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On Thursday, September 16, the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, MA teamed up with Massachusetts Citizens Against the Death Penalty to host a showing of Dead Man Walking and a Q & A session with Sister Helen Prejean, a lifelong advocate against the death penalty.

A little background information about Prejean: in 1993, she published the memoir Dead Man Walking about her experiences serving as spiritual adviser to two men sentenced to death in Louisiana. The memoir provides an informed but passionate perspective of the issues surrounding the U.S. prison system, particularly the death penalty. Prejean does an incredible balancing act of eliciting compassion for the condemned men while continually reminding readers of the suffering endured by the families of the victims that these men killed.

In 1995, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins made Dead Man Walking into a movie, for which Sarandon won an Academy Award for Best Actress by portraying Prejean. The film focuses on a fictional man on death row who is a combination of the two men Prejean writes about in her memoir. The film is notable for its excellent portrayal of the complexity of American attitudes toward the death penalty– the thirst for justice, especially when a convict is proven guilty; sympathy for the murdered victims; sympathy for the condemned man; and feelings of uneasiness about the power of the state to put individuals to death.

After the screening, Prejean fielded questions from the audience for about 15 minutes– a disappointingly short amount of time, but Prejean tours the world giving talks about eradicating the death penalty, so she’s surely done this same event and seen this film just a few times before. In addition, the event was hosted in Massachusetts, which does not have the death penalty, so the need to mobilize and inspire people was considerably lower than it might have been in a state that actively executes people.

Not surprisingly, during her talk Prejean framed a lot of her views about the death penalty in a religious context–she is a nun, after all– and explained that, in her eyes, the human rights perspective is steeped in religion. However, toward the end of the talk, she gave some great points that would be useful to any death penalty activist:

  • No government should be allowed to kill people. You can argue this point from a moral perspective, but it might also be useful to point out how expensive capital cases, appeals, and the death penalty are to carry out, and how these funds are better used elsewhere.
  • Incorporating the death penalty does not lower murder rates— in fact, states with the death penalty have higher murder rates than states without the death penalty. Prejean pointed out that Americans have a “penchant to use violence to solve social problems.” The death penalty is the most extreme extension of “tough on crime” laws in the United States, fueled by a barbaric concept of justice that borrows from “an eye for an eye.” Although the desire to seek justice for victims of violence is understandable, the death penalty in itself it not enough to deter criminal behavior or bring murder victims back to life. Instead, it perpetuates a vicious cycle of violence that has longstanding effects for the families of all involved parties.
  • The criminal justice system in the United States is flawed and racist. People of color and the poor are far more likely to be sent to death row, and 8 out of 10 individuals on death row are there for killing whites, even though approximately half of all murder victims are African American. Because of the fundamental racism within the judicial system, it is impossible to guarantee that all individuals have been given a fair trial. Given that the death penalty is a permanent form of punishment, it is unthinkable to condemn people to this fate if they have been subjected to an unjust criminal system or been denied adequate access to resources with which to defend themselves.

In 2007, a Gallup survey found that 66% of Americans consider the death penalty to be morally acceptable. But Prejean points out that there is a “profound moral contradiction” in that belief; killing one person to punish them for killing someone else accomplishes nothing. The death penalty doesn’t bring anyone back from the dead, make neighborhoods safer, or achieve any sense of justice. Instead, it pushes a small amount of individuals through a long, tired court process that is incredibly expensive and continues the cycle of violence.

You can follow Sister Helen Prejean on Twitter or visit her website.

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20090204-steve-henley-executedThe Tennessean recently made an interesting journalistic decision: they ran an opinion piece from a staff reporter about her experience covering the February execution of a man named Steve Henley — from a prison witness room occupied by both Henley’s family members and several journalists. The witness room of the death chamber is a place that only prison officials, reporters, and loved ones of the condemned are allowed to enter; most stories reported from there focus on botched executions or grieving family members of the victims. Instead, Kate Howard’s article is a moving depiction of the suffering endured by Henley’s family as they watched him die via lethal injection, told from the fascinating perspective of a journalist in the difficult position of watching and documenting a human being’s final moments.

