growth for everybody. When I first got involved with the death penalty, you know, I had to bring the sisters through it, too, because white women, for the most part, in the South, in our community — and some were for the death penalty, or thought they were, 'til we could have the conversation and you could begin to move past the outrage over crimes and all. And they've been tremendously supportive of my work, Congregation of St. Joseph. In fact, I wouldn’t be who I am without the sisterhood, because they were with me through all my growing-up years.
I used to come up with schemes, like we were going to have a boot camp for Jesus for young people. And the saying in the community was, “There goes Helen again, feet firmly planted in mid-air, all enthusiastic about a project that can never happen.” So they helped ground me and helped — and I grew up within the sisterhood, so that you could connect deep spirituality and an immersion in the gospel of Jesus with real justice. And if I didn’t belong to the sisters, I never would have reached that. That’s what this book, River of Fire, is really all about.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the significance of Louisiana voters approving Amendment 2 last November? Up until the amendment was passed, Louisiana was one of just two states that send people to prison for life, even if only 10 out of 12 jurors agree.
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Oh, yeah, no, that was actually — you talk about an education campaign? That passed, that proposition passed, with a resounding, you know, majority. And it was, “Well, you know, 10 out of 12, that sounds good enough. You can get truth in a jury.” And the importance of having to have a unanimous decision in a jury to find somebody guilty. They had made it so easy for people to be sentenced. Louisiana had the most draconian sentencing of people in prison in the whole United States. So, that was one step, definitely, of correction in that.
And the people, once you educate people — you know, Thurgood Marshall said a long time ago, a lot of people say they support the death penalty; educate the American people about the death penalty, and they — and the same thing is about how the system of justice works. And that’s what that amendment was about: unanimous jury, make it hard. The Constitution makes it hard to find people guilty. I mean, we need to do that, because we’re already making so many mistakes.
AMY GOODMAN: You talked about Thurgood Marshall. Let’s talk about this Supreme Court, the late Justice Scalia quoting divine authority to justify the death penalty. But then you also have late Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who just passed at the age of 99, laid to rest at the Arlington Cemetery, saying at the end of his tenure on the Supreme Court that his one regret was his 1976 vote upholding a Texas capital punishment statute, reviving capital punishment in the state. Stevens later opposed most death penalty sentences. In 2002’s Atkins v. Virginia, he wrote the majority opinion in a decision that barred capital punishment for people with intellectual disabilities, warning that those individuals were at special risk of wrongful conviction. And in 2008, he called the death penalty a “pointless and needless extinction of life.”
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: A number of Supreme Court justices changed — Harry Blackmun, Powell — because they learned, as on the court, that they saw the cases coming up, and they could see the pattern in it. If we had a court, people on the court, that could just look at that 14th Amendment and look at equal protection under law, and apply — and just see the arbitrary, capricious way, because it’s left up to the discretion of prosecutors, we could end the death penalty tomorrow. If they could be in that execution chamber and see that we won’t practice cruel punishment — what is more cruel than taking an imaginative, conscious being, putting them and confine them in a cell for 20 years, and taking them out and killing them? If they could get close to the reality, but they have on like five pairs of gloves, and they’re removed from the reality of what they are doing.
AMY GOODMAN: How many people have been exonerated from death row? Something like 170 people?
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Well, or it’s approaching 160 or so now. That’s everybody who has their story. There’s a group called Witness to Innocence, and they’re all people who had been on death row. And they all got out, 20 years, 30 years on death row — mistake, mistake mistake. And, you know, the problem is, the prosecutors who do this overreach, hide evidence, don’t do the DNA testing in a big bank to see who the real murderer is, they get a slap on the wrist. There’s no accountability. And that’s why. But more and more witnesses are coming forth now: “Made a mistake on me.” And you know the other thing, Amy, is? You spend 20 years on death row, and you come out, and then you try to resume your life again. As a social human being, it’s very, very difficult. It’s very difficult to get into the swim of life again, relate to people again, when you’ve been so isolated. But they’re amazing people, and their witness is very important to us.
AMY GOODMAN: In your book, River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey, you write about an evening at the Garveys. Tell us about that evening.
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: This was the Catholic Church becoming an adult church. The great thing the Vatican II did for Catholics was, brought us back to the Scriptures — before then, only Protestants would read the Bible; we never read, we just went to church teachings — and establish the primacy of conscience in individuals to make decisions. And so, here you have, I’m a religious coordinator of the parish. Here are all these people who, before this, had gone to church on Sunday, listened to whatever father said, and just kind of blindly went along. But now they’re digging into things for themselves to sort things out.
And it was like the 4th of July. It was like popcorn going all over the place, because the change was so upsetting for so many people. And so, one person would say, “If we don’t listen to the priests, then where’s our guidance? They’re the ones who represent God to us.” And then someone else is saying, “Yeah, but I heard Father Moore say that when a hurricane hit, if we got damage in our house, we must have done something wrong or sinned. I didn’t sin any more than anybody else in my neighborhood.” And so you have all this rip-roaring discussion. So, welcome to Catholic laity coming of age in the Catholic Church to sort things through and say, “What does this mean?”
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s move off of the death penalty. I wanted to ask you about the Catholic Church, in general. New York’s Child Victims Act takes effect today, as we speak. The new law gives all past victims of child sex abuse a year to sue their abusers, regardless of how long ago the crime occurred. More than a hundred lawsuits have already been filed, including many targeting the church. Can you talk about how the church has dealt with the child sexual abuse, and not just child, the sexual abuse scandal, in this country and around the world?
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: So, when you’re using those words, “the church,” you’re referring, on one level, to hierarchy. But that was a big thing of Vatican II. So, how’s the church, which is —
AMY GOODMAN: And explain what Vatican II is.
