January 5 - January 11, 1995

Legal Murder

Sister Helen Prejean Puts An All-Too-Human Face On Death Row's Denizens.

By Rebecca Cook

HELEN PREJEAN WANTS to tell people about the acts of premeditated murder she has witnessed. She wants to tell them about a system rife with prejudice, political opportunism and incompetence, which facilitates these murders. She wants the American people to demand of their elected representatives that the killing stop.

Is she advocating a change in foreign policy towards, say, Bosnia?


Helen Prejean wants to abolish the death penalty in this country.

Prejean, a Roman Catholic nun and Pulitzer Prize-nominated author of the book Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States, will be bringing her message to Tucson on January 13 when she will be the featured speaker at an alternatives to violence event (See below for details).

If Prejean's talk is anything like her book, Tucson audiences can expect a compelling argument to do away with what she calls "legally sanctioned murder."

Not only has Prejean conducted extensive research into the facts and figures that refute any justification for capital punishment, she's also given the matter considerable attention from a moral perspective. She's found the practice of killing convicted criminals to be contrary to the tenets of Christianity.

Prejean refers to Jesus as the "Executed Criminal" and rejects the claim by some eye-for-an-eye Christians that the Almighty is a God of vengeance.

"I cannot believe in a God who metes out hurt for hurt, pain for pain, torture for torture," Prejean says in her book. "Nor do I believe that God invests human representatives with such power to torture and kill. The paths of history are stained with the blood of those who have fallen victim to 'God's Avengers.' Kings and popes and military generals and heads of state have killed, claiming God's authority and God's blessing. I do not believe in such a God."

Prejean goes on to quote Albert Camus' musing on the conundrum of Christians who advocate capital punishment: "The unbeliever cannot help from thinking that men who have set at the center of their faith the staggering victim of a judicial error ought at least to hesitate before committing legal murder."

To make matters worse, claims Prejean, we entrust this awesome avenging power to government, "which can't be trusted to control its own bureaucrats or collect taxes equitably or fill a pothole, much less decide which of its citizens to kill."

In moving away from the theological grounds for her opposition to the death penalty, Prejean states some sobering facts about the men and women who populate Death Row: most of the people executed at the hands of the state are poor, minority, mentally impaired or all of the above. Incompetent or inadequate legal counsel is the norm for those who are sentenced to die.

Prejean even provides an economic rationale for abolishing the death penalty. She says the execution of a prisoner actually costs more than life imprisonment--$3.18 million compared with $516,000--due to costs of expert witnesses and appeals.

And as for the argument that the death penalty is an effective crime deterrent, Sister Helen says you can forget it--crime statistics gathered since capital punishment was reinstated simply do not support such a claim.

If Prejean's book, which is reported to be in the process of being made into a movie starring Susan Sarandon as Prejean, were simply a debate-class recitation of her reasons for opposing the death penalty, it would make for some pretty dull reading.

What makes Prejean's story fascinating are her portrayals of the men she has accompanied to the electric chair (Prejean lives in Louisiana, which, like Arizona, recently changed its deathly modus operandi to lethal injection).

Prejean makes no attempt to sentimentalize the characters of the men she has known. Not only does she unflinchingly retell their crimes of random and brutal murder and rape but she meticulously replays the details of her conversations with these men, conversations that sometimes can chill as they reveal the lack of insight or understanding into the misery caused by their actions.

Prejean is an excellent observer of pertinent minutia--she describes the way a man smokes a cigarette, the kinds of tattoos he has, his hair style, his walk. You may not like the men Prejean counsels as a spiritual adviser but it's impossible not to see their humanity.

When Prejean recounts those last hours before execution and the grim proceedings that inevitably result in death, the reader can't help but feel slightly sickened. Forget everything you've been told about how there's no pain or suffering involved--what Prejean describes in graphic detail is definitely not nice.

It's important to note that in her role as spiritual adviser, Prejean serves more than just the denizens of Death Row.

She is remarkable in her advocacy of abolishing the death penalty in that she also makes a concerted effort to reach out to the families of the victims of the men she sees. No doubt her work would be easier if she could spare herself the agonizing grief and rage of the victims' families, but Prejean steps boldly into the lion's den. Perhaps surprisingly, she has most often been warmly received, even if the families involved are aggressively pursuing the enactment of a death sentence at the time of her visit.

Prejean is not naive--she knows her words of forgiveness and reconciliation in the present political climate of fear and revenge may not be appreciated or even heard. Nevertheless, she feels specially called by her Creator to attack what she perceives as an egregious wrong in our society.

"Forgiveness is never going to be easy," she concludes in her book. "Each day it must be prayed for and struggled for and won."

Prejean's is a tough gospel.

Sister Helen Prejean will be the featured speaker at "A Celebration of the Spirit: Alternatives to Violence." The event, co-sponsored by St. Cyril's Roman Catholic Church and the Tucson chapter of SOLPAE (Sanctity of Life: People Against Executions), will start at 7:30 p.m. in the Parish Hall at St. Cyril's, 4725 E. Pima St.

In addition to Prejean, the talents of Tucson authors Byrd Baylor and Adolfo Ouezada as well as local musicians Bruce Phillips, Darwin Hall and Susan Foster will be showcased. Tickets are available for a suggested donation of $5 from Tom Bahti's in St. Phillip's Plaza, 4380 N. Campbell Ave., or Sara Sol's, 3400 E. Speedway, or by calling 3256240 or 743-3091.

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January 5 - January 11, 1995

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