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Sister Helen Prejean on Stay of Execution for Richard Glossip & Push to Abolish the Death Penalty

Web ExclusiveMay 09, 2023
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In Part 2 of our interview with Sister Helen Prejean, one of the world’s most well-known anti-death penalty activists, she discusses her life’s work and being a spiritual adviser to Oklahoma death row prisoner Richard Glossip, whose May 18 execution date was stayed by the Supreme Court on Friday after Oklahoma’s Republican attorney general filed a joint a motion with Glossip’s defense team saying he did not receive a fair trial.

The case dates back to 1997, when Glossip was working as a motel manager in Oklahoma City, and his boss, Barry Van Treese, was murdered. A maintenance worker, Justin Sneed, admitted to beating Van Treese to death with a baseball bat but claimed Glossip offered him money for the killing. The case rested almost entirely on Sneed’s claims, and no physical evidence tied Glossip to the crime. Sneed, in exchange for his testimony, did not get the death penalty.

Prejean is the author of the best-selling book Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty and, more recently, River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our conversation with Sister Helen Prejean, one of the world’s most well-known anti-death penalty activists. She is the spiritual adviser to Oklahoma death row prisoner Richard Glossip, whose May 18th execution date was stayed by the Supreme Court on Friday. This comes after Oklahoma’s Republican attorney general filed a joint motion with Glossip’s defense team to halt his execution, saying he did not receive a fair trial.

The case dates back to 1997, when Richard Glossip was working as a motel manager in Oklahoma City, and his boss, Barry Van Treese, was murdered. A maintenance worker, Justin Sneed, admitted to beating Van Treese to death with a baseball bat, but claimed Glossip offered him money for the killing. The case rested almost entirely on Sneed’s claims, and no physical evidence tied Glossip to the crime. Sneed, in exchange for his testimony, did not get the death penalty.

For more, we’re continuing in Oklahoma City with Sister Helen Prejean. This is the ninth time Richard Glossip had an execution date that has been put on hold.

Sister Helen Prejean, let’s start there. You had just visited Richard when he learned, right after, that his execution date — his execution had been stayed. First, though we had a conversation about this in Part 1, just talk about his and your response.

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Yeah, well, what Richard was so afraid of was that on May 11th, one week before the execution, he would be placed in this holding cell, the death-watch cell, where they have bright lights, three video cameras on you. You’re stripped down to your undershorts. They don’t want you to have clothes like long pants, where you might try to commit suicide and hang yourself. And he had gone through that experience twice before and lost 25 pounds. With the bright lights and all, it’s a torture chamber. And you could — he could hear them practicing for his execution next in the chamber right next to it. His big fear was, “Please, don’t put me in that place.” And as you know, trauma has cues to it. And just that’s what he feared. And he feared that would happen soon. And then he got the word of the stay.

So, what the word of the stay meant, first of all, we’re not going to kill you on May 18th. Also, you won’t be going into that holding cell, that torture chamber. And, you know, Amy, there’s no way to process this. First of all, it’s so surreal to take in that this healthy man is going to be killed, and then to take in, no, they’re not going to kill you. It’s just an impossible — Susan Sarandon’s word for it, when we did the film, a Dead Man Walking, was “surreal.” And it is that. How the man can put three words together at all in his life, it’s because he has tremendous resilience. But so, anyway, it’s just jubilation trying to take it in, and just rejoicing over that.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, nine execution dates, nine dates with death, three last meals, last suppers. Talk about how Richard Glossip processes this, what this means. You’ve referred to it, as you just did, as torture.

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: He’s wounded. He’s traumatized. I mean, you know, thank God, he does have a really good wife, Lea, who calls him every morning. They talk every night before they go to bed, you know, and she steadies him, that he’s loved and that he has somebody by his side.

