According to a 2021 survey by the Pew Research Center, even though they have doubts about its administration, fairness, and usefulness as a crime deterrent, most Americans today still support the death penalty. Moreover, while it may seem like a brutal relic of a bygone era, capital punishment is still legal in 24 states, for the federal government, and for the military. As John Gramlich writes, “while state-level executions have decreased” in recent decades, “the federal government put more prisoners to death under President Donald Trump than at any point since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976.”
Sister Helen Prejean has spent much of her life as a Catholic nun bearing witness to the violent inhumanity of state executions and campaigning to abolish the death penalty. Her work has been recognized around the world, including by the Pope, and has been instrumental in advancing national dialogue on capital punishment and in shaping the Catholic Church’s vigorous opposition to all executions. She is also the author of Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions, and River of Fire: On Becoming an Activist. In this special episode of Rattling the Bars, TRNN Executive Producer Eddie Conway sits down to speak with Sister Prejean about the barbarous injustice of state-sanctioned executions and her own path to becoming a leading advocate for death penalty abolition.
Pre-Production/Studio/Post Production: Cameron Granadino
Eddie Conway: Welcome to this episode of Rattling The Bars. Today, we are going to look at a champion of the death penalty abolishment. Today, we have a guest, a special guest. I’m honored, in fact, to have her. Sister Helen Prejean. She’s the author of Dead Man Walking, which they made a film out of. She is also an author of several other books, but what’s fascinating about her is that she has spent a lifetime as a nun campaigning to abolish the death penalty. So, Sister Helen, thank you for joining me.
Sister Helen Prejean: Eddie, hey, am I glad to be with you. You’re the real thing. You’re the real thing, Eddie.
Eddie Conway: Okay. Sister Helen, give us a little just overview right now of where in the United States the death penalty is. I noticed that there was only a few states that actually overwhelmed the death penalty system, but where’s the death penalty being practiced at now, in the United States?
Sister Helen Prejean: This will not surprise you. It’s the former Confederate states, the slave states, which have done, since the death penalty was put back in ’76, over 70% of all actual executions. So where they’ve taken place now, you look at Texas, of course, Florida, Oklahoma. Oklahoma is just revving up that killing machine again. They just killed John Grant. They have botched three executions, they’re still killing them.
But it’s interesting. Eddie, there’s only 1.2 counties of prosecutors in the United States that account for almost 50% of the people on death row. There’s a national movement now, as you know, to shut it down, and prosecutors less and less are seeking it. You have more and more prosecutors standing up for conviction integrity units, where they don’t just put their spotlight on somebody and go after them, usually poor and can’t defend themselves. But where it’s still happening is in the Deep South and in the states that practiced slavery.
Eddie Conway: Okay. Let’s step back in time for one minute and tell me how you got involved in this. You were a nun – Well, you are a nun, but decades ago you were a nun. You were obedient to the church teachings, and what happened? How did you get involved and how did that evolve?
Sister Helen Prejean: Well, it was a spiritual awakening, Eddie. Like you say, I’ve been a nun a long time. And before, what holiness meant as a nun was that you would be obedient to your superiors, and I thought I was never going to make a decision again. But then in the Catholic Church there was a reform council that happened called Ecumenical Council II in the ’60s. And that gave us back selfhood. We were told to look at the signs of the times, get involved in things, inviting us into the hurting people, the injustices. And my congregation, my sisters of St. Joseph, heard that call and I was part of them that heard the call. When I did, I moved out of the suburbs of New Orleans and moved into the inner city with African American people who became my teachers.
That was the first time I heard the words ‘white privilege.’ That was the first time I heard how different it was for young Black men with the policeman. I wasn’t ever scared of policemen. I got a heavy foot, I got to confess, Eddie. I’m a really honest nun, I got a heavy foot, and I’d done more than my share of speeding. I was never scared when a state trooper stopped me. Sometimes we even had a little banter back and forth. Was he taught by nuns, was he Catholic, are you a nun, I’m going to cut you slack.
