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The right to life: an interview with Sister Helen Prejean

About the authors
Isabel Hilton is the editor of chinadialogue.net, and was editor of openDemocracy from March 2005-July 2007. She is a journalist, broadcaster, writer and commentator.
Sister Helen Prejean is a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille and lives in Louisiana. A leading opponent of the death penalty in the US, she was chair of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and founded the advocacy group Survive. Her first book Dead Man Walking: an eyewitness account of the death penalty was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize, translated into ten languages and adapted into an Oscar-winning film by Tim Robbins. Her latest book, The Death of Innocents: an eyewitness account of wrongful executions follows the cases of five different prisoners on death row, of which two were ultimately found to be not guilty of their convicted crimes. Her official website is www.prejean.org, and her blog is at www.sisterhelen.typepad.com.

Listen to the full interview (9.58 mins)
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1. Why is the death penalty so important to the United States?

Listen to Sister Helen Prejean explain the cultural significance of the death penalty in the United States:

“The US people are not wedded to the death penalty at all… not more vengeful… they haven’t reflected on it, but when they get close to it it’s not a hard sell.”

2: Is the New Jersey moratorium a sign of a trend?

Listen to Sister Helen Prejean on public concern about the death penalty:

“If you don’t have good defence, the truth can’t come out at trial… and with all the goodwill in the world, the jurors can sentence a man to death… they’re making a mistake and they don’t know it.”

3: What would it take to achieve abolition in the United States?

Listen to Sister Helen Prejean on how abolition will be achieved in the United States:

“…the time will come when we’ll just say, put it away. Put it away, it’s not working.”

4. Who opposes abolition in the United States?

Listen to Sister Helen Prejean on who wants it and who doesn’t:

“For the most part politicians… they are the ones who don’t want to lose it because they want an easy political symbol.”


Listen to the full interview (9.58 mins)
High bandwidth: 128kbps / Low bandwidth: 64kbps

* * *

We read a newspaper account about a man kidnapped and held captive in an abandoned farmhouse. Although his abductor supplied the captive with food and water, he would periodically put a revolver to the defenseless man’s head, cock the gun, and say, ‘Die’, but the gun would click and the man would live to see another day. Sometimes the abductor would tell his captive to prepare himself, that he had one more month to live. But the appointed day of death would come and go, and the captive was still alive. When, at last, law enforcement officials located the house in which the captive was held, the abductor had fled, leaving the captive’s body strapped to a bed, a dried trickle of blood coming from the bullet wound in his temple.

Anyone can tell the victim was tortured. The essential elements are there: the captive was defenseless and terrorized by the threat of immediate death. The crux of a newly framed constitutional argument that the death penalty, by its very nature, is torture involves these two elements. Amnesty International defines torture as an “extreme mental or physical assault on a person who has been rendered defenseless.” Mental torture is harder to see than physical torture but is nonetheless real. Half a century of research has taught us that mental torture may cause more suffering than physical pain.

On the album of Dead Man Walking (Sony), Johnny Cash sings: “In your mind, in your mind... it all goes down in your mind...”

Abuse of Iraqi detainees by US personnel in Abu Ghraib prison has brought the subject of torture to the fore of public discourse. Photographs of naked Iraqi prisoners stacked in a human pyramid and a naked man crawling with a leash attached to his neck shocked us. Seeing American soldiers pointing toward their captives and mocking them shocked us even more. The photographs made torture visible. But the mental torture of the death penalty is invisible, and so far the U.S. Supreme Court has refused to see it. In Furman and Gregg, the Court said that the intentional killing of human beings rendered defenseless is not an act of cruelty. The fact that Dobie Williams was brought to the brink of death three times before he was finally killed did not, in the Court’s opinion, constitute torture. Nor did the mental anguish of Joseph O’Dell, who watched as two prisoners, one of them a close friend, were showered and led to execution a few feet away from his cell. He thought he was next. But his tears and the cry “They almost killed me” evoked no compassion in the Supreme Court. Neither did the cries of Betty Williams and the other mothers whose sons and daughters are killed by the state. Nor is the Supreme Court willing to acknowledge the slow, corrosive torture the condemned endure for ten or twenty years, confined in cells the size of a small bathroom (U.S. death row cells are smaller by a foot than the cells in Abu Ghraib).

The death penalty, the Supreme Court claims, is an act of retribution; so whatever suffering the condemned endure is part of the price they pay for their crimes. Punishment, after all, is meant to inflict pain. And while the Court disapproves of any form of physical abuse of prisoners (such as beatings, prolonged sleep deprivation, or withholding food and water or necessary medications), thus far it has ignored mental suffering endured by men and women condemned to death. In the Court’s reasoning, even though life sentences without parole are available, only a “death for a death” will do. In Gregg, the Court says: “Retribution is an expression of the community’s belief that certain crimes are themselves so grievous an affront to humanity that the only adequate response may be the penalty of death.” And, as I noted in my letter to Pope John Paul II, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that killing human beings is not an assault on their dignity. Thus, by legalizing premeditated homicide, the Supreme Court legalizes torture. Morally speaking, this is dangerous, for it presupposes that a system of justice can in all cases identify the truly guilty with a degree of certainty that, we all know, cannot be obtained. This ruling also seems oblivious to the corrosive effects on the souls of those who carry out the killings. “Afterward, when I get home, I can’t sleep, can’t eat,” Major Kendall Coody told me after participating in his fifth execution in the Louisiana death chamber. And his participation in the killings wasn’t even direct. After prisoners were executed, his job was to collect their personal belongings to send to their families.