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: It was the ecumenical council, first time, ’62 to ’65, whose aim was not to condemn some heresy in the world, but to update and modernize the church, to bring the gospel of Jesus in a relevant way, so that people could understand the gospel and live out of it in a new way.
And so, the whole thing was that the church really is the people, because there had been such emphasis, like when we say, “How is the church dealing with, you know, the scandal?” So, the people of God are dealing with the scandal the way everybody’s dealing with the scandal. People ought to be held accountable for crimes, whether they’re priests or not.
There is an institutional imperative to protect your own that has gone on in the hierarchy of the church around the priest pedophiles. And that, like this New York law, is saying you hold people accountable as citizens if you do crimes, and there’s no protection, special protection. It speaks to the lack of healthiness in the church.
My last — the appendix is my letter to Pope Francis. I got to meet Pope Francis through a man, Richard Glossip, an innocent man on death row in Oklahoma. And then —
AMY GOODMAN: And how did you meet Pope Francis through Glossip?
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Well, I appealed to Pope Francis as soon as I heard about this man, Richard Glossip, who was due in a few weeks to be executed, and I believed in his innocence. I looked enough into it. By now, when people say they’re innocent, I believe them, because there are so many mistakes. With my seventh person on death row now, three of the seven, I believe, are innocent. That’s how broken the thing is.
So I hear about this man, Richard Glossip. He calls me, and he says, “Sister Helen, I’m really sorry I didn’t ask you permission,” just very understated. “But I just put you down to be with me when I’m executed, if you don’t mind, if you don’t mind.” And so, I go, “Man, I’m just not going to walk and be with this man at execution.” And so we dig into it. First thing I did was call Susan Sarandon. “Susan, there’s” — and, boy, I mean, she gets in there with me. And then the next thing we did was, right away, was appeal to Pope Francis. And that’s how I met him.
But when I visited with him and saw him in person, I brought Richard Glossip’s letter to thank him for intervening to try to save his life. But I also brought my own letter asking him that — for women in the church to be treated with equal dignity as men. And I said, “To have a healthy church, and this is connected with pedophilia and a lot of things going on, it is not good, in an all-male environment, to be making decisions and policies for the Catholic Church. We need the wisdom, and we need the voices of women in there, in decision making in the church.”
We claim that when people are baptized, they are baptized in the image of Christ. So, is there a different baptism for men, that they’re fully in the image of Christ, but women aren’t? So we need to restore in the church the healthiness and wholeness you had in the early church. You had Saint Paul. The women were right in there. They were preaching. And I said to the pope, “I preach all over this land. I’ve preached before, I’ve spoken before the U.N., in Protestant churches, but I can’t give a homily in my own church. And as a woman, I cannot read the gospel at Mass. So, until we have women in as an integral part —
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think women should be ordained as priests?
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Well, that’s part of it. That’s just part of ordination. Why can’t women be a leader and mediator of prayer in the church as well as a man? So it’s just rank sexism that’s preventing that.
AMY GOODMAN: And what did Pope Francis say?
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Well, he didn’t personally answer my letter. But I know from this discussion on the death penalty that I’ve done for 30 years, and it took 1,600 years, it’s going to be a long haul. But when you love your church, you keep the dialogue going. You stay at the table.
AMY GOODMAN: Richard Glossip didn’t get executed.
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: He did not. I mean, what a story that is. He’s still alive. And what happened, it exposed all that Oklahoma was doing, using illegal drugs, lying about it, and it blew up the whole thing. I don’t know that they’ll ever execute anybody again. And hopefully Richard Glossip will one day walk out of that prison, because his lawyers are doing — Don Knight and others on the team that are working for him so hard.
AMY GOODMAN: But they tried to execute him.
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: I mean, three times he came —
AMY GOODMAN: It was a botched execution, because of a mistake of this —
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Right before him.
AMY GOODMAN: — lethal injection.
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Right before him. I mean, that man cried out, “I got acid in my veins!” And see, Amy, since the European company that made the main anesthetic that they use for executions found out that their drugs were being used to kill people, cut off the supply. Now the Supreme Court’s been allowing states to experiment with it, see. And so, Oklahoma was doing it all over the place, as people have been.
AMY GOODMAN: So, to clarify, it wasn’t a botched execution where he survived, but it was the execution before him that was botched. The person died. It was horrific. And that prevented him from being executed?
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Because with the world looking at Richard Glossip, they didn’t dare use that same wrong drug they had used in the man before, where they changed the name on the file. They actually lied about it. And they couldn’t do it, because, by then, the world was looking at Richard Glossip. And that’s then what exposed everything and has, for now, stopped the death penalty in Oklahoma.
AMY GOODMAN: Sister Helen Prejean, what do you want people to take away from River of Fire?
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: I want them to see the journey of a human being awakening to a deeper and deeper dimension of what Christianity, of the following of Jesus calls people to. I want them to awaken to human rights, so that even if people never go to church, they can awaken to compassion at the heart of all religious traditions. I want them to get in touch with their inner deeper spiritual selves, so they can live from the inside out, and not just following every stimulus that comes. And I want them to get the humor, the humor that is part of life when we are whole and we’re doing our best with what we understand to be a part of the change in our society. Because those of us who are so privileged and been given so much, where better to spend your energies?
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Sister Helen Prejean, we thank you so much for spending this time with us, in this week where your book, your memoir, has come out. Sister Helen Prejean, River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey, one of the world’s most well-known anti-death-penalty activists. Her first book, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty.
This is Democracy Now! To see Part 1 of our conversation, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.