But every one of the young men at this community meeting, I remember, and this is in the ’80s, every one of them had experiences with the police. It shocked me. It’s almost like you could have this other America going on. Then of course there was a direct connection between the people in St. Thomas and Angola, our prison. And one day I’d just got an invitation, it was really casual. Sister Helen, you want to write to a death row inmate? And I said, yeah. And I thought, Eddie, I thought I was only going to be writing letters. I never dreamed [crosstalk][they were going to] execute him. And two and a half years later I was there when the state of Louisiana electrocuted Pat Sonnier to death and it changed my life forever.
Eddie Conway: And since then you have been to the Vatican and all over the country, campaigning to abolished the death penalty. What has that been like? Especially wrestling with the Vatican who supported the death penalty for 500 years or maybe more.
Sister Helen Prejean: 1500, 1500.
Eddie Conway: 1500. Okay.
Sister Helen Prejean: Like a lot of mainstream Christian faiths, they upheld the right of the state to take life. See? And I knew until we could match and coincide with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which says that the right to life is an inalienable right just simply because you’re a person. So therefore governments don’t have the power or authority to give this human right to people for good behavior or take it away for bad behavior. That was the dialogue with the Catholic Church. And because as the people wake up, the leaders wake up. That’s true in politics, too. It’s true about us today.
And so you have to educate the people. And what has that experience been like for me these 30-plus years? I’ve been amazed that when people can get close to what the death penalty really means – Because the American people are good people, they’re not really for having the government kill people – But they were made to be afraid and that there are some people that are so evil and so irredeemable we got to kill them to keep society safe. We can’t even put them in prison because they’ll kill other inmates because they’re evil.
And as they began to hear the stories of what happened and how the whole criminal justice system works, it’s only poor people get the death penalty. Eight out of 10 it’s because you killed a white person, almost never when Black people are killed unless they’re policemen. And when you break it down for the people and you bring them close I could see that their hearts were good and they go, well, we didn’t know it was like that. And that’s been that steady, steady education through stories. And the same thing with the Catholic Church and with the people in the churches, talking to them.
And then I got a breakthrough. There was a man in Virginia by the name of Joseph O’Dell and the Italians had gotten very interested in his case because he was innocent. He’s the second story in my book, The Death of Innocents. Pope John Paul heard of him and I had a direct dialogue with him. And here’s what I said, and when I talked to the Pope it wasn’t any different talking to you. Because you don’t [crosstalk] these special little Pope words because you’re going to go talk to the Pope or whatever. I just brought him right inside that execution chamber. And I said, your Holiness, I talk to a lot of Catholics who say they pro-life. But when you talk to them what they really mean is they’re pro-innocent life. But they draw a line when somebody’s done a crime, they deserve what they get. Can you help us? Can you help the church understand the dignity of each life, even those who have done wrong?
And this was my clincher with him. When I brought him in the chamber I said, when I am walking with a man to execution and his legs are chained and his hands are chained, cuffed really close to his chest and he’s surrounded by six guards, and he turns to me and almost in a whisper says, Sister, please pray God holds up my legs while I make this last walk. And I said to the Pope: Where is the dignity in rendering a human being completely defenseless and then in the most predetermined way you can imagine, killing him. Can you help us do away with the death penalty? And Pope John Paul in a public address in St. Louis for the first time said, the death penalty is cruel. It’s unnecessary, and even those among us who have done a terrible crime have a dignity that must not be taken from them.
Eddie Conway: From my understanding you’ve been in six or more actual executions. What is that like? I mean, actually, it’s funny – Not funny, because they actually tried to kill me – So I was held in the gas chamber in Maryland for three days –
Sister Helen Prejean: Oh my God.
Eddie Conway: …While they tried to wait to see if I would die. They had broken my shoulder and had done all kinds of damage and they hid me in the gas chamber, but I was unconscious. So when I woke up, I woke up in the gas chamber and I saw the place and that was terrifying.
Sister Helen Prejean: Oh my goodness.
Eddie Conway: Just laying in there.
Sister Helen Prejean: Oh my goodness. What year was that, Eddie? What year was that?
Eddie Conway: That was 1973. July. My lawyers got a court order and brought doctors in and got me out of there, but it was a horrible place. So what is it like witnessing those executions?
