Sister Helen Prejean, a nun with the Order of Saint Joseph of Medaille since 1957, has been accompanying death-row inmates to their executions since 1982. In her award-winning book “Dead Man Walking,” which was made into a film in 1995, she relates the spiritual journey she went through with death-row inmate Patrick Sonnier.
Sister Prejean was recently in Japan to campaign against the death penalty along with the family of the late Tairyu Furukawa. He devoted his life to proving the innocence of Takeo Nishi, who was executed in 1975.
What was your first encounter with the death penalty?
Friends doing prison visitation in Louisiana asked me one day if I would like to be a pen pal to someone on death row. That was in 1982, and we hadn’t executed anyone in 25 years. There had been an unofficial moratorium in the United States.
I took the name of the person, Patrick Sonnier, and I wrote the man a letter. When I went and visited him, I was so amazed at how human he looked. I think I had an image in the back of my mind that he must be some kind of monster because he was on death row and he murdered people. I had not thought a whole lot about the death penalty until then, but I was beginning to think more and more about a lot of justice issues; about poverty, about the criminal justice system and the death penalty.
What is your impression of the justice system in the United States?
Racial prejudice plays a big part, because when white people get killed is when prosecutors seek the death penalty. It’s rare when people of color are killed that they seek the death penalty. We have close to 2 million people incarcerated in the U.S., and one in every four young African-American men, ages 18 to 29, is in the prison system.
For justice to be done, you depend on the fact that a trial will be a time of truth-telling. But there’s no truth-telling because the defense often don’t have money for independent forensic testing or expert witnesses or investigation. So, you begin to see how bias begins with the victim.
In the U.S., where does the debate on the death penalty stand?
The U.S. is at a turning point with the death penalty now. Though you still have all the politicians including [President] George Bush for the death penalty, the people are beginning to change. Support for it is the lowest it has been in 25 years — 60 or 70 percent. It used to be 75, 80 percent. This is because more and more now, people are aware of all the mistakes we are making. One hundred and one innocent people have been freed off of death row since the 1976 Gregg vs. State of Georgia decision when the U.S. Supreme Court reinstituted the death penalty — 101 innocent people. Sometimes DNA evidence shows they were really innocent all along.
Gov. George Ryan of Illinois — one of the two governors that have declared a moratorium in their state because of all these mistakes — said in a public statement in Jan. 2000: “We are going to have a moratorium on the death penalty.” And he was a pro-death penalty governor. He believed that, in theory, we should have it for certain terrible crimes. But he said, “In conscience I can’t preside over this system, which executes innocent people along with the guilty.”
He mandated a very thorough study, which just came out [in April]. The study, of course, showed all the things wrong. If you don’t have a good defense, the prosecution can hide evidence and change police reports. Gov. Ryan said that sometimes, people have been sentenced to death by the testimony of a jailhouse informer who, by doing this, has his own sentence reduced.
The importance of this is it gives a graceful way [of changing opinions] even for politicians who have been for the death penalty in theory. What it shows, what it allows them to do is to say, “I am not for a system that executes the innocent along with the guilty.” And I believe this new factor is going to be one of the things that helps us abolish the death penalty in the U.S.
Does the death penalty help victims’ families?
Part of my journey that I talk about in “Dead Man Walking” was also being with the victims’ families.
The father of David LeBlanc [murdered by Patrick Sonnier and his brother Eddie Sonnier], and his mother, were the first people I met who I could see did not choose the death penalty. They realized they had to deal with the loss of their son . . . and they came to understand that Patrick Sonnier being killed or serving a life sentence would make no difference in terms of what they had to deal with. Through them, I began to understand victims’ families, accompany them in their path of sorrow and healing.
In the U.S., politicians make a big deal that the reason that we have the death penalty is justice for the victims’ families. That’s their way to legitimize what they are doing because when you look at the raw statistics, only 2 percent of the victims’ families are given this so-called justice. There are 15,000 homicides in the U.S. every year, and only 1.5 to 2 percent of all the people who murder other people are chosen for death. So it’s a token thing, it’s a symbolic thing that politicians use.
There is a group in the U.S. called Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation . . . For almost all of them, the beginning point was being very angry and wanting to kill the one who killed their child. And then, coming to the realization that killing him or not killing him is not what their own grief is about. Even if they can watch him die.
You have been here three times. What do you think about the death penalty in Japan?
