Posts Tagged ‘Helen Prejean’

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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