Helen Prejean, C.S.J., has been working with death row inmates and the families of homicide victims since 1982 and has been recognized around the world for her efforts to end the death penalty. She is the author of Dead Man Walking, The Death of Innocents and River of Fire. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Attorney General William Barr ended a 17-year-long moratorium on the federal death penalty in July, and in just six months the Trump administration executed 10 inmates on federal death row—more than all of the executions conducted this year among all the states combined. What do you make of that unprecedented spree?
I think that it’s created a teachable moment. It exposes the flaw that existed from the beginning in the way the Supreme Court tried to constitutionally reconstruct the death penalty [in Gregg v. Georgia] in 1976. They said it’s only to be applied for the worst-of-the-worst murders.
Nobody really knows what “worst” means, and full discretion to seek death or not was given to prosecutors. It was bound to fail, to be as capricious in its application as it ever was. So for 17 years the attorneys general of the United States did not pursue death even though that power was in their hands, then you hit somebody like Trump.
It really reflects an antithesis to the evolution of Catholic moral teaching on the death penalty. In “Fratelli Tutti” the pope devoted eight paragraphs to explaining why you can never entrust the power over life and death to the government, and that’s what the Trump administration executing human beings in a flurry before he leaves office exemplifies.
Just look at the people being executed. Brandon Bernard was 18 at the time of his crime. At his trial they tried to say he was the mastermind, the leader of the gang, but he actually didn’t kill anybody. He was a low guy on the totem pole. They even had a so-called expert say that he would be a future danger to society. He had not had one write-up in 20 years in prison.
Helen Prejean: For 17 years the attorneys general of the United States did not pursue death even though that power was in their hands, then you hit somebody like Trump.
He’s the worst of the worst? How did he get selected?
And even more pronounced is the example of Lisa Montgomery, who was tortured and abused throughout her childhood, and now she’s set to be killed eight days before President-elect Joseph Biden comes into office. It just shows how capricious the whole thing is.
So the federal government had 10 executions and the states, all in the South, had seven. Look at the pattern: Most of the executions are held in the former slave states of the Deep South. Think on the history of that region, its legacy of slavery and its harsh penal codes. We are giving discretion over life and death to people running for political office on how many death sentences they get.
Can you imagine the arrogance of other human beings making that decision, that this person is going to go into eternity and we’ve decided that they can’t change, that they’re not worthy to live? It’s incredible.
You mention Lisa Montgomery, the next person scheduled for federal execution. Her crime, strangling a young pregnant woman before removing the child from her womb, was particularly heinous. Does her selection reflect a strategy on the part of the Trump administration?
The first five executions were all those who had killed children. The strategy seems to be to get people to fixate on the crime, not the person: “These crimes are really bad, so we won’t get any backlash about this.”
Helen Prejean: Can you imagine the arrogance of other human beings making that decision, that this person is going to go into eternity and we’ve decided that they can’t change, that they’re not worthy to live?
There’s a saying among the lawyers: “The one who tells the whole story wins the case.”
This is very much a Jesus thing, telling the whole story of the person, so that there’s always room for mercy and compassion.
Lisa Montgomery was sexually abused and trafficked by her own parents as a child. What do you do when you suffer that kind of abuse as a child? You disconnect from reality and you create your own. When a defendant like that is properly represented and juries hear the mitigating circumstances of her life, the terrible abuse, the psychotic state she was in at the time of the crime, are they going to vote to kill her?
It’s always the poor who get the death penalty, the people with the worst legal representation. It’s a constitutional right to have defense but there is no provision for resources to make sure, if you are poor, that you can get a decent lawyer. We’ve had 172 wrongfully convicted people since the death penalty was restored in 1976. For every nine of the 1,500 plus executions, one person has had to be set free because of a trial error.
That’s how broken this thing is. Who would book a flight on an airline that had a one in nine chance of going down in flames?
The church’s teaching on the death penalty began changing once St. John Paul II approved a revision of the Catechism in 1992. How important have these changes been in your outreach to the Catholic public?
It took 1,600 years of dialogue to reach the position that we cannot give to the government the right to take life. It’s important that we finally got it right. There had been loopholes in the teaching and prosecutors were happy to use them.
Helen Prejean: It’s a constitutional right to have defense but there is no provision for resources to make sure, if you are poor, that you can get a decent lawyer.
So at the top, now we have it right, the Catechism has been changed and we have bishops making statements, but the real work—getting in there and tilling the soil and putting in the seeds and working with the people—that work is still ahead of us. You’ve got to bring the people of God on a journey of conversion.
Back in the 1980s, we had a terrible statistic, that the more people went to church, the more they believed in the death penalty. What is that saying? It’s because they were made afraid.
If you took a poll of Catholics today about the death penalty, you’ll find that they pretty much mirror the rest of the country, so the work still needs to be done. In the pulpits of the churches, is the death penalty held up as an intrinsic evil like abortion?
Why is it so hard for many Catholics to accept the abolition of the death penalty as part of the church’s pro-life agenda?