This article is only available via purchase from The Tennessean website for $2.95, but here are some of the particularly memorable parts:

I spent an hour, an extremely awkward hour, getting shuffled with Steve’s family from one concrete, clockless conference room to another while they counted down the minutes. The warden of Riverbend Maximum Security Institution had brought us into the room himself and let us know right off the bat there were no interviews on these premises. There were six of us intruding on those sacred moments, media witnesses who were told to stay silent…

His pastor, a staunch anti-death penalty advocate, said she couldn’t believe this was really happening after all these years. His son Greg, who said he didn’t comprehend reading that well, was repeating over and over the statement he planned to give later to the press, trying to commit it to memory.

“I forgive the state of Tennessee for executing my daddy. I forgive the state of Tennessee for executing my loving daddy. I forgive the state of Tennessee for executing my loving daddy, and I want you to know he is an innocent man.”…

The blinds were lifted, and Henley was strapped to the gurney. A microphone was coming down from the ceiling for his last statement. He raised his head, turned to see his family, and stuck out his tongue. With his hands strapped down, he tried to blow a kiss. He made his statement. He said he was sorry for what Fred and Edna went through, but he didn’t do it. He said he hoped this procedure would give some peace to them and their family, although he didn’t believe death brought anything but pain. He said he was an innocent man.

Proceed.

His family began to sob. They stood by the window, shouted to him. He told them to quit crying, called them a pitiful bunch. He told them – perhaps his pastor especially – to never quit. “I feel it coming,” he shouted from the death chamber. His head was already down, he snored a few times and went silent. In the witness chamber, it was chaos. They were screaming, sobbing. His daughter began to throw up. His sister and his pastor joined together in the Lord’s Prayer, so impassioned that even the pastor stumbled over the words.

I bit my lip and furiously wrote, knowing my notes were never going to match my memory or capture what was happening in that moment. The color drained from his face. He started to turn blue. And slowly it grew quiet in the witness chamber, too.

Don’t cry. Don’t cry.

I looked at the other reporters. They were still writing. Soon Henley’s sister turned and stared me and the others straight in the face. “Not a tear in anyone’s eye back there,” she said to nobody in particular. “Don’t human life mean nothing to you? You’re like a pack of dogs.”

Not surprisingly, Howard’s piece drew significant public response, including many criticisms for sympathizing with a man who allegedly killed two people. But in an interview with 1 in 100, Howard expressed that she was glad she wrote the story, though she won’t discuss any personal views on capital punishment in order to remain as objective as possible. Her words on the experience:

After a long night and filing my story at 4 a.m. after the execution, I went home and crashed. I took the next day off, but I sat down and wrote mostly because I had spoken with so many colleagues about covering the execution beforehand and thought I’d answer everyone’s questions at once. So I wrote my recollections and posted it to Facebook, where it was read by my executive editor.

He said he wanted very much to publish it as a first-person opinion piece on Sunday’s Issues page. The intention was to put another, less formal version of the events and to essentially allow readers where they’re likely to never go: inside the death chamber.

The public response was tremendous and extremely varied. I got calls and emails in the hundreds. Some were extremely vitriolic, and thought it insensitive to the family of the man’s victims or a piece vilifying the death penalty. Many anonymous commenters said that I’d feel differently if it were my loved ones who were killed by Mr. Henley. But many readers read it as I intended it to be: a heart-wrenching account of a family who killed nobody, watching the death of a father they still loved from behind a glass. I have never heard from Mr. Henley’s family or from the family of the victims, Fred and Edna Stafford.

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Spectacular news from New Mexico– last week it became the 15th state to abolish the death penalty. On March 18, Governor Bill Richardson signed into law legislation instituting life in prison without the possibility of parole as the maximum punishment in the state, replacing lethal injection.

