‘People executed are in your hands,’ author says at DWUSister Helen Prejean, author of the book-turned-movie “Dead Man Walking,” sees irony in Christian support for the death penalty. Pointing to a cross in the Sherman Center at Dakota Wesleyan University as she began her lecture Thursday morning, she reminded the audience that crucifixion was perhaps the worst thing that could happen to someone who lived in Jesus’ time. He died for sin on the cross, Christians believe, so that others wouldn’t have to.
By: Seth Tupper, The Daily Republic
Sister Helen Prejean, author of the book-turned-movie “Dead Man Walking,” sees irony in Christian support for the death penalty.
Pointing to a cross in the Sherman Center at Dakota Wesleyan University as she began her lecture Thursday morning, she reminded the audience that crucifixion was perhaps the worst thing that could happen to someone who lived in Jesus’ time. He died for sin on the cross, Christians believe, so that others wouldn’t have to.
Yet many who profess faith in Jesus support the condemnation of criminals to a death like the one He suffered. There have been about 1,000 executions in the United States since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment with a 1976 ruling, and Prejean said both Christians and non-believers are guilty of allowing executions to happen.
“You have the death penalty. And we’re a democracy, and so the people executed are in your hands,” Prejean said. “If you’re not doing anything to prevent the deaths or to stand in witness against them, it’s being done in your name.”
Prejean was invited to DWU, a Methodist-affiliated institution, for its annual Stark Lectures series. Her morning lecture drew an audience of about 150, and the afternoon lecture drew a slightly smaller crowd.
Prejean gained national fame with her 1994 book, “Dead Man Walking: An eyewitness account of the death penalty in the United States.” The book was turned into a movie for which Susan Sarandon, who portrayed Prejean, won the Best Actress Oscar in 1996.
Since the success of the book and movie, Prejean has continued to work toward the abolition of the death penalty in America. She wrote a book titled “The death of innocents: An eyewitness account of wrongful executions” in 2004 and is currently at work on another book. In addition to her work against the death penalty and with death-row inmates, she has counseled murder victims’ families and started an organization for them called “Survive.”
She said Thursday that she believes the death penalty is in decline, and she believes it will be abolished in the United States. She thinks more people would oppose capital punishment if they gave it serious thought. “Most people have never thought about it very deeply, because they’ve never had a reason to,” she said.
She included South Dakotans in that generalization, because the state has executed only one person since the 1976 Supreme Court ruling that reinstated capital punishment. That person was Elijah Page, and the execution, by lethal injection, was carried out in July 2007.
In Deep South states like Louisiana, from where Prejean hails and where 27 executions have been carried out since 1976, the death penalty is a far more prominent issue. She described publicly elected prosecutors in the South who consider the death penalty a political prize to be won, and who give each other plaques for securing a death sentence. Because a large portion of death-row inmates are minorities, Southern attitudes about the death penalty are intertwined with centuries-old disputes about racism.
In South Dakota, murders and minorities are few.
“You’re not into it,” she said. “It’s so removed from you.”
Prejean believes the lack of strong feelings in South Dakota make it a prime candidate to abolish the death penalty. The neighboring states of North Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa do not allow the death penalty, and there have been numerous legislative attempts to abolish the death penalty in South Dakota. One such attempt was made in 2007 by state Rep. Bill Thompson, D-Sioux Falls, who was in the audience Thursday.
Thompson, whose legislation was defeated 11-1 in a House committee, asked Prejean how death-penalty opponents in South Dakota might improve their efforts.
Prejean said the formula for success has been established in New Jersey and New Mexico — the only two states to allow the death penalty and then repeal it since 1976. New Jersey’s repeal was adopted in 2007, and New Mexico’s repeal was signed by that state’s governor last month.
Abolition movements in those states, according to Prejean, included family members of murder victims who oppose the death penalty; law enforcement officers who say the death penalty is not an effective deterrent to crime; and anti-death penalty religious leaders. She said South Dakota legislators could be swayed if those kinds of people were to crowd into a Capitol hearing room.
Prejean, who is credited with helping push the late Pope John Paul II to a more vigorous opposition of the death penalty, implored Christians to think deeply about Jesus’ New Testament teachings on turning the other cheek before automatically subscribing to an Old Testament, eye-for-an-eye style of thinking.
Her journey to becoming one of the world’s most recognized death penalty opponents started when she was asked, in 1982, to begin corresponding with a death-row inmate. She has since accompanied six men to their executions and believes that she was reflecting Christ’s love to those most-despised members of society.
“I never dreamed when I became a Catholic sister,” Prejean said, “that I would descend into the misery of the executed ones and in that find the heart of the Gospel of Jesus.”