I have a feeling it’s connected to how Jesus always went after the purists, you know, the ones who said, “We are morally pure” and held to that purity code above all else. It puts this moral cloak over you, that because you are against abortion, which is an intrinsic evil and always morally wrong, you can consider other moral issues, such as systemic racism and the death penalty as prudential or negotiable issues, which means you can take them or leave them and not put moral energy into addressing them nor face the inviolable dignity of the persons affected.
That was at the heart of the dialogue I had with Pope John Paul II. I wrote him a letter, and I know for sure that it was delivered right into his lap as they were considering the definitive Latin form of the Catechism and it halted its publication then. It wasn’t just my letter, of course—please, I’m not Catherine of Siena—there was a lot of discussion of this at that time. But I said to him in that letter, “Your holiness, I meet Catholics, who say they are pro life, but they mean pro innocent life. When it comes to people who’ve committed murder, they’re all for the death penalty. Can you help our church understand the dignity of all life, even of the guilty?”
What really gives healing is not waiting 20 years and sitting on the front row, watching the violence of the government killing the one who killed your loved one.
And I used the most dramatic example I could to bring it home to him, that when I was walking with a man to execution and he’s shackled hand and foot, surrounded by six guards and he’s going to be strapped down, rendered completely defenseless and killed: Where is the dignity in the killing of a person who has been rendered defenseless?
So many believed only innocent life has dignity. Pope John Paul directly addressed that and Pope Francis built on his teaching when he made the decision in 2018 to change the Catechism and declare the death penalty “inadmissable,” no matter how heinous the crime precisely because of the “inviolable dignity of the human person.”
When Pope John Paul was in St. Louis in 1999, a few years after that discussion about the catechism, for the first time in a public address he put the death penalty in with the other pro-life issues. He said, “No to abortion,” “no to euthanasia,” “no to physician-assisted suicide” and “no to the death penalty, which is cruel and unnecessary.”
He acknowledged the cruelty, the torture of the death penalty, something our own Supreme Court has yet to acknowledge, because it is cruel and unnecessary. Even those among us who have done a terrible crime have a dignity that must not be taken from them.
But you can see that for Catholics to come to the point of the recognition of the dignity of a murderer is a far harder journey than upholding the dignity of innocent life. One is the costly Gospel, where you really have to come to grips with evil being done and by the way our system uses an identification of the total person with the crime that was committed. It’s a much harder journey to take.
Did you know that no prosecutor in the course of a trial can point to a defendant and say, “That is an evil person”? You can point to the deeds as evil, but you can never assign evil to the person because persons are transcendent. Even in a court trial, they know that.
But the justification prosecutors who seek the death penalty use is “We’re doing this for the victim’s family.” And I have heard closing arguments at death penalty trials, where the prosecutor gets up to the jury making a decision over life and death and points over toward that victim’s family and says, “Just do it for them. If you had a child murdered or if you had your mother murdered, what would you want done?” Justice means just one thing, this person killed their loved one. And in order to “give them justice” or “honor their loved one” only a sentence of death will do.
You can point to the deeds as evil, but you can never assign evil to the person because persons are transcendent.
And the famous word they started using, which had only been a word that had been used by psychologists until this the death penalty came along: “closure.”
Therein lies a whole bunch of stories about victims’ families and what really gives healing. And it is not waiting 20 years and sitting on the front row, watching the violence of the government killing the one who killed your loved one. How can witnessing that violence heal you?
We have a new president, the nation’s second Catholic to assume that position. What do you see happening under Joe Biden next year?
The first thing he can do right away is stop federal executions, which I believe he’ll do. He also has the power to commute every sentence on federal death row, but abolition of the federal death penalty has to happen through Congress.
Reading the signs of the times, this is such an important moment. We leaders in this movement for abolition need to get together now. Can we have a full-court press to reach people in each of the states so that we can get abolition on the books?
Amnesty International has pointed out that when there’s change that happens on a moral issue, on a human rights issue, the first thing you look at is practice—people stop doing it.
That’s where we are now. We haven’t had a government-imposed execution in Louisiana for 18 years [Gerald Bordelon, who died by lethal injection in 2010, had waived his appeals and consented to his execution]. We were killing eight people in eight and a half weeks in the 1980s. The last thing that’s going to change is the statute on the books, where you have a legislative act that overturns the death penalty.
There’s a lot of education that has to go into this, to bring people together on abolition. It’s got to be more than statistics. It’s got to be more than logic. It’s got to be something that touches that deep resonance of conscience and sense of moral life. This is the work the Catholic Mobilizing Network is doing, educating Catholics in parishes and schools.
One of the things that has filled me with hope and kept me going is the goodness of the American people. Most people are not bent at all on giving the government the power to kill our fellow citizens. They just have never reflected deeply on the issue and never been brought close to it.
So many don’t have any personal experience of people on death row or personal experience of people in prison. They get their perceptions of people on death row through the media, through these very politicized filters. It’s so difficult to appreciate that the person who did this horrible thing is worth more than that terrible act.
I have great confidence now that the closer we bring people to see the death penalty for what it is, the closer we get to the abolition of the death penalty.
Just imagine if the church had a full-court press on this moral issue, running adult education programs in every Catholic parish to help people through this journey to see the inviolable dignity of all life, not just innocent life. Just imagine the change that would come of that.