By Tim Tanton*
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS) — The death penalty is the most flagrant example of racism today, and it is our biggest civil rights and human rights issue, said Sister Helen Prejean, author of “Dead Man Walking.”
“We need to wake people up and we need to end this thing because the suffering is terrible,” she said.
Prejean was the guest speaker Dec. 7 at the 25th anniversary awards dinner of the Scarritt-Bennett Center, a retreat center operated by United Methodist Women. Prejean received the Belle Harris Bennett Vision Award for her social-justice work. The Roman Catholic nun’s 1993 book, “Dead Man Walking,” became a best-seller and a movie, and was followed by “The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions.”
“The death penalty is the most dramatic” representation of racism today, she said. The 10 Southern states that practiced slavery do 80 percent of the executions, she said. When, she asked, are we going to wake up?
African Americans accounted for nearly 42 percent of death-row inmates as of last April, while whites accounted for 43 percent, and Latino/Latinas were nearly 13 percent, according to the Criminal Justice Project of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. However, African Americans are only about 13 percent of the total U.S. population.
Moment of awakening
The death penalty is more likely to be imposed, Prejean said, when the victim is of European descent — a finding supported by a number of studies gathered by Amnesty International. When a life is negligible, the death is negligible, and the ultimate punishment won’t be imposed, she said.
It’s almost inevitable that when poor people are going against a well-resourced prosecutor, and the public defender is overworked and underpaid, the truth won’t come out in trial, she said.
Prejean, who has been inside prison death chambers in Louisiana, Texas and Virginia, described how the representatives of the victim watch as the state kills the person who killed their loved one. They are told that watching the execution will bring healing for them, Prejean said. Meanwhile, she said, the mother of the condemned person watches with her face against the glass as the state kills her child.
Prejean said her moment of awakening occurred when she witnessed a man being executed — a legal killing by the state of Louisiana because the man had killed someone. “What I saw set my soul on fire, a fire that burns in me still,” she told the audience at Scarritt-Bennett. The 1984 execution of convicted murderer Elmo Patrick Sonnier formed the basis for “Dead Man Walking.”
God wakes us up when it’s time, and when that moment happens, one must act, she said. Taking action is liberating, and it throws us into community, she said. “There’s no room for lone rangers in this work. You don’t last long. … Community sustains us.”
The United Methodist Church has officially opposed the death penalty for more than 50 years, and it urges the elimination of capital punishment from all criminal codes.
“We believe the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore, and transform all human beings,” the church says in its Social Principles. “The United Methodist Church cannot accept retribution or social vengeance as a reason for taking human life.”
‘Most support life’
Based on scientific studies, the church believes capital punishment doesn’t result in a reduction of crime or in the number of homicides. The church also is concerned that death penalty sentences fall disproportionately on marginalized people, including the poor, uneducated, ethnic and religious minorities, and people who are mentally or emotionally ill.
When given an alternative, most people indicate support for life without parole over the death penalty, Prejean said.
“We are in a new mood in this country about the death penalty,” she said. Statistics from the Death Penalty Information Center indicate that capital punishment doesn’t reduce or deter crime in areas where it is used. “We’re practical people, and we don’t see practical differences,” Prejean said.
“The American people are not wedded to the death penalty,” Prejean said. “They just never think about it.”
She connected the death penalty with other issues, such as society’s treatment of gays and Muslims.
“All of the deep human rights issues are connected to dignity,” Prejean said. At the heart of the gay rights issue is the belief that someone who is gay is not quite human or normal, she said, adding that the same holds true for perceptions about Muslims and people in other groups.
The Scarritt-Bennett Center directors and guests gave Prejean a standing ovation.
Center Executive Director Jocelyn D. Briddell said the award that Prejean received is given “to a person who embodies the bold vision and action of our founder, Belle Harris Bennett, who responded to God’s call on her life without hesitation or reservation. Sister Helen Prejean was selected because she embodies the legacy of Bennett because of her commitment to eradicating the death penalty in the U.S.”
After the dinner, Briddell and Prejean conferred on how they could work together on the death penalty issue in Tennessee. State officials recently announced that they had asked the state supreme court for execution dates for 10 death row prisoners.
Prejean said United Methodists can activate people in the pews to be a force, to be the ones on the streets, going to death row and visiting the families of victims.
*Tanton is executive director of content for United Methodist Communications. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org