Particularly cruel. You have no clear system of appeals. For example Rev. Furukawa worked for 14 years [for the appeals of] two people, Kejiro Ishii and Takeo Nishi, who were arrested for murder in 1947. In 1975, on the same day, the Supreme Court hands down the decision that Nishi is to be killed, Ishii is to be commuted to life. It was the first time they ever commuted a sentence to life, which is one of the accomplishments of Rev. Furukawa.
But you don’t have a date of the execution, you don’t know what the steps are. So it means every day in Japan, when people wake up in the morning in their cell, they look to see if the guard is coming for them. Will this be the day of their death or not? And sometimes, people who have been on death row for five years are taken out and executed ahead of those who have been there for 15 years. There is no rhyme or reason, because it’s completely up to the Minister of Justice . . . that’s not justice. That’s not fair process of law. That’s up to individual whim. You can’t run a society like that.
Plus, the other part of the cruelty is that once a person is sentenced to death, their visitors are limited to certain members of their family. They are alone in their cell.
So it’s particularly cruel and heinous in Japan, the way the executions are done. The parents aren’t told. They receive a letter afterward or a communication afterward to come pick up the body. It couldn’t be worse. It’s terrible.
Do you think the death penalty acts as a crime deterrent?
Absolutely not. You can look at the experience of the U.S. We reinstituted the death penalty. Now, 25 years later . . . 12 states don’t have the death penalty, 38 do. Roughly, the states that had it had double the homicide rates of the ones that don’t.
When U.S. police chiefs are questioned and given [a choice of] remedies to stop crime, all of them put the death penalty last. They know that people in the heat of passion, especially if they have guns, do not think of the consequences.
It’s the disconnected people who kill other people. When society says, “As a punishment we must kill you now because you did this terrible thing,” it seems like they are legitimizing violence as a way to solve social problems.
What would it take for Japan to abolish the death penalty?
You have a lot happening internationally. Countries are no longer just little isolated islands that live their own life anymore. We are a part of a global community. So all of the waves and currents that affect the international community affect all of us.
There is an international pressure that’s beginning to happen, with 111 countries that don’t have the death penalty. Forty years ago, only 35 countries didn’t have it. You can see the momentum and it has to do with human rights. In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 3, it says every human being has a right to life. It doesn’t give exceptions. Article 5 says no human being shall be subjected to cruel and degrading punishment or torture. There is a growing recognition that when you execute people, you torture them because they have a conscience. They can anticipate their death and die 1,000 times inside before they die.
Everybody says people want it, but I found, after 15 years of talking to thousands of people, that people don’t reflect on the death penalty much. They have outrage over the crime, and that is a part of moral decency . . . but they are without real information. That’s why I wrote the book, “Dead Man Walking.” That’s why I was glad about the film, “Dead Man Walking,” because it’s not an anti-death penalty film; it doesn’t give all kinds of reasons to why everybody ought to be against the death penalty. What it does is it gets people to begin reflecting in a deeper way because it brings them very close to the criminal.
There is almost no way you could read the book or see the film without coming out unchanged, because you learn about the death penalty, how selective it is, how prejudiced it is, how ineffective it is, how costly it is, what happens to the guards who have to carry out the execution.
What about the moral issue?
You hear about a crime. You’re outraged. You say that person ought to die who did that — justice demands it. Then you have to ask yourself the question: Am I willing to kill him? Could I pull the lever? Could I release the gallows to hang him? Or do I have to hire somebody to do that for me? And if there is a part of our souls that hesitates from carrying it out ourselves, that means there’s a part of us that has not said “yes” completely to the death penalty. And that is reason for reflection, for us to go deeper on this issue.
I think this is an issue whose time has come, because of the awareness of human rights in the world and because modern societies have an alternative. In earlier societies, punishments were harsh and swift and you killed people to protect society. But we have prisons. It’s the first role of prisons, incarceration, to take dangerous people and protect the public from them. So now, as the alternative, we don’t have to keep killing people.
If Japan does abolish the death penalty, what do you think is necessary to compensate for what it stood for?
I’ve learned from being with the victims’ families that very often they are left alone. We ought to be involved in helping victims’ families. Every society should do that. Sometimes after someone is murdered, they lose their jobs, they need help with unemployment, they need counseling, sometimes they need medical help. Society’s job is to protect its citizens. When we fail in that, for whatever reason, do we not have some kind of obligation to the people who have suffered from violence in society? Compensation needs to be given, and help needs to be given. I call that the real help — a symbolic activity of execution doesn’t help anybody.