Arkansas executions bring Sister Helen Prejean’s death penalty fight to the fore

Prejean’s work opposing capital punishment was captured in her book and film Dead Man Walking, and now she’s speaking out against a spate of planned killings

‘I do what I do out of compassion for the American public who do not reflect deeply on the death penalty,’ Sister Helen Prejean says.


‘I do what I do out of compassion for the American public who do not reflect deeply on the death penalty,’ Sister Helen Prejean says.
Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian

Arkansas executions bring Sister Helen Prejean’s death penalty fight to the fore

Prejean’s work opposing capital punishment was captured in her book and film Dead Man Walking, and now she’s speaking out against a spate of planned killings

Sister Helen Prejean, the Louisiana nun who through the movie of her book, Dead Man Walking, became the face of the American anti-death penalty movement, has a message for Asa Hutchinson, the Republican governor of Arkansas who this month attempted to carry out an unprecedented killing spree of eight executions in 11 days.

“Governor, be a statesman and a real moral leader of the people,” she said. “Do what is morally right. As a state official, you should not be involved in the deliberate killing of human beings.”

On Thursday night, Hutchinson had his way: Lendell Lee, 51, a convicted murderer, was executed through lethal injection just four minutes before midnight, when his death warrant ran out.

By the twisted logic of US capital punishment, the killing went “smoothly”, lasting 12 minutes and with no visible signs of Lee’s distress. But it came with a heavy price.

Opprobrium has rained down on Hutchinson and his state from across the country and around the world. An inordinate amount of court time has been expended on a flurry of last-minute lawsuits that have temporarily spared the lives of four of the eight condemned men. Three more face the gurney next week.

At least the one positive element to emerge from a grim business has been to bring Prejean’s advocacy back to the fore. Her Twitter feed has been on fire all week, with excoriating criticism of both Hutchinson and Arkansas’ attorney general, Leslie Rutledge.

“Why do we kill people to show that killing people is wrong?” she asked them both in one memorable message.

Sister Helen Prejean
(@helenprejean)

Why do we kill people to show that killing people is wrong? @AsaHutchinson @AGRutledge

April 17, 2017

As a nun who built her ministry in New Orleans, Prejean has had a singularly intimate relationship with the death penalty. Living and working in the deep south, she has no doubt that America’s cult of killing is a fundamentally southern phenomenon with its roots in slavery.

“The real practitioners of death have always been the 10 southern states that practiced slavery, Arkansas among them,” she said.

Prejean thinks the key to understanding and opposing US capital punishment is to understand the microculture from which it comes as well as its essential geographic unfairness. Studies have shown that just 2% of counties across America are responsible for generating most executions.

At a recent performance of the opera version of Dead Man Walking in Washington, Prejean got talking about that inequality with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the progressive-leaning member of the US supreme court. The two have a lot in common: they are both older women (Prejean is 77, Ginsburg 84) with formidable appeal among young Americans. The nun is a force on social media, with 30,000 Twitter followers; the justice is branded on T-shirts as “Notorious RBG”.

They also share a loathing for capital punishment. As they talked, Ginsburg revealed to Prejean her vision of how one day the practice might be abolished by her own court, on constitutional grounds.

“She said to me the more we see the lack of use of the death penalty in most states, the clearer it becomes that it’s just happening in concentrated pockets in isolated areas of the US,” Prejean said. “That’s going to be the manner that allows us to look at the constitutionality issue.”

The other aspect that makes Prejean, a Catholic nun, an exceptional commentator on the death penalty in America is religion, and the invocation of the Bible to justify the cold, premeditated taking of life such as that of Ledell Lee on Thursday night.

“You look at the patterns,” she said. “The Bible belt and the death belt are the same belt.”

She went on: “It’s blatant. Religion is used to shore the death penalty up, so that officials can quote divine authority for what they are doing. That way religion becomes an eye for an eye and killing in God’s name. And boy! When you claim that, you become impervious.

“Compassion is completely lost as we are doing this for God.”

Susan Sarandon in Dead Man Walking.


Susan Sarandon in Dead Man Walking. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

‘It’s a secret ritual’

Prejean’s work on capital punishment, as captured in her book and by Susan Sarandon playing her in the film, famously evolved from her role as spiritual adviser to a death row inmate, Elmo Patrick Sonnier, in Louisiana. In 1984, with the nun as his witness, he was put in the electric chair.

Prejean recalls stumbling out of the death chamber after it was over. “I came out into the darkness, it was one o’clock in the morning, I threw up, and that’s when I realized that people are never going to get close to this – it’s a secret ritual. But I had been a witness, so let me get out there and take the people close.”

Since then she has proven herself a master storyteller. Book, film, play, opera. And now social media. In addition to her powerful messaging on Twitter, this week she did her first session on Facebook Live.

Prejean has learnt to embrace both the horror of the execution process and the suffering of the families of victims of shocking and brutal murders. She points to New Jersey, where the relatives of 62 murder victims testified before the state legislature that they wanted the death penalty abolished, arguing that far from giving them closure, it locked them into decades of legal agony.

“Politicians use this the most to legitimize what they are doing,” she said. “‘We are doing this for the victims’ families,’ they say. You hear that all the time in Arkansas. But that’s specious, it’s bogus; the death penalty harms families.”

She sees her role as partly that of teacher to a nation woefully uneducated about its own justice system.

“I do what I do out of compassion for the American public who do not reflect deeply on the death penalty,” she said. “I have found in these 30 years getting out there that people are not wedded to the death penalty at all, they have just never thought about it.”

The Louisiana nun will keep firing up her white-hot censure of Arkansas next week, when two more inmates are set to die on Monday and a third on Thursday. After that she will continue to act as spiritual adviser to Richard Glossip, a death row inmate in Oklahoma who has been served three last meals and now awaits a fourth.

How does she cope with the trauma of so much looming death? It’s simple, she said.

“What do you do with your grief, what do you do when you find out that things are so wrong and people are being executed who are poor and have no redress?

“You take that outrage, you take that sorrow and sadness, and you work for justice, so that other human beings don’t have to experience the same thing.”