Though the practice of capital punishment has decreased over the last two decades, America’s feverish political climate is primed to make it more common. In the South, the stronghold of punitive justice, those advances are being met by the activism of a charming, diminutive 78-year-old nun who has devoted almost half her life to fighting the use of the death penalty.
“Everyone is on terrorism alert, and the political mood could shift in a heartbeat,” says Sister Helen Prejean, alluding to recent news. Shortly after someone driving a truck went on a deadly rampage in New York City last November, President Trump tweeted that the suspect “SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY.” This week, he continued his push for capital punishment, strongly proposing that people convicted of trafficking opioids be sent to death row.
In the US, 31 states still employ capital punishment along with the federal government and military, but executions have slowed since 1999, in part because it's become increasingly difficult to obtain the required drugs for lethal injection. Earlier this week, however, the state of Oklahoma announced that it would become the first to circumvent that lack by switching to a new method of execution: oxygen deficiency—better described as gas chamber. All this has Prejean fired up.
“A person is worth more than the worst thing they have ever done,” she proclaims, her voice slightly straining at the seams. Prejean doesn’t often show the emotional toll of her work, but she is anything but cold. Spirited, jovial, and gifted with the most Southern of gabs, she has dedicated herself to the spiritual and emotional support of death row prisoners and victims’ families since 1981.
“I’m on my seventh person now,” says Prejean. “Manuel Ortiz, a man from El Salvador on death row in Louisiana. He’s innocent—he’s my third innocent.”
Today, Prejean is well-known for her work. In 1993, she turned her experiences witnessing the executions of Elmo Patrick Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie into a book entitled Dead Man Walking. In 1995, it was turned into a film (she was played by Susan Sarandon). In 2000, it became an opera. Then in 2002, a play. Her third book, a memoir titled River of Fire, will be out later this year.
Prejean’s rise to being among the United States’ preeminent anti-death penalty campaigners came about in part by chance—or providence, she’d say. Finding her religious devotion “too ethereal, too disconnected,” she was politically awoken by a sociologist nun at the age of 41. Intensely distressed by the glaring inequalities ingrained in American society, she went to work in a housing project in a low-income, predominantly Black neighborhood in New Orleans. There, she was asked by a friend to write to death row inmate Elmo Patrick Sonnier, who was convicted for murder and rape in 1978.
“I’d just witnessed this premeditated protocol of death. That is unspeakable."
While Prejean abhorred Sonnier’s violent past, she was drawn to his “essential humanness” and clear need for correspondence, she says. Eventually, exchanged letters lead to in-person visits. Then, on April 5, 1984, Prejean witnessed Sonnier’s execution.
“When I first came out of Pat Sonnier’s execution chamber, I vomited,” she recalls. “I’d just witnessed this premeditated protocol of death. That is unspeakable. What rose up in my heart, and has stayed with me ever since, is that the people are never going to be allowed to be brought close to this.” Prejean vowed to tell Sonnier’s story around the world, to bring people close to the reality of capital punishment and try to put an end to “this miscarriage of justice.”
A 1972 Supreme Court case briefly suspended capital punishment, but re-established it in 1976, spurring a populist political movement in its favor, particularly in former Confederate states. “When I wrote Dead Man Walking in 1993, support for the death penalty was running at 80 percent nationally,” recalls Prejean. “In the deep South, it was 95 percent.” In 2016, it stood at around 49 percent, with 42 percent of the population opposed, according to Pew Research.
Prejean calls herself “a servant of the story,” attempting to help guide it to a moral end. And her activism has evolved since her first book. In the 90s, she helped establish the Moratorium Campaign, which gathered millions of signatures urging the UN to institute a global moratorium on the death penalty, a non-binding version of which the UN adopted in 2007 and several other years since. She has also served on the boards of several other anti-death penalty groups, and founded “Survive,” a victim’s advocacy group in New Orleans that counsels inmates on death row as well as families of murder victims. Today, she maintains a busy public speaking schedule and continues spiritual work with prisoners and families of victims, plus keeps up an enthusiastic presence on social media.
"We need to focus on the root of violence: poverty, dead-end lives, a world where the only power you feel is behind a gun."
The beliefs driving Prejean are manifold. She is profoundly against all forms of violence, using the frequent refrain, “Why do we kill people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong?” Spiritually, she believes in the emulation of Jesus, while politically, she says that human rights are inalienable and cannot be taken away by governments.
Prejean also believes that the larger debate over capital punishment is less about morality than politics. “This started in the 1980s, to go after your opponents for being weak on crime if they’re not for the death penalty—it’s pure political symbolism,” she says.
But while Prejean speaks to social justice and reform of the legal system, she believes that the real key to abolishing the death penalty is bringing people closer to the horrific realities of it.
“Executions are highly secretive,” she says. “They are so weird. There’s a strict protocol, it’s a scripted death. No one is allowed to talk—no crying out, no sound. You just see it happening. There they are, strapping him in. There’s the warden giving the nod of his head to the man behind the one-way glass, who can see out, but no one can see in.”
The other crucial element to turning public opinion against capital punishment, Prejean believes, is drowning out politicians by giving a greater voice to those who have been touched by murder. “In New Jersey ten years ago, their legislative body was having hearings on repealing the death penalty. Sixty-two murder victims’ families testified: ‘Don’t kill for us,’” she says. “They said that death penalty revictimizes us, it puts us in this holding pattern of waiting for our so-called justice, which will be your killing.”
While Prejean is consciously a single-issue campaigner, she sees room for a joining of forces with the students protesting the lack of gun control in the wake of last month’s Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, where the shooter, Nikolas Cruz, could face the death penalty.
“Reframing issues is a very important thing in public discourse,” she says. “The NRA has marketed pressing a button of fear in everyone, that we have to be able to defend our families, defend ourselves, that standing your ground is the answer to dealing with violence.
“Instead, we need to focus on the root of violence: poverty, dead-end lives, a world where the only power you feel is behind a gun,” she says. “When you have a strong current that gathers momentum like this, it is a beginning that is not going to be able to be turned back, and it’s so exciting.”