e-mail us
Author of Dead Man Walking says war, capital punishment linked

Raleigh, N.C.

The war in Afghanistan has given a new dimension to Sr. Helen Prejean’s campaign to stop people from killing people.

Prejean, the author of Dead Man Walking, a book about the case of executed murderer Matt Poncelet, opposes state-sanctioned killing whether it’s done by lethal injection in an execution chamber or by a cruise missile fired from an Air Force jet.

Prejean, a Sister of St. Joseph, was the keynote speaker at the 25th anniversary conference of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty Oct. 18-21 in Raleigh. For more than two decades, Prejean has visited people on death row. She has comforted family members of murder victims and of the condemned.

In an interview, Prejean said Jesus gave his followers a guarantee: “Love can conquer hate. When we turn to violence it’s like we say, ‘Look, basically love can’t work here. That’s a luxury for later. Right now we got to do a little hatin’ and we got to do a little killin’, make our point, be tough. Maybe love will come later.’ But, love is the strongest force in the world because it does justice,” Prejean said.

Resorting to war in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is not the will of God, and offers “no real protection against the terrorist,” she said. She likened bombing Afghanistan to using a baseball bat to cleanse a room of a virus.

In her address, Prejean recounted the specifics of her journey from a privileged Louisiana upbringing -- she was a lawyer’s daughter with access to top-quality Catholic education -- to internationally known abolitionist of the death penalty.

A passionate speaker, Prejean kept the crowd of more than 300 in a state of flux between laughs and tears as she shared stories about her journey.

Working with the poor led her to oppose the death penalty. “This is a poor person’s issue,” she said. Prejean said her knowledge of social injustice grew along with her relationships with the poor. Prejean said she had told Pope John Paul II during an audience, “Your Holiness, what I find is people across this country, if they’re involved with poor people, they get the issues very quickly.”

Prejean’s book got into the hands of actress Susan Sarandon, who ultimately won an Oscar for her role portraying Prejean. The movie turned the book into a bestseller and propelled Prejean into a spotlight so bright she has to make her appointments a year in advance.

Despite the recognition and praise, Prejean said she and all celebrities must never lose sight of the fact that celebrity status carries with it an enormous responsibility. “Whatever celebrity status people have, it’s for service,” she said. “We do our little part, and the truth spreads.” People eventually embrace a “deep commitment” when they come to realize the death penalty is wrong, she said. Then people will say: “This needs to be changed, and I will not be neutral. I’m going to do something to change this.”

The elimination of killing must also include the elimination of war, Prejean said in an interview. The large numbers of Americans in support of war “is fear speaking,” she said, and Americans believe the old paradigm that military strength is what is going to serve us and protect us.

“And of course when you’re vulnerable and it’s survival at stake you all rally around a leader with almost blind obedience, and so people are flying flags and people are supporting President Bush, and saying we’ve got to get these people and all that.

“What’s going to happen in this journey is when the next round of attack hits us, then when Bush says, ‘We’re doing all we can,’ people are not going to trust that as much, and it pushes us all to a deeper level. …

“The question about why they hate us can be the beginning of spiritual journey,” she said.

It was clear that the shadow of Sept. 11 hung over the conference. Most panelists and keynote speakers felt compelled to mention something about Sept. 11 during their comments.

While many death penalty foes see Sept. 11 as a short-term setback, others believe the overall impact of Sept. 11 might be positive.

While the war the United States is waging with the Taliban seems a clash of opposites, author and keynote speaker Bruce Shapiro noted that in times of war, the United States has been forced to see itself in a mirror.

Right now what is in the mirror more than anything else is capital punishment, Shapiro said. “The fact that capital punishment unites Kabul and Washington while dividing us from Europe ought to set people thinking,” he said referring to the fact that capital punishment is meted out in the United States and Afghanistan and not in European countries.

While the voices of the masses may be pleading for “vengeance politics” and the death penalty for terrorists, abolitionists, as people at the conference call themselves, believe the events of Sept 11 may shine a bright light on the flaws of the U.S. justice system.

In the wake of Sept. 11, “the question of capital punishment will emerge more vividly, more contentiously than ever before,” Shapiro said. As happened in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, family members of victims of Sept. 11 will emerge as both a force for vengeance and a force for forgiveness. The victims’ families, Shapiro said, will not be “a unified vengeance lobby.”

Prejean noted that should any terrorists be captured in foreign nations, governments might refuse to extradite a defendant to face the death penalty in the United States.

Speaker Robert Meeropol, who was 6 years old when his parents Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed for treason in 1953, likened the current political climate to McCarthyism. Meeropol noted that since Sept. 11 as many as 800 people are being held as possible material witnesses to the terrorist attacks. They are held under “indefinite detention,” without being charged.

In the current hysterical climate, abuses of power are likely, Meeropol said. The detainees could be roped into a wide-ranging conspiracy and be charged with capital offenses for what may have been minor roles in the crimes of Sept. 11.

“Will these people become defendants in a wave of capital cases?” Meeropol asked. “Is the Rosenberg case about to repeat itself many times over?”

Panelist Jane Henderson of the Quixote Center, a Washington-based Catholic social justice group, said, history shows us that at times of war, “justice at home often becomes a casualty.”

In the wake of Sept. 11, Henderson said the “issue of fairness” remains important.

“People are still open to our message,” she said. Henderson said the work to abolish the death penalty might take a back seat for some activists who shift gears to do antiwar work.

Related Web site

National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty

Patrick O’Neill is a freelance writer living in Raleigh, N.C.

National Catholic Reporter, November 9, 2001