RED! Interviews
Sister Helen Prejean
- part I

by Christine Grote
with Jeff Hillard
October 2009

In this first of a two-part interview, Sister Helen discusses her work to abolish the death penalty.


Last night I noticed when you came in, you were a bright light in the room, you just came on in and the two people at the desk stood up and they were kind of reserved. You just immediately busted through the defenses and said, “Hey, how are you?” What you think about when you approach a new group?

Any human being you meet . . .my mama was like that when she walked into a room and you met people. And you know, you’re glad to meet people. There’s a southern hospitality part of that.

So you think you were always that way and it’s not just something you learned with your work?

Oh no. When you greet people you should really greet them. You’re meeting a human being. That’s a big thing. So when we deal with a lot of people, and now they have all this stuff swallowed around me with this respect and this famous person. . .I mean there was one young girl who came to get her book signed and she was overcome like, “I’m so bashful.” I said, “You know, I’m just human like you. It’s okay.” She goes, “I’m nervous even to talk to you” and all that kind of stuff. So you want to disarm people. We’re all just human beings together—so that’s right off.

I think about the work you do. I think about you going into prison and talking to someone who’s potentially committed a violent crime and watching him undergo a planned death. I think that takes a lot of courage. Do you consider yourself a courageous person?

I find that an interesting word. It’s Dan Berrigan who says, “Knowing what we know, we cannot not do what we do.” It’s part of . . . you’re with them, and you know that every human being deserves respect, and you’re like carried.  I call it grace. But it’s respect and you know this is what you have to do. You cannot not do it. So I don’t put words on it like courage, because I think of courage as you’re summoning up all your energy if you’re someone doing a courageous act. I wonder what the root of the word courage is, do you know? That would be an interesting word to explore.

Other people looking at you may say that, but you never say it about yourself.

So you just see it as something you have to do.

You have to because it’s the dignity of the person. And so you follow it then.

But some people wouldn’t necessarily follow it.

No, but we’re not talking about them.

Maybe you’re not going to like to answer this question then since you don’t like to use the word courage. You have a lot of different aspects to the work you do. What do you think takes the most courage? Or what’s the most difficult thing for you?

Encountering victims’ families, those that are for the death penalty—when you encounter them. When Death of Innocents came out there had been a terrible serial killing of women in Louisiana. And so there I am going into a New Orleans book store and there they are, the families who have had their loved ones killed by the serial killer—mostly their daughters—cruelly raped and killed. And they’re standing there with their signs and a picture of their loved one.

Now I’m in the bookstore to talk about the Death Penalty and so there is a part of me that just kind of says, “Okay. The opposition.” That’s the first thing you think. But I’ve learned to not think of them as opposition. So when I go to talk about Death of Innocents and all the people are standing there and I said, “People are here among us today who have experienced great pain and great loss. And you’ve come. Just say; tell us what you’ve experienced. Tell us about your pain.” And I let them express before I say anything, and let them talk about the experience and what it has meant to lose a daughter in such a terrible way.

And then after they have spoken, and I encourage everybody in the group to talk to them, then I talk about my book Death of Innocents. And I said, “Now, I’m coming from another place here because these are innocent people who have been executed. So they are victims too.”

But we’re laboring under something here because the courts never acknowledged their innocence because of the legal procedures they set up in which it could not be proved. If the word courage would be summoned it would be now: stand forthrightly here in this and don’t water it down or downplay what the story is because you’re standing in their presence. And I have to summon that inside myself. “And let me tell you what happened to Dobie Gillis. Let me tell you what happened to Joseph O’Dell. Let me tell you all the things the jury never heard.” And then I do that.

I have to tell you the story. There was a book store in New Orleans and not only were the victims there of the ones who had had the serial killer kill their loved ones, but Elizabeth Harvey, who had been very vocal in her support of the death penalty, was also there. Elizabeth Harvey is with them and she’s in a wheel chair and she’s on an oxygen tank getting oxygen because she has emphysema real bad. There they are. So I did the same thing. I got Elizabeth to share the story, “Just say what you want to say to people about what you’ve experienced.” And even to be given a forum is to be given dignity. Often the media just get their little quote from them and they’re just trying to set up this adversarial thing showing both sides and it’s not an in depth kind of thing where people listen.

