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In the Bible Belt, Christmas Isn’t Coming to Death Row

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When it comes to the death penalty, guilt or innocence shouldn’t really matter to Christians.  

NASHVILLE — Until August, Tennessee had not put a prisoner to death in nearly a decade. Last Thursday, it performed its third execution in four months.
This was not a surprising turn of events. In each case, recourse to the courts had been exhausted. In each case Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, declined to intervene, though there were many r…

How Sister Helen Prejean became a leading advocate for the abolition of the death penalty

Sister Helen Prejean
Sister Helen Prejean is a leading advocate for abolition of the death penalty. She's written 2 books on the topic, and 1 of them, "Dead Man Walking," became an Oscar-winning film. She's been nominated 3 times for the Nobel Peace Prize. Her new memoir, "River of Fire," will be published by Random House, probably in January.

You grew up in Baton Rouge. What brought you to New Orleans?

I joined the Sisters of St. Joseph in 1957, so I was 18. I've been in New Orleans ever since. Part of that was going to college at St. Mary's Dominican.

Did you know much about the city when you arrived?

Oh, yes. We would come on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. It was a holiday, and that's when we'd go shopping in New Orleans. It was a big deal. We would "motor" to New Orleans with mama and go to D.H. Holmes and Maison Blanche to do shopping.

In high school, we took a bus trip for Mardi Gras one year. ... The convent was kind of limited because we didn't get out much, but (we knew) the spirit of the city.

Life in the convent was sheltered, and your early years as a teacher were spent in Catholic schools. Were you familiar with the plight of the poor here?

I'm the typical kind of person who came up with privilege. My daddy was a successful lawyer in Baton Rouge. I knew there was a problem of poverty. I knew there were problems of racism, but I never attended to them much. They didn't seem to touch me much because I didn't know any real people. But when I moved into St. Thomas (housing project in New Orleans) and worked at a place called Hope House and I lived among the people, African-American people became my teachers.

Part of what privilege did in my life was it separated me from the suffering. I'd never encountered people where the police were beating them up, where they would be arrested and sit in jail for 3 years because they didn't have money for bond. I had no idea that all this was going on simply because of race. But it impassioned me because for the 1st time, I saw the suffering. I sat with people at Charity Hospital with a sick child until, finally, at 2 in the morning, some tired intern took on the job. I said, "There is something wrong. This is the United States."

That must have been a harsh awakening.

The harsh reality is that it was always going on, but I awakened to it and I knew I had to do something. It was at St. Thomas, working there at Hope House, that one day coming down St. Andrew Street, somebody from the Louisiana Coalition on Jails and Prisons said to me, "Hey, Sister Helen, do you want to be a pen pal to somebody on death row?"

I never dreamed this person was going to be executed. It was 1982, and we hadn't had an execution in Louisiana for over 20 years. There had been an unofficial moratorium. I wasn't even aware that in 1976, the Supreme Court put the death penalty back, and here it's the early '80s, so I write him. His name is Patrick Sonnier, and 2 years later, I am with him when he is electrocuted by the state of Louisiana.

It set me on fire. I came out and I realized people were going to read the account (of the execution) and say, "He did a terrible crime. He killed two teenage kids, and he paid with his life. Justice was done." But I got close to the process, and this is the story in "Dead Man Walking." That's the story, when (actor/director) Tim Robbins read it, he realized we had a way here, the journey of 1 person, descending into the depths (to make a film about the death penalty). He loved to say, "and the nun was in over her head." And I was because I didn't know anything about law and what it meant to have a good attorney. ... People could just be railroaded on through.

How many people on death row have you served as spiritual adviser?

I've accompanied 6 people to execution, and I'm with my 7th man now. His name is Manuel Ortiz, and he's innocent. Of the 7, 3 have been innocent. The 2nd book I wrote is called the "Death of Innocents" and I tell about the story of Dobie Gillis Williams, an African-American man with the IQ of 65 executed by the state. He couldn't get the legal help he needed in time, and he was killed. You talk about lighting the fire of your passion - it's to witness an innocent person executed. You can't be neutral anymore.

Look at the way the death penalty has been applied. Most of the executions, like 70 %, have happened in former slave states. Louisiana has the harshest incarceration rate in the U.S.; the U.S. has has harshest rate, especially of people of color, in the world; and Louisiana is at the top of that. And it came out of the legacy of slavery.

You've written books, conferred with popes and been nominated for the Nobel Prize. What do you consider to be your biggest accomplishment?

The privilege of being with human beings when it counted most. When nobody believed in their dignity and (the state) was killing them. And I got to be with them. That's it. That's the heart of it.

How has the city influenced your work?

I love the city. There's a warmth and goodness in New Orleans people. Not just New Orleans but Louisiana. It really is a life state; we love life. Music and food and our stories. We have humor. .. Music is healing and life-giving. The spirit of the people is strong. I wouldn't want to live anyplace else.

Source: The Advocate, Karen Taylor Gist, April 26, 2018


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"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed,
but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

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