World-renowned activist, author and Catholic nun Sister Helen Prejean does not mince words about why the death penalty should be abolished.

Prejean is the author of numerous books, including Dead Man Walking, a New York Times bestseller for six months upon its release in 1993. The book was later adapted into an Academy Award-winning film and an opera, both of the same name. 

She spoke to Ted Blades of CBC Radio's On the Go this week.

She had come to St. John's to deliver the Arrupe Lecture at St. Bonaventure's College.

The death penalty was abolished in Canada in 1976, although the journey to abolish it began in 1950. Canada is one of 103 countries in the world which have abolished the death penalty. However, 36 countries, including the United States, China, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq, still practice the death penalty.

Q: So how would you describe the current state of the death penalty in the United States, both in practice and in theory?

Well, we put it back in 1976 — the very year Canada's parliament voted not to bring it back, even though 70 per cent of the people of Canada in polls said they wanted it — so for these 30 years we've executed over 1,200 people by shooting, gassing, electrocuting, lethal injection.

Polls started out that there was 80 per cent support for the death penalty in the United States; in the deep south states, it was almost 90 per cent.  And now, for the first time, when people are given the question do you prefer the death penalty or life without parole, they prefer life without parole. We got  over 50 per cent… so the death plenty is in diminishment.

In the last 10 years, seven states have abolished it, and California is poised to do it next in a referendum. For the first time we have a Supreme Court justice, [Stephen] Breyer, who has listed constitutionally all the problems with the practice of the death penalty. So the theory of the death penalty is that it is always been it's reserved for the worst of the worst.

In practice, over 75 per cent of all the actual executions have happened in the 10 southern states that practised slavery.  

Practically, every eight out of 10 chosen to die, it's because they killed a white person. When people of colour are killed, it's never practised.  And the other big factor is we now have 156 wrongfully convicted people who've managed to get off of death row because they were saved by college kids in innocence projects. So people now see the thing's broken. It's not working.

 'People now see the thing's broken, its not working.'
- Sister Helen Prejean

And the other factor that we have to put in here is the exorbitant cost.  It costs millions of dollars to keep capital punishment in pace.  

At first, that sounds counterintuitive, but everything is more costly. One [district attorney] put it, "It's like the Cadillac of the criminal justice system." You have a capital case, you have two trials, one is for guilt to innocence, and the second is "what will the sentence be?", and that can last as long or longer, then you got to build a special part of your prison. 

The costliness of it is stopping people in their tracks because they don't see a practical difference or effect, that if someone was put in prison for life, and you know they can't kill again, why are we going through all this expense of killing a few people… so funds are doing it, practical sense of "it's not worth it", and the moral sense has been building in people about it, because I think going into Iraq, Afghanistan, we now see military solutions to social problems are not that helpful, and the death penalty is a military solution to domestic crimes. 

My work has been to get those books out there, to get the film out there, to help change the consciousness of people about it, to help them see that we need to choose a life road.  

Even Conservatives now are coming on board saying, "If you're for a lack of government intrusion in private life, and if you're for fiscal responsibility, what are we doing entrusting the government with the right to take life, even without the huge exorbitant cost?"

Q: Even though you're an opponent of the death penalty, you've witnessed six executions. How did that come to be?

A: Well when I took the first man on death row — which is the story in Dead Man Walking — I thought I would only be writing letters. We hadn't had an execution in Louisiana in 20 years. That led to two-and-a-half years down the road. The letters, then the visits. He was killed in front of my eyes.  

He was electrocuted to death.  And it changed my life, because when you see something close up, as the saying goes, what the eye doesn't see, the heart can't feel, but I got involved in that whole process, seeing the protocol of death, and seeing what it meant to kill a human being.  Part of the journey too was then to witness and experience with the victims' families, who were being told, "Now what we're going to do for you, you've gonna have to wait, hopefully not too long, not 15 years or whatever, but when it's time we're going to let you send a representative to actually watch when we kill the person, execute the person, who killed your loved one."  

So I got drawn into that through the first person. And then after that, Millard Farmer, who's a great lawyer who was trying to save people's lives, he came back to me after six months after Pat had been executed, and said, "Sister Helen, we have two more clients in Louisiana — they don't have anybody."  

And I looked at Millard and I knew that he wasn't trying to save himself from fire of going in with his clients, and he said "You can do it — they need somebody to be their spiritual advisor." 

So I've continued to do it, and I've done it ever since.  I'm accompanying a man on death row in Louisiana. He's the seventh. Three of the seven have been innocent. Three of seven — that's how broken this thing is.

So I kept doing it because it's a privilege to be with human beings even though they've done terrible crimes, and it's not to make them heroes, but boy it brings you up against life and death, or compassion and vengeance, and what are you for?  And then I spend the other part of my time on the road getting out on the road to wake people up in the United States about how we got to choose another road.

Q: But how does it make you feel, as a citizen of the United States, as a human being, to witness death not caused in the heat of the moment, in a moment of passion for a lack of a better world, but in a cold, methodical, state-conducted manner? 