This news is especially encouraging for capital punishment abolitionists as Richardson was a long-time supporter of the death penalty.  An article in the New York Times last month suggested Richardson was considering eliminating the death penalty due to its expensive cost, but he ultimately cited concerns over flaws in the judicial system as his main reason for repealing capital punishment. In his words:

I do not have confidence in the criminal justice system as it currently operates to be the final arbiter when it comes to who lives and who dies for their crime… From an international human rights perspective, there is no reason the United States should be behind the rest of the world on this issue. Many of the countries that continue to support and use the death penalty are also the most repressive nations in the world. That’s not something to be proud of.

Although Richardson is certainly to be commended for his decision, there’s still a catch (or two): the law only applies to crimes committed after July 1, 2009, and New Mexico currently has two inmates on death row, Robert Fry and Timothy Allen. They are not eligible for commutation of their sentences under this law, and Richardson has so far given no indication that he will make exceptions in their cases.

So where does this leave the U.S. for the rest of 2009? Here are some numbers from the Death Penalty Information Center:

  • Inmates currently on death row in the United States: 3,190
  • Inmates currently on death row for the U.S. Government and Military: 60
  • States with the death penalty vs. those without: 35 vs. 15

Contact Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico and congratulate him on his decision to repeal the death penalty, but also urge him to commute the sentences of the two remaining prisoners on death row:

Office of the Governor
490 Old Santa Fe Trail
Room 400
Santa Fe, NM 87501
(505) 476-2200
Email Bill Richardson

To contact your own governor and express support for abolishing the death penalty, click here.

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Update: Read the New York Timeseditorial advocating nationwide abolishment of the death penalty from September 27, 2009.

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Of all the countries that practice capital punishment, China ranks #1 on the list. According to Amnesty International, in 2007 China put more than 470 individuals to death. While human rights organizations have kept close tabs on China’s oft-secretive judicial proceedings in the last thirty years, for many decades China successfully kept its greatest atrocities hidden from the outside world. During the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s through Tiananmen Square in 1989, China murdered, tortured, and imprisoned millions of its citizens– often after impromptu trials or none at all.

In her memoir Socialism is Great, Lijia Zhang describes the execution of her childhood friend at the age of sixteen in 1980:

[His] execution was a big day out for my school. The sixteen-year-old was a former classmate of mine named Roc. His old classmates and other children, as young as twelve, joined the excited crowds filling the ten-thousand-seat Nanjing Stadium for the public sentencing rally. ‘Scare the monkey by killing a chicken’– the authorities invited the masses to witness the iron fist of proletarian dictatorship and to draw lessons from negative examples. The guilty verdicts were read out to loud applause. Then the condemned, wearing a placard stating their crimes, were paraded onto open-top army trucks, toward the execution guard in the western suburbs. I had been to this killing field several times, although in the crush of bodies I never got close enough to witness the spill of blood as, from behind, bullets ripped open the prisoners’ heads. But the boys in my village had shared many vivid accounts. The Chinese seemed to take pleasure in this ghoulish spectator sport, watching soldiers kill the ‘rotten eggs,’ as local slang termed the baddies. No one doubted they were guilty. This time, however, I didn’t follow the herd: Roc wasn’t just a ‘rotten egg.’ He was a childhood friend who caught cicadas and swam in the Pig Pool with me.

The whole tragic drama, from the fight to the execution, took place so quickly: there were quotas to be met in the crackdown against soaring crime, regardless of whether suspects were under eighteen, technically the minimum age for capital punishment. The only way officials knew how to combat the rising crime was to punish some people swiftly and without mercy. No effort was made to tackle the social roots of the problem (44-45).

While Zhang was moved to reconsider the merits of execution for personal reasons, her conclusion resonates with pragmatism and compassion. Capital punishment does not prevent or slow crime, whether performed in or outside of the legal system– instead it lubricates the spinning cycle of violence by which those punished crimes are distinguished. It is the greatest disregard to life and justice, two of humanity’s most precious values.

Book cover courtesy of Atlas & Co.

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