But when you are thrown in the chaos of state powers arraigned against you, and, you know, when you look at just the way the death penalty is working, we have pockets of resistance still going on, where you have Oklahoma, you have Texas, and I just want to talk a little bit about why this is continuing. It’s the way the Supreme Court set up the death penalty in the Gregg decision of 1976. First, they put in impossible criteria, that you’re supposed to be able to have the wisdom to distinguish the difference between ordinary murder and the worst of the worst murder. And they coupled it with discretion, full discretion, of prosecutors to seek death or not. So, where you don’t have prosecutors seeking death, you know, nobody’s going to be killed. But in these deep pockets of resistance, like in Oklahoma and Texas, prosecutors have that power, and they use it, whereas even though New York had it on the books for 10 years, prosecutors didn’t seek it, which shows it’s as arbitrary as it’s always been when you leave that kind of power over life or death in the hands of prosecutors.

The second thing is, with the 190 — growing every day — you know, people who have been able to show that they were wrongly convicted, put on death row, there’s hardly any accountability for prosecutors who go for political points in winning. And that’s just what happened in Oklahoma. Bob Macy, single-handedly, as the DEA in Oklahoma City, got 54 death penalties. And Richard was caught in that sweep. And then it’s almost impossible to get out once you’ve been sentenced to death. People don’t understand that the appeals courts just use procedural bars. So, you might get the best evidence in the world, and then you try to present it. Sorry, too late, procedural bars, should have filed it sooner. So, the system’s built — the way it’s set up, it promotes death, and it promotes injustice.

So, that’s my job, is to get to the American people to help us to see the setup of the whole thing. We are moving away from the death penalty in the United States. My next book is going to be called Beneath Our Dignity: How We the People Are Shutting Down the Death Penalty in the U.S.. And it’s all about, as Justice Thurgood Marshall said, educating the people. And that’s my job.

AMY GOODMAN: Sister Helen Prejean —

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: So, Dead Man Walking — 

AMY GOODMAN: — talk about that resistance and why you hold out hope, how you see it diminishing in the United States, state by state, even though, overall, federally, the death penalty has not been overturned.

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Yeah. Although, when you look at that, if you want to see the arbitrariness and capriciousness, Trump killed 13 people before he left office, because he could, OK? And now, you know, the most horrible being Lisa Montgomery, who had been so abused. And when she got her new date of execution, she looked away and said, “Eight days. Under Trump, I’m going to die.” In eight days, Biden would be inaugurated. She would live. Look at the arbitrariness when you give that kind of power over to the prosecutors.

And so — but look at Virginia. How did Virginia happen? Virginia abolished the death penalty — the biggest slave state, had executed more women and more children — because the people got educated. So, that’s what we do. And what I’m happy about, Amy, is that Dead Man Walking is now in so many of the art forms. It’s a great film, that still affects people. Some of the legislators now that have been pro-death penalty are looking at the film, a Dead Man Walking, and the New York Met is going to perform the opera starting September 26. So, the more you can get things into the art forms to take people through to deal with that initial rage they have — “Oh, look, an innocent person was killed” — and the moral equivalent seems to be, “Well, they ought to die, and we can trust the government to set up a way to kill them.” You’ve got to take people through it.

And that’s what I hope to do in the next book, too, holding up this man, Manuel Ortiz, who’s been on death row in Louisiana for 30 years, has maintained his innocence, and I believe him. And it’s going to be to tell his story, but then also in the book to show all the things I’ve learned along these 35, 40 years about how the death penalty actually works. And so, that’s what you’ve got to show the people.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back, Sister Helen, to your first meeting with Richard Glossip. When did you meet him? In like 2015, eight years ago?

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: It was a phone call, where a group set it up. I had just begun to read a little bit about him. And by then Amy, I had been with two innocent people who were executed. That’s the subject of my book The Death of Innocence. So, here they’re going to set up a phone call with this Richard Glossip guy, and here he comes on the phone. And if you ever hear his voice, he has a winsome voice. He’s a gentle guy. And here’s what I hear: “Sister Helen, I apologize. I know I didn’t ask your permission or anything, but I think Oklahoma is really serious about killing me. And would you be with me?” So I go, “Well, sure, I’ll be with you, Richard. You don’t have — of course, I’ll be with you.”