When the Abu Ghraib scandal first broke, government officials tried to confine blame to a few rogue solders, but inquiries revealed that the soldiers were working within a climate of abuse that had raised questions all the way up to the White House. Memos documented that government officials first sought legal advice before ordering torture tactics against terrorist suspects. The question of Pentagon and Defense Department officials to their lawyers is shocking in its callous simplicity: “The Geneva Conventions prohibit us from torturing or humiliating prisoners of war; how might we legally circumvent those prohibitions so we can inflict pain on detainees during interrogation and not be held legally accountable?” The response was to replace the designation “prisoners of war” with “enemy combatants”. “Prisoners of war” have human rights protected by international agreements. There is little consensus on the legal rights, if any, of “enemy combatants”. Terrorist suspects detained in U.S. bases in Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and in Abu Ghraib and other bases in Iraq may be held indefinitely without charge and without legal counsel as long as their captors see fit. International human rights groups have been barred from the camps. As of June 2004, more than five thousand foreign nationals have been jailed and stripped of their rights in the United States, Guantanamo, or Iraq since September 11, in antiterrorism “prevention detention” measures. Military intelligence officers told the Red Cross that 70-90 percent of the people locked up in Iraq have been arrested by mistake.

Torture was legalized under Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg Laws, which “redefined” Jews as non-citizens and non-human. By the same legal logic, the Louisiana Legislature legalized cockfighting by designating roosters as “fowl”, not “animals”, thus circumventing the state’s prohibition against cruelty to animals.

President Bush’s legal counsel, Alberto Gonzalez, remarked that the nature of the war on terror “renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint [italics added] some of its provisions.” Gonzales, you may recall, gave legal guidance to Governor Bush, who dispatched 152 persons to the Texas death chamber.

But the Pentagon’s list of approved “stress and duress” interrogation techniques, which includes throwing suspects against walls, hooding them, depriving them of sleep for days at a time, and binding them in painful positions, forbids “extreme” mental torture, such as “threatening detainees with immediate death.” (italics added)

The Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (wording from Article 5 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights), which has been ratified by the U.S. Senate, holds us to a higher standard of moral conduct than we have been able to achieve on our own. By signing on to the Convention Against Torture, we have committed ourselves never to engage in “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted.”

The concept of severe “mental” suffering is revolutionary. It reveals an “evolving standard of decency” of human rights never before embraced by the United States. With these words, the United States Supreme Court and its people face a new reality about the death penalty: There is simply no way that we are ever going to figure out how to preordain the killing of a human being without inflicting severe mental suffering.

The defenselessness of persons under the control of their captors is central to understanding torture. If someone can resist an aggressor, we don’t call it torture. It is the defenselessness of the victim that makes us loathe torturers and cringe when we see the photographs of our soldiers smiling and giving a thumbs-up at the plight of suffering Iraqi prisoners.

I was glad when the Supreme Court consulted the wisdom and experience of the world community in Atkins and ruled that executing mentally retarded persons is an act of cruelty. Most of our democratic allies stopped killing mentally handicapped persons long ago, though Justice Scalia, as we have seen, dissented in Atkins, scornfully refusing to consider international moral standards of cruelty. “[Other countries’] notions of justice are (thankfully) not always those of our people”, he said.

Justices Scalia and Clarence Thomas and Chief Justice Rehnquist were the only dissenters in Atkins. Perhaps they were trying to hold the line against the Court’s “slippery slope” for fear that by declaring the execution of the mentally retarded a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruelty, the Court might eventually forbid the execution of juveniles. Their fears are justified. Some of their colleagues are signalling that they intend to do precisely that. Right after Atkins, John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer expressed grave reservations about the moral decency of executing juveniles, pointing out that only a handful of nations – Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia – still kill children. In a public speech in Atlanta recently, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said, “I suspect over time we will rely increasingly [on], or take notice of, international and foreign law in resolving domestic issues.” She added that when 30 percent of the U.S. gross national product is derived internationally, “no institution of government can afford to ignore the rest of the world.” Only the United States and Somalia have refused to sign the Covenant on the Rights of the Child. U.S. officials have admitted that a major obstacle lies in the covenant’s prohibition of juvenile executions.

I wonder what the Framers of the Constitution would think of how the United States holds on to the death penalty while so many of our allies have abandoned it over the last fifty years. The Framers wrote the best Constitution they could, incorporating the best ideas and values from other countries. They very much wanted the new Republic to stand tall among other nations in its respect for the human person against the massive powers of the state. I think they would be appalled by the way constitutional protections of defendants have been ignored or abused in the administration of the death penalty. In the absence of those protections, they would not be surprised that so many innocents have been caught up in the system. I think they’d be shocked at the legalistic quagmire the courts have created and immensely saddened by the Supreme Court’s heavy emphasis on procedure over law. With long-term imprisonment available, as it was not in their day, they’d be quick to see that capital punishment was no longer necessary or desirable. And I think they’d take Senate ratification of the UN Convention Against Torture very seriously, embracing its prohibition against mental and physical cruelty. I can see them proudly holding high the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights on which the torture convention was based.

* * *

"Excerpted from The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions (pp 258-263). Copyright © 2005 Sister Helen Prejean. Reprinted by arrangement with Canterbury Press Norwich and The Random House Publishing Group."


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