It could paralyze me, or galvanize me, and it has galvanized me. You got the words exactly right; cold, calculated. The protocol of death.  

Helen Prejean and Ted Blades

Sister Helen Prejean spoke earlier this week with On The Go host Ted Blades. (Bob Sharpe/CBC)

When we were doing the movie, Susan [Sarandon, who won an Oscar for playing Prejean] kept saying to me while we were on the set, "It's so surreal!" I've been with people that died naturally, like in a hospital… but to see, to be with a person who's alive, and drinking coffee, and talking to me, and just know with my mind and my watch that in another hour he is going to be absolutely dead, that they're going to kill him over in the other room, how do you get your mind around that?  

So I knew that when I wrote the book, Dead Man Walking, and I tell the stories, I take people over into both of these abysses.

One is to stand in the presence and feel the outrage when innocent people are killed.  

And the other is to come very close to see what it means to entrust over to our government to do this killing of a human being.  One time when I was in the death house in Louisiana… a guard came to me and said "Sister, the man we're killing tonight is a very different man from that young brash animal that walked in here 20 years ago, cursing God and everybody, but we gotta kill him anyway. It's such a futile and despairing act, to freeze frame a person in the worst act of their life, and then freeze frame ourselves as a society into having to kill them."

Q: But you're a Roman Catholic nun.  You're a Christian. You've got a cross around your neck. The Bible says, "He that smitest a man so that he dies, shall surely be put to death"?

The Bible says those that commit adultery should be stoned. The Bible says those that have sex with animals should get the death penalty, and the poor animal gets the death penalty as well. The Bible says if you disrespect the priest or your parents, you should die. And then you come to Jesus. And the hardest thing has been to see how long it's taken the Christian churches to take a strong stand against the death penalty because we've gotten so culturized, we've gotten so domesticated, we've domesticated Jesus… and Jesus' words are never quoted.

Pain, and sacrifice, and death, is the way to get to God, and that God is please with sacrifice. So, there's been a theology in there too that's been upholding this… it took a while for there to be principled opposition to the death penalty from the Catholic church.

Q: But what do you say to the loved ones of the victim of a murderer? Especially the particularly heinous crimes involving rape and torture before the final act? You hear many of those people who say, 'That person who killed our daughter or our son doesn't deserve to see sunshine, doesn't deserve to live out the rest of their days with a TV in their cells and three square meals a day. What do you say to them?

​A: What do I say to victim's families? I don't say much to victims' families; I listen to them. And what my experience has been with people, the starting point for most human beings, and I can't say it wouldn't happen in me as well, is, "I want to see that person dead who killed my loved one." 

But that's not where most of them stop.  And it depends on who they have around to help them. The hero in my book, Dead Man Walking, is one of those fathers whose son, David, just 17, was killed, and he, as I got to know him, said to me, "Sister, everybody is saying to me, 'Lloyd, you got to be for the death penalty, or it'll look like you didn't love your boy.  Everybody was saying that to me… I wanted to see him suffer pain… But then I saw what it was doing to me. I was angry all the time, I was filled with this hate." 

'The guidelines of the Supreme Court never held up in the culture.'
- Sister Helen Prejean

It's so hypocritical for the prosecutors to say to a victim's family, "We're going to give you closure. We're going to give you justice." New Jersey, one of the states that did away with the death penalty nine years ago, they had 62 victims' families that came to testify legislative hearings saying, 'Don't kill us. The death penalty revictimizes us, putting us in this holding pattern, waiting for this justice to come, which sometimes never even happens.

We never want to hear the person's name again, let them disappear into a prison for life, but don't just keep us in the public while we're waiting for this death penalty, as if watching you kill the one who killed our loved one, and watching our violence is going to heal us.  We've had more and more victim's families speaking out, and that's helping us in the United States to end the death penalty.

Q:  Do you think we will we see it?  Maybe not in your lifetime or mine but do you think we are going to see the end of it?

A; Yup. No, we are going to see it in our lifetimes. You can see it beginning to happen. That's a lot of education, a lot of deaths. In theory, it would only be reserved for the worst of the worst, and now we look at who it's actually applied to.  They're all poor… you know what being poor means when you're up against the power's of the state for your life?  Who do you have by your side?  

Just like [if] you got a brain tumour, you need a good surgeon, you need a good physician, you need a crackerjack attorney by your side.  But then you get into the culture of the south, where you have [district attorneys who] run for office and brag about how many death penalties they get, because it's part of the culture.  

The guidelines of the Supreme Court never held up in the culture, and in practice it's been broken from the start. You got to give people information, and then you got to bring them through story, bringing them over to both sides of the horror,  and leaving them with the question leading to deeper reflection.  

I had that hunch when I started out: if we could bring the American people close tot his, they're going to get it. Most people don't think about the death penalty. It doesn't affect them. But you get people to reflect about it, and that's why the arts are important… it brings people into deep reflection.