Then, Amy, I get in bed that night, because I already had the experience of how broken the thing is, and you can truly be innocent — bolt awake at 2:00 in the morning and realize, in my own conscience, “I can’t just accompany that man and be there when he’s killed. I know enough about how broken this system is. He may really be innocent.” And right away — and I made two phone calls. And one was to Susan Sarandon, my buddy, who really cares about justice, and I knew that she and Robert Redford had a series of death penalty stories they had gotten on CNN, and that she had helped me with Richard. I said, “Susan, we got to get on the media.” The first thing I learned from Amnesty International about these cases is that you — where it looks all signed, sealed and delivered, because Richard had had two trials, create doubt. So I knew the weak point, from what I could see, was Justin Sneed. So we got on CNN. And the other phone call was to the Vatican to Pope Francis: “Would the Vatican, please, try to do what it could to speak up for Richard Glossip?”

And then I called this great woman, Darla Shelton, in Oklahoma, and I said — she headed up the Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, educating the public — “Darla, you think you could help me?” And we met, and we set up a press conference. And all I knew to do was, from the information I had, Darla knew people in the state. We ended up having four press conferences. So, we did that in January, where we just had weeks before he was to be executed.

And then, of course, the big phone call was to get a lawyer. And I called up Don Knight. I said, “Don” — so, we joke about this. He said, “Look, I’ll take the case, but I’m not going to do media.” And that’s been the joke. He’s been doing media out the kazoo ever since he got involved in this case. But Don took it on. And so they began to just work on what legal issues can we get into the appeals court. And then four press conferences. Don began to learn more and more. Then he reached out with the political leaders, with — and began to work with him in the state.

So, now we just reached that crescendo where even the new attorney general that came in — so, Drummond is the new attorney general. And so, he had enough of an open mind and a conscience. I mean, he’s suffering from this decision politically. The backlash against him is tremendous. But he stood for his conscience. And, Amy, that is so refreshing, when you have people that have been part of this system who, in conscience, recognized all the errors. I mean, they just — the prosecutors destroyed evidence. You know, they knew Sneed was lying. They hid the videos that showed that the detectives had planted in Sneed — six times, they introduce this information that Richard must have been the mastermind — all the lies, all the stuff that goes on behind the scenes. They’re supposed to seek justice. They’re not supposed to just seek winning for political gain.

So, it looked so hopeless when the Court of Appeals in Oklahoma turned him down. When the clemency board’s supposed to be five members, one had to recuse, so they only have four; you need three votes to get clemency. It was two to two. So, therefore, he could die. And you could just see the system working against him, and it seemed hopeless. And then that attorney general came through. So, boy, look at that. And as I said earlier, there’s still all the guys on death row that are slated all to be executed. And without that huge team to support them, they’re going to be killed.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Sister Helen Prejean. Her book Dead Man Walking was turned into an Oscar-winning movie, and Susan Sarandon played Sister Helen Prejean, now writing a new book that goes right to the U.S. Supreme Court and the death penalty. You’re talking about Republican Attorney General Gentner Drummond, who stood up for Glossip and joined his team. And in that previous interview we did with you, Helen Prejean, you talked about the eight men who came into your meeting with Richard Glossip that last day, before he learned that he was not going to be executed, at least for now. What kind of representation do they have? And what kind of representation, state by state, do some people get, and the vast majority on death row have no access to?

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: No. And, of course, that’s another huge morally wrong structural problem with the death penalty. Prosecutors in states have great resources. Defense, like for a long time in Louisiana, public defenders in these cases, and even the appeals, get money from traffic tickets. So, because you don’t have an equal system set up for defense for people, I mean, coming against the full powers of the state, that’s part of the huge moral, you know, wrongness of the way the death penalty is set up.