Sister Helen Prejean: Okay, I just talked to somebody. You talk about the horse’s mouth. I mean you’ve been in there actually. But I’m going to tell you it’s the most surreal thing. You know, when we did the movie A Dead Man Walking, and Susan Sarandon was me in the movie, when we were doing the movie and doing the death house scenes, she said, this is so surreal, because I’m talking with Pat Sonnier, the sixth, before they’re going to their death and they alive. It’s not like being with somebody in the hospital where they got cancer or something and they’re going to be dead but by natural means. Fully alive, drinking coffee, talking about how their mama made gravy for the chicken or whatever, and then the big stuff. And you cannot get your mind around the reality. They are going to kill this man. And believe me, if I let my imagination get ahead of me I couldn’t hold it together.
I mean, my prayer was really kind of selfish because I said, please, God, don’t let him fall apart. If he falls apart, I’ll fall apart. It was unreal. And when I came out I was traumatized. I threw up, Eddie. It was the middle of the night. See, this is a secret ritual. There’ve been two court cases trying to make these executions public and they’ve both been denied. They don’t want the people to see this. And the thing that’s been the fire in my mission to get to the people is I’m a witness. And when you are a witness to something you have a moral imperative to tell that story. And that’s the way I have felt to each of those men that died like that. The society’s saying, good riddance, nothing but disposal of human waste.
I got an op-ed coming out online in the New York Times – And then I think it’ll be in print – Of being with a person in the execution chamber. It’s around this Ramirez case in Texas, where this man is asking for his pastor to be there with him to touch him and to pray with him in the execution chamber. And that’s been my whole thing. And that’s what I wrote about in my op-ed. It’s to look in their face and touch them and say, you are not disposable waste. You have a dignity no one can take from you. And to be there for them as the state is killing them.
Because before they actually are in that execution chamber, as long as you’ve been on death row you get a thousand signals from guards and everybody that you are worth nothing to this society. You’re so evil we got to get rid of you. Where’s the dignity in that?
Eddie Conway: I’m sure it also dehumanizes the executioner, the guards, everybody probably except the prosecutor who’s trying to become a judge or something. I’m sure it has an impact on those people that have to participate in it.
Sister Helen Prejean: Yeah, you’re right. And you know we do, Eddie, have more and more people coming forward now that are not doing it anymore. And in Dead Man Walking I did meet one of the guards. Really good guy. He had been a supervisor on death row and he did all right. I think he could have retired from Angola being the supervisor, but then they moved him to what they call the tac team, the tactical team, which means execution squad. And then these men that he had gotten to know as he was supervisor, got to know each one coming in on to death row, and he calls me in his office. He had been through five executions, close up, and he called me in and said, please just close the door.
And we talked and he said, I can’t do it anymore. I come home after these executions, I get in my La-Z-Boy chair. I can’t sleep. I can’t eat. My wife knows not to talk to me because I know I’m killing a human being. We’ve rendered him defenseless. And I know all their crimes. Some of the crimes they’ve done are unspeakable. But I could see the little boy inside them. I could see the human being inside them. And so he quit. He’s the only one I met in that whole thing from the governor on down, head of the department of correction, who quit because of his conscience.
Eddie Conway: I always thought that states or nations that uses the death penalty are harsher on every other level of sentences. Like, life without parole, 50 years, 20 years. Because it seems like there’s a level of violence that the guard can perpetrate on people and dehumanize them. And if that level is death, then everything under that gets subjugated. I mean, what you think about… And I guess the thing that I want to probably try to find, are there nations or states that don’t use the death penalty?
Sister Helen Prejean: Yeah. 40 years ago, Eddie, there was only a handful. Now it’s like the majority of the nations in the world and the United Nations don’t practice the death penalty anymore. I’ll give my views on why we still do, but I want to comment on what you just said. If you feel you’re justified in killing a person, so you need to go to the doctor and have a wisdom tooth pulled, it gives them sanction for any kind of violence, anything less than death, so they break your shoulder.
There’s this woman on death row right now in California. The physician just summarily took her off of her seizure meds. She had a grand mal seizure, fell to the floor, broke her clavicle. Her clavicle is presently broken. It took a year and a half to see a surgeon in the California prison, and the clavicle had moved and it’s above her sternum. You can see it sticking out. They said, too late for surgery. And you got it, it’s a mindset where a switch is clicked; not human. Anything you can do under death gets to be tolerated.
