Much has changed since Sr. Helen Prejean, 79, helped start the conversation on capital punishment. Since the release of her book and the film, eight American states have abolished the death penalty CNS file photo

Sr. Prejean wages constant fight for lives on death row

By 
  • February 25, 2019

While some might say Sr. Helen Prejean has experienced great success in her fight to abolish the death penalty, she believes she’s only helped make some strides in the battle.

After all, it’s hard to claim success when nearly 2,400 people remain on death row in the United States.

“I don’t see success at all, because the suffering and the torture is so terrible, as long as even one person is in that situation, and it’s legalized,” she said. “I know you can see we’ve made strides, (but) I would never talk about it in terms of success.”

It’s why the American nun from the Congregation of St. Joseph continues to fight for death row inmates. Her story was told in her book Dead Man Walking that became the 1995 film, garnering  four Academy Award nominations and an Oscar for Susan Sarandon, who played Prejean.

Prejean is bringing her Dead Man Walking: The Journey Continues… message to the Toronto area including a March 1 appearance at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ont., as part of its Lectures in Catholic Experience series.

Much has changed since Prejean, 79, helped start the conversation on capital punishment. Since the release of her book and the film, eight American states have abolished the death penalty, and even in Texas, a sort of ground zero state for supporters of capital punishment, prosecutors have stopped trying to put prisoners to death due to the “exorbitant cost,” said Prejean. But in 30 states, the federal government and the military, capital punishment remains an option.

It’s why Prejean continues the journey that has absorbed her life for three decades. Polls show that huge numbers still support putting the worst criminals to death. Supporters of the death sentence aren’t bad people, she said, “they’re just not awake.” It comes from an ignorance and “the isolated lifestyle that’s not in touch with people beyond their own little small boundaries,” she said.

“My job is to bring them close, to help them see it so they can respond and that’s been the journey of the last 30 years.”

Part of that education is understanding a system in which the majority of death row inmates have some things in common: they are poor and they lacked proper legal representation.

“People get sent to death row not because of the nature of the crime but because of the nature of the lawyer they had and the zeal of the prosecutor on the other side,” she said.

The people in the pews come under some fire from Prejean, who notes that many polls show that the “more people went to church, the more they believed in the death penalty.”

“What in the world is the theology, or people’s concept of faith, that they would believe in the death penalty more than people who never stepped inside a church?” she wonders.

She’s pleased that Pope Francis on Aug. 2, 2018 formally changed Vatican teaching to declare capital punishment wrong in all circumstances. It follows on dialogue she had with Pope John Paul II, which she said was the turning point in the Church making a change.

As for Canada, it may not have capital punishment but Prejean sees issues in how the poor and minorities, particularly Indigenous, are overrepresented in our penal system.

“It’s always the poor, always the minorities, you’re going to always (have filling prisons), when you have a certain system and the prejudices against certain people in society,” she said.


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