I don’t know the specifics, but when you see people, live human beings, coming in here, these men, you know, and their visitor sits on the other side of a table from them, they are allowed to hold hands. They have a black box and handcuffs, and they have to move their hands. And one, in particular, I looked at. His old mother — I mean, I would guess she’s in her eighties. And Richard whispered, while we — he said she’s come to see him as often as she can, like every week. And there he is, visiting with his mother. And his life is very, very precarious. I mean, you know, since the attorney general in — the previous one has set up, aping Trump, all these slots to be filled for executions, Amy, even had the Department of Corrections saying, “We can’t handle it, to have an execution every month. It’s too hard on the people who have to do the executing” — got them to slow down. And I’m looking at this man visiting with his mother. And you think of the suffering.

That’s the thing we have to do with the people. We have to help the American people understand that the death penalty you believe in is not the death penalty we have. It’s very selective. It’s only against the poor. Overwhelmingly, it’s when white people are killed. And it’s filled with these imbalances in it, where you have poor people — granted, people do terrible crimes. Granted, they’re horrible. Granted, we feel moral outrage at their crimes. But then, when you look at the — and what it means to give the government this kind of power, I’m proud that at last my Catholic Church has changed its official teaching on the death penalty to take away the right of the government ever to take life, because you cannot entrust governments — and conservatives understand this. You want to talk about intrusion of government power, what’s more intrusive, giving absolute power, than the right to take life of a citizen and decide the way you’re going to set this up? So, in 2018, after 1,500 years of dialogue in the Catholic Church, you have finally that change in the teaching, in the catechism: No matter how grievous the crime, you can never allow the government that absolute right to decide to take life or not. And Amnesty has documented, whenever you do give them, governments, that absolute right, it is always going to be aimed at the vulnerable and the people most suspicious or that people hate. You know, and so, that’s 1,500 years of dialogue. And how did it happen in the Catholic Church that it got changed? The dialogue with the people. The dialogue with the people, consciousness changes, conscience changes, and then finally it gets to the top, and finally you change the books.

And that’s what we’ve got to work on in the United States now, the states that still — we have to do it state by state, because we have a Supreme Court that looks at the words: The death penalty is not a cruel punishment. We have a court that does not acknowledge what torture is. So it’s got to be that we wake the people up, just like happened in Virginia, just like it’s happening across the country. And that’s my job, because I’m a witness. I’ve been through six executions. I’ve seen it close up. And the witnesses are the ones that Elie Wiesel said, in his movie, in his book, Night, about the Holocaust: Anyone who’s been a witness to a moral wrong has a moral obligation to be a witness to the people who are not yet aware of the moral wrong that’s going on. So I have this moral imperative.

And so, with Richard, to save his life — I really, really feel that his life is going to be saved, and there’s no way they’re going to bring him back to trial. And I do believe he will be set free. But I’m thinking of all the other men and women on death row. Women, classic for women on death row, they were abused. It’s just like with Lisa Montgomery, who was killed under ex-President Trump, abused, terribly abused as a child, get on drugs to — you know, to deal, to remedy the pain they feel from that abuse. Then they’re in a horrible situation with drugs and drug dealers and violence, end up committing violence, and then they go to death row. The pattern is almost always the same for the women. And so, anyway, wake up the people, which is what you’re about on Democracy Now! Educate the people. I have found that —

AMY GOODMAN: Sister Helen Prejean, do you think you will see the abolition of the death penalty in the United States in your lifetime?

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: I’m beginning to see it. I go with the Gandhi thing. Gandhi said you do what you do, not that you necessarily will see the success of it, but you do it for the integrity of it. I don’t know if I’ll see it or not. But I know this: Every bit of energy that I have in my life, and because of what I now know about it, I will expend that we will see that one day in this country,

AMY GOODMAN: Sister Helen Prejean, I want to thank you so much for being with us, perhaps the world’s most well-known anti-death penalty activist, the author of the best-selling book, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty. It was turned into a Hollywood film, Dead Man Walking. Susan Sarandon won an Oscar for playing Sister Helen Prejean. Her most recent book is River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey. And Sister Helen Prejean is writing a new book on the death penalty.

To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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