So Elizabeth spoke and then the others spoke and then I spoke and talked about the book. Then I said, “Are there any questions?”

This was the most amazing thing. There was an eighth grade kid in the back of the room. In the middle of all this pain now, the kid gets up and says, “Well, I’ve got to do this report. I’ve got to write my report and it’s due tomorrow . . .” The kid broke everything. Everyone’s around the kid. Elizabeth Harvey is talking to the kid. There’s the kid and he’s taking down notes for his report. And the kid like saved the whole thing in a way. He’s like, “You got a problem, you lost your daughter, but I gotta do this report.” 

He was wonderful. I went, “Thank you Jesus; thank you for the children.” I mean he was so cute the way he asked the question like he was oblivious to all of this. “I’ve got to do this report and it’s due tomorrow.”  You knew the kid had procrastinated. . .

When I heard you at the College of Mount St. Joseph about three years ago, and maybe I wasn’t listening for this in particular, it seemed that you were talking more about educating the audience about the death penalty and how it works. It seemed to me last night that you’ve shifted your focus a little bit more into trying to light a fire in the people. Is that accurate?

It’s always educate, activate. But, I guess maybe you could say that because I’m in Ohio. I know New Jersey has done away with the death penalty and I know New Mexico has, and Ohio is terrible in its practice of the death penalty. To have the Ohioans to Stop Executions here so that you can plug people into acting— I know that only acting by them and getting to the legislature . . .so yeah, you’re right about that. There was a shift of emphasis.

Several times you reiterated the difference between annunciations and incarnations. And you also used the phrase “catching on fire.” Are you hoping, by coming here to speak, that you will achieve getting people to act?

To have a group active like the Ohioans to Stop Executions and they’re there in the room, that makes a difference because you can plug people right in. And sometimes when I’m in a state where nothing is organized or anything, you know to light the fire it’s going to be you asking them to sign the general thing—Catholics mobilize—and that’s going to be indirect. But this was a direct connection between a match and a fire and the kindling right there with the state group there. Alice Gerdeman and that group have been so faithful and just kept in there steadily to build the grassroots and to educate the people and finally that is what’s going to change Ohio.

You think Ohioans to Stop Executions will change Ohio?

Oh absolutely. That’s what did it in New Jersey. People were writing to the legislators. The politicians have to be given these people urging them to do the right thing. They’ve got to be able to hold up the letters to the press and just say, “I’ve been hearing from my constituents and we say that people support the death penalty, but look, I’m hearing from all these people who say ‘let’s go for an alternative.’ I have to listen to the people.”

How soon could that happen?

I don’t know, depending on how soon the people operate, how quickly they move and what they do. Definitely to save the life of Rommell Broom . . . please God. You have a state statute that says it has to be a quick and painless death. That wording in the statute is going to bring it to your state supreme court, I think. So it gives room for him. But to change the state, I don’t know. It depends really on the people and how quickly. . .and how much the churches get involved. The churches, the religious people . . . they did it in New Jersey, they did it in Mexico. There are 67 million Catholics; one in every four Americans identifies themselves as Catholic. Maybe they’ve fallen away, but . . . imagine catalyzing this group. That’s a moral wedge and force. And so, we’ve got to do that. And so there’s Catholic mobilizing network.

The bishops announced a Catholic campaign to end the use of the death penalty in 2005 and then we went on their web site and there was nothing there. They announced it and they printed a brochure. So we want to be the mobilizing group to get the Catholics and plug them in, in their states, to get them to be the active force. That’s what we’re trying to do.

Can you talk about what you are doing now in mobilizing that might be a little different from two or three years ago?

It is different. We just formed this thing Labor Day weekend of ’08. And so we met with the Catholic Bishops Conference and said, “Let us be your grassroots—lay people arm of helping this campaign.” You see you have to educate Catholics about the change that is happening in Catholic teaching. Just to have the catechism changed didn’t matter enough because you’re talking about a journey of heart. Converting people to help them to see so that then they become active.

I’ve read both of your books, the arguments you make can be categorized into the legal arguments or to the moral arguments, and then you have the cost issue too.

Cost is moral. According to Martin Luther King the most moral document you ever look at is the budget. We can’t just say cost is this practical economic thing. New York used 200 million dollars to keep nine people on death row because Pataki, when he ran for governorship, put the death penalty back in saying they needed it as a deterrent. And that 200 million dollars, while it was being spent on that political trophy and symbolism, was not used for at-risk kids, it was not used for health care, not used to help at-risk kids get jobs. Money is very moral. Legal is moral too.

