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Sister Helen Prejean: 20 Years after 'Dead Man Walking'
State by state, capital punishment is being repealed. This longtime death-penalty opponent gives us a progress report.
January 2014
CNS/OWEN SWEENEY III, CATHOLIC REVIEW A Catholic Change
Take the example of Boston. The predominantly Catholic city is deeply scarred from the bombing-and-shooting rampage of the Tsarnaev brothers around last April’s Boston Marathon. Yet most Bostonians do not favor the death penalty for Dzhokhar, the brother who was captured alive; they want to see him imprisoned without parole for life.

“In 1996, 80 percent of Catholics [nationally] supported the death penalty,” reports Prejean. By 2011, it had dropped to a steady 59 percent, a statistically significant three percentage points lower than the national average. “And [statistically] the more people went to Church, the less they believed in the death penalty,” she notes. Statistics among young Catholics, those under 30, are even more promising, she says, lowering her voice, bringing you in close to hear what she has to say. (She is a campaigner for her cause.)

Once again, an independent source bears her out. Lake Research Partners, in 2010, found that, when offered alternatives to capital punishment such as life imprisonment without parole, only 24 percent of the Catholic population supports the death penalty over such imprisonment, compared to a national average of 33 percent.

Why the difference? “We’ve been doing our work,” says Helen. “Catholic journalists, people giving talks, people leading RCIA, Catholic teachers in schools teaching social justice; all of the pro-life groups are really now beginning to pick up that the death penalty is a prolife issue.”

She credits that to a turning point, Pope John Paul II’s visit to St. Louis in 1999. In a dramatic moment, the pope, onstage at the then- TWA Dome center, turned to Missouri governor Mel Carnahan and pleaded for the life of convicted killer Darrell Mease. “Have mercy on Mr. Mease," the pope said. (Governor Carnahan, to honor the pope, changed Mease’s sentence to life imprisonment.) In his historic homily that day—on the feast of the Sacred Heart, a celebration of God’s mercy—the pope clearly put the death penalty into the context of all of the life issues which the Gospel compels Christians to defend.

“He said no to abortion, no to euthanasia, no to physician-assisted suicide, and no to the death penalty, which is cruel and unnecessary,” recalls Sister Helen. He had issued the teaching clearly in his 1995 encyclical “The Gospel of Life.” “It was a turn,” says Prejean, “a bend in the river.”

The US bishops soon came on board with their own statements, which surely empowered parishes and dioceses in their education programs. “But it’s grassroots,” says Prejean, “a grassroots group of laity mainly urged on by our sisters and the Catholic Mobilizing Network to End the Use of the Death Penalty (catholicsmobilizing.org).

Sister Helen’s passion for all of this comes, she says, from “the heart of the Gospel.” For Christians, she says, the death penalty is no peripheral issue of what to do with a few criminals. “What are you for?” she challenges: “Compassion or vengeance?”

That’s no easy question, and not one of being some kind of doormat, she says, something she learned from Lloyd LeBlanc, whose son was murdered. Initially, he told Helen that he wanted to see the murderers be executed. “Then he came to, ‘Oh, no, they killed my son, but I’m not going to let them kill me. I’m going to choose to do what Jesus said.’” He refused to be overcome by hatred, she says, the spirit that would have us kill our enemies.

“What happens to you when you get in that position of hatred of the enemy is that you lose your life, too. He taught me what Jesus meant when he said, ‘Love your enemy.’”

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John Feister is the editor in chief of this magazine. His latest book is Thank You, Sisters (Franciscan Media).
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