I think the reason that we still have the death penalty in the United States is racism is still so endemic in every system we have. We still have it in how you get a house. We still have it in the police, in law enforcement. We still have it in the prison system. And we definitely have it with the death penalty. And look, the predominance, it’s when white victims are killed that there’s the feeling that a citizen of value has been lost. When Black people are killed, look at all these TV things that go on where a white woman got killed, they suspect the boyfriend, they will follow that on national news for weeks or even months. Let a Black woman disappear, let a Black person disappear, that’s never on the national news because we still have a lot of systemic racism in our thinking and in our policies.
Eddie Conway: Well, that’s bothersome for me because I’ve always thought that America has been founded on white violence against people of color, Indigenous, Latinos, Blacks, et cetera. And that there’s this… It’s not just white skin privilege is a fact, but it’s almost like everybody else on the planet that’s not white are less than human beings. I don’t understand that mindset. Is it a case like you were saying early on that you were not aware of the things that were going on down in the projects, down in the Black community, because you had been socialized, you had been educated, obviously you went to college, et cetera. So is it a case of just really being socialized that you don’t even identify other people as humans or recognize that they’re not treated as humans?
Sister Helen Prejean: You know what, I found it is, Eddie, I mean it’s kind of a shame it took me so long to wake up. I was 40 when I really recognized it. And I lived in the South and in New Orleans all my adult life, grew up in Baton Rouge. Get this, Eddie. During the Jim Crow days, we had a woman, Ellen, that worked. We had a big house, big two-story house, and there was a servant’s quarters in the back. And Ellen worked in the house and Jesse worked in the yard. I never knew their last names. And Mom and Daddy were kind. Daddy helped Ellen and Jesse buy a house. He helped Jesse get a good job, but never questioned the whole Jim Crow system. And I think it’s what culture does.
I think what Brian Stevenson says all the time: proximity. Who are the people you meet? Who are the people you’re going to lunch with? Who are the people you’re talking to? And when people don’t meet each other across these divides it’s easy to just buy into the stereotype. I mean, they do that about nuns. Oh yeah, she’s a nun, boy. She probably hit those kids with a ruler when they didn’t know their right hand. When you’re not meeting real people you can have that stereotype.
And then when you’re made to be afraid of each other, like immigrants, these rapists coming in, drug dealers coming across our borders. And people are separated, they’re not meeting real people and they need to be afraid. And that’s when the worst comes out in us. When people get close to the truth, they can actually meet people. I found out the power of a book, because when you’re reading a book, see, people are quiet. They’re not debating with anybody. But in their imagination, they are coming with me through a terrible crime and feel the outrage. And then they gradually come with me into the execution chamber and watch what it really means for the state to kill someone. Since it’s such a secret process you have to have ways of cracking it open and bringing people there.
Eddie Conway: And I see also that you’ve spent some time working with the victims’ families also in terms of bringing them to a better understanding and some of that work has been successful. Talk about that a little bit.
Sister Helen Prejean: One of the big hypocritical promises that prosecutors make when there’s been a murder, they promise that family – Almost always it’s a white family, very few times a Black family – That we are going to get justice for you. I mean sometimes, Eddie, I’ve been there for closing arguments at death penalty trials, closing arguments of the prosecutor. The jury’s about to go behind these closed doors and decide if a person lives or dies. And there’s that prosecutor pointing to that victim’s family sitting there in all their grief and saying to the jury, you got to do this for that family. They have a right to have closure. They have a right to have justice and justice means only one thing: you give back death. He killed, he deserves death. Do that for that family.
Well, as people have been waking up in 2011 when the New Jersey legislature was talking about repealing the death penalty, 62 murder victims’ families came and testified and said, don’t kill for us. The death penalty re-victimizes us, that we’re put in this holding pattern. It takes 15, 20 years. I think the average wait for this family to get this so-called justice between the trial and execution is something like 15, 18 years. And they said, our grief is very public. Every time there’s a change in the status of the case the media’s at our door. How do you feel about this? How can we go to a place and grieve and heal and get our life whole again? We never want to hear that person’s name again, even if he goes into prison and we never hear his name. And it’s such a ruse that they use to try to justify what they’re doing. But boy did it get exposed in New Jersey, and more and more it’s getting exposed.