You make both kinds of arguments, which do you think in the long run is going to bring you the greatest success?

You don’t have to choose between; you need them both. And you have to show how legal arguments can really be against moral arguments. Legalism, which is the way the supreme court works, procedural bars—you might have some great issues, you might even be able to show probable innocence, but “sorry you didn’t file it in time.”

I begin Death of Innocents with a quote from Jesus, “You strain out gnats but swallow camels.” You basically get caught in the small and the fine ways of legalisms while neglecting the weightier matters of justice and mercy. So the moral is under everything, including the law. 

You have to expose how legalisms on the court are against the principles of justice and mercy—the way you interpret the constitution, the way you interpret equal justice under law and what’s going on in that 80% of the executions are in the same states that practiced slavery. And you look at Supreme Court decisions in McClesky vs. Kemp where they basically allowed racism in the application of the death penalty, acknowledged it, but declared it inevitable. So we will basically allow it. And that’s moral—that’s a legal decision, but that’s moral.

The way you put the criteria for what it means to have ineffectiveness of council and you basically let anything go because they had a breathing lawyer. You know the mirror test if you have a lawyer? When you’ve got the mirror if there’s moisture on it, you’ve got a lawyer, even though they filed nothing; they did no extended testing; they let an all white jury be seated when you are a black defendant. All of those are moral so you’ve got to take those on as well.

I just wondered since you’re fighting to change a law, whether your legal arguments . . .

Well that’s a very interesting connection you’re bringing up. What is the relationship between morality and law? And when a law is against life and immoral and where it’s selecting the poor, and it’s not living out of the basic principles even of the constitution—equal justice under law, and legal arguments are getting to go around it, that’s the go around in our country. And see the constitution, in the way it is interpreted, is working under a huge deficit because when it was written we allowed for slavery, and women were not . . . and we had killed native Americans; we had decimated them. So we still have a long way to go. But the principle is there—equal justice under law. And that’s what we have to really strive for.

What do you think has happened in Ohio?

I just think the people are sleeping. The people are slowly moved. I was just in Kansas and Carol McGinn, a member of the senate in Kansas, introduced an abolition bill in Kansas. They had 11 people on death row and she said that the people in Kansas thought the people who had gotten a death sentence were already executed.

People don’t know what’s going on with the death penalty. You have to wake people up to it because it doesn’t touch most people personally. When you think of all the things people are dealing with concerning their families, and we’re in the recession now, and all this kind of stuff—their kids, their families, their jobs. Who thinks about the death penalty?

Well, you don’t hear it in the media much either.

When the people speak out the media is going to cover it, see. We’ve got to wake up the people. It’s the only way to get social change in a democracy.

What is your biggest frustration? Would that be it?

Oh yeah. That it keeps going on and people are being killed, and all the suffering that is going on.

You’ve got to be really disappointed with Governor Strickland.

Yeah. But, no, I’m not surprised. I only expected that from Strickland. He’s a politician and he’s a governor and he’s looking to us . . . that’s his only framework . . .No. I’m not surprised because he’s thinking as a politician and what’s going to get him re-elected. That’s purely the prism he’s looking through on this issue.

The positive thing is to cut a break for politicians. Because when you are surrounded by handlers, when there are people who are telling you that this is what you have to do, like the governors who surround themselves with lawyers when it comes time for an execution. And the other lawyers who are trying to save the life of their client on death row—the governor never meets with them personally but sends the lawyers out there to be the buffer. This is what the governor has to do. There they are, and they have to be elected by the people.

Their perception is that this is what the public wants and that’s why the awakening of the people is so important. Because they are making that assumption that the public is deeply wedded to wanting the death penalty and would be very upset if they do anything against it. Some will be upset. Most of the people will not be upset. They’ve done polls, “Would it make a difference to you if your governor, or your person in office was against the death penalty?” Most people said that the issue of the death penalty is no longer a determining factor for them in elections. But see, the governors don’t know that. Their handlers don’t know that.


Sister Helen Prejean

Sister Helen Prejean


Sister Helen Prejean

RED! web editor Christine Grote interviews Sr. Helen Prejean


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