Living by the Sword

Leading death penalty abolitionist Sister Helen Prejean to speak at the University of Oregon

Sister Helen Prejean is on a tour of college campuses to talk about the inhumane practice of the death penalty. The Catholic nun is one of the leading voices on death penalty abolition, and will speak at the University of Oregon 7 pm Thursday, Oct. 27. 

She’s dedicated much of her life to informing the public about the immoral practice of state-sanctioned executions of people found guilty of heinous crimes, and she says that the public — especially the Catholic Church — is beginning to shift its view on it. 

“The death penalty, which involves the torture, at least mental torture of human beings, of conscious imaginative human beings. You wait in a tiny cell for 15 to 20 years, and they take you out and kill you,” Prejean says. “The UN’s definition of torture is extreme mental or physical assault on someone who’s been rendered defenseless.” 

Prejean wrote Dead Man Walking, an account of her relationship with death row inmates that became a movie starring Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon and then was adapted into an opera. 

Prejean has been one of the major voices influencing public opinion on the death penalty, even working toward moving the Catholic Church’s view on it. 

The Catechism, a sort of manual for the church, is a 1,500-year old dialogue, Prejean says. For most of those years, the Catechism had given the responsibility of death to the power of the state. 

The church is focused protecting innocent lives from abortion and assisted suicide, but she says the idea that the guilty get what they deserve is commonly held belief by some Catholics.

“When I’m walking with a man to execution, shackled hand and foot, he’s surrounded by six guards,” she says. “I have my hand on his shoulder. And reading to him from Isaiah — ‘I’ve called you by name, you are mine.’ And he kind of turns to me before he walks, and he says, ‘Sister, please pray that God holds up my legs.’” 

Pope John Paul II first departed from the Catechism’s view on the death penalty by saying it should only be used when necessary. After then-New Orleans District Attorney Harry Connick, Sr. used Pope John Paul II’s call to re-examine the use of the death penalty as reasoning to increase its use, Prejean says she wrote to the pope. 

“I said, ‘Your Holiness, where is the dignity in taking a human being, rendering them completely defenseless and deliberately killing them?’” she recalls writing. “‘How can you say that you’re respecting the dignity of life?’” 

Prejean says that Pope John Paul II traveled to the U.S. in 1999 and called the death penalty cruel and unnecessary. “You had Pope John Paul II really do the spade work, he plowed the dirt first,” Prejean says. “But that Catechism was still unchanged. They still had in the wording that the state had the right to take life.” 

But that changed in 2018 when Pope Francis removed the death penalty from the Catechism. “No matter how grievous a crime, we can never entrust over to the state the right to take life,” she says. 

The Catholic Church isn’t the only institution to change its stance on the death penalty. Prejean says there’s been a lot of progress in shifting public opinion, especially with a jury deciding not to pursue the death penalty against Nikolas Cruz, who pled guilty to the murder of 14 Marjory Stoneman Douglas students and three staff members on Feb. 14, 2018. But Cruz wasn’t sentenced to death. 

“From what I heard, one woman just went, ‘Look at him. He was so messed up and how can we hold him fully capable of what he did?’” Prejean says. “We just need to take death off of the table — none of us should be dealing with this.” 

The split jury on the death penalty caused some controversy among those who want to see Cruz put to death. During the trial, Cruz’s attorneys argued that he suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome that impacted his mental health. 

Revenge for a loved one’s death is a basic instinct in humans that prosecutors use to convince a jury to sentence someone to death. And vengeance had shifted the Catholic Church’s position on the death penalty, when St. Augustine departed from Jesus’ lesson on “live by the sword, die by the sword” to the “violent can be coerced by the sword,” she says. 

Families of victims don’t find solace in the death penalty, which continues to victimize them, Prejean says. She recalls a woman at a past talk she gave whose loved one was murdered. “We lost my sister and we just want to go to a place where we can pull ourselves together as a family and grieve,” Prejean recalls. 

And she says that watching someone be put to death won’t bring much peace, either. 

“You wait 18, 20 years and you get to sit at the front row and watch as the state kills the one who killed your loved one,” Prejean says. “You gonna watch that killing and that’s going to give you any kind of peace? You’re watching violence. How could that possibly heal a victim’s heart?” 

Similarly to her other visits at other college campuses, Prejean says during her three-day visit at the University of Oregon, she’ll speak with students and give them copies of her book Dead Man Walking. Her Oct. 27 talk won’t be a lecture, but a forum where audience members can ask questions. And talking with students is a way to continue the shift away from the use of the death penalty, she says. 

“They’re looking for soul-sized things in their life,” Prejean says. “They’re hungry to do something purposeful.” 

Sister Helen Prejean’s event has been canceled due to illness.