I didn’t heal a lot of victims’ families individually by telling them the right thing. What we did was we formed a group of other people who had been through the grief called Survive in New Orleans. And people who have been down that road together can help each other the most. And that’s what we did, Eddie.
Eddie Conway: Okay. All right. And I see how, in some cases, the Bible has been used by public officials to justify the death penalty. Can you talk a little bit about that and how they use the Bible and why it’s taken out of context?
Sister Helen Prejean: The truth is the Bible was written over several thousand years. It’s got violence in it, it has Psalms where you’re praying to God to dash the baby’s heads against the rocks of your enemies. It’s got violence in it. It does. The thing is about selectively quoting the Bible. The Bible also has in it the compassion of Jesus and the deep spiritual strength of not giving into hatred and returning violence for violence. Jesus said, you’ve heard it said an eye for an eye, but I say to you. And all the deep spiritual traditions have this. Buddhism has it. Hinduism has it. The Quran begins every chapter except one with the mercy of God. Mercy, mercy is not tit for tat, eye for eye, life for life, but it can so easily be misquoted.
I watched the head of the DA’s Association before the Louisiana Legislature, before the Judiciary Committee, we had a bill up to repeal the death penalty. This was in the ’80s. And he comes not armed with legal briefs, he just opened up the New Testament, he quoted the words of Jesus. As Jesus said, those who live by the sword die by the sword. He lived by the sword so now he’s going to die by the sword. Those kinds of what you call proof texting are the easiest things in the world to do. The whole tenor of what Jesus meant and the whole context in which he said that to Peter who’s getting ready to attack one of the Roman guards, like don’t get into a battle of violence, you are sure to lose. You’re just acting just like him. That was the context. But when you do text without context, proof texting, you can make…
And Justice Scalia, he died several years ago, but I took him on in the second book, The Death of Innocents. He had a conference on the death penalty in Chicago, was quoting an Epistle of St. Paul. Epistles to the Romans Chapter 13. Basically saying that when we [inaudible] with and we impose a law on people, it has the authority of God behind it. And there’s a way that people try to justify violence and killing. They want to have God as their ultimate, putting a seal of approval on it. Like, God is for this. We represent God. We’re not a theocracy. We’re a democracy. We don’t get our authority. We get it from the people. And you have Supreme court justices using that same thing as justice Scalia used to do.
Eddie Conway: So if you had some advice to give to the American public about what they can do if they’re conscious and interested to help stop this death penalty, put a ban on it nationally, what would you do? What would you say?
Sister Helen Prejean: Well, a number of things. One is there’s a great center where you can just really get real information about the death penalty. It’s called DPIC, the Death Penalty Information Center. I think I’d send them there right after I send them to your show. Because see, you are the real thing. You have suffered under it. And you know the death penalty is not just a death penalty, that it’s the practice of torture. And there’s nothing like listening to real people. Send them to people like you who have been in the fire.
Getting information, reading books. There’s a lot of great books. Brian Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy. Dead Man Walking really does a job of bringing people through the whole thing. Tell them to read books. Tell them to get information. Tell them to get in touch with podcasts and people that have been on both sides of this and can give them real live experiences. And then in whatever state they’re in, if the death penalty is in that state, get involved in ending the death penalty. Because when you’re part of a democracy and something that’s going on in that democracy that is cruel and torturous and wrong, and you’re not involved in ending it and you’re silent about it, you’re complicit in it. There’s no neutral position to take. So to get them off the dime and the first thing you got to do is get information and educate yourself.
Eddie Conway: Okay, Sister Helen, I think this has been informative. If we left anything out or if you want to add anything, if not, then we are going to package this and put it up on air in the near future. Well, thank you for joining me.
Sister Helen Prejean: No, look, really glad to do it, Eddie. And when they get involved in ending the death penalty, look into what the state is really doing for victims of violence. Because the state ought to have a healing rule in helping people. The state is supposed to be in charge of the welfare of the people, and the state obviously is not doing that too well. There’s a lot of violence, not to say it’s blaming the state, but what’s the healing remedies for victims of violence in their state? To work at that too. So thank you, Eddie. It’s been a joy.
Eddie Conway: Okay. Thank you, too. All right. And thank you. Thank you for joining this episode of Rattling the Bars.