Day 6·Q&A

As Trump pushes for a record number of federal executions, Sister Helen Prejean warns of his 'unwieldy power'

Since U.S. President Donald Trump reinstated the federal death penalty in July, the federal government has executed eight people and the Justice Department has scheduled five more. Sister Helen Prejean, who advocates against the death penalty, says that proves the system does not work.

Prejean has fought against the death penalty for more than 40 years

Sister Helen Prejean, who advocates for the abolition of the death penalty, is working to exonerate Brandon Bernard, who is scheduled to be executed on Dec. 10 despite protestations from the prosecutor who successfully fought to keep him on death row. (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

The U.S. federal government, under President Donald Trump, plans to execute five people before the end of his term on Jan. 20.

That includes Brandon Bernard, a Black man, who has spent 20 years on death row for his role in the brutal killings of Todd and Stacie Bagley in 1999. He is scheduled to be executed Dec. 10. 

Five jurors who voted to convict him now say he should be given clemency, and a former federal prosecutor who earlier successfully fought to keep Bernard on death row, agrees

If Bernard is executed, he will be the ninth person put to death by the U.S. federal government in the past six months. Only three people have been executed federally within the last 50 years.

In July, Trump reinstated the death penalty at the federal level after a 17-year pause on the punishment. Last month, the U.S. Justice Department published new rules that would allow federal executions by electrocution and firing squad, set to take effect Dec. 24. Meanwhile, president-elect Joe Biden has said he will work to end the death penalty when in office.

Sister Helen Prejean, whose book inspired the film Dead Man Walking, has spent more than four decades fighting against the death penalty, and recently, working to exonerate Bernard. She spoke with Day 6 host Brent Bambury about the case and the Trump administration's support for federal executions.

Here is part of that conversation.

Until this year, there has not been a federal execution in the United States since 2003. The Trump administration has executed eight people since this summer, and they are set to execute five more before Jan. 20. Why do you think this is happening now? 

If you want to see a clear, bright, line-in-the-sand indication of how the death penalty is capricious and does not work and cannot be entrusted to officials to carry out, this is an example. 

For 17 years, no federal executions. In July, we did hear President Trump kind of vamping up his law-and-order message — force using force — and he's talking more and more in that rhetoric. 

So it's not surprising that because he has the power to take life, he could just simply say, "Pick out these people on death row and let us execute them," Attorney General Barr does his bidding, and they start killing people. 

What's faulty from the very beginning in the Supreme Court decision to put [the] death [penalty]back was they had a very fuzzy criteria: only the worst of the worst. Nobody knows what that means, and they leave it to the discretion of prosecutors to decide when they go for death. 

When they don't, Trump has decided to go for death ... and there's nothing to stop him. 

The U.S. federal government has scheduled executions for five death row inmates to take place before Jan. 20, when Joe Biden will in inaugurated as U.S. president. The Department of Justice has also changed rules allowing for executions by electrocution and firing squad, set to take effect Dec. 24. (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

Popular support for the death penalty in the United States has been going down, and there are a lot of states now that just don't execute people anymore. You seem to be moving this issue — you and other activists — where you wanted it to go. But is that changing now? 

Of course it is. We had the smallest number of executions in 2019 than we've had since '83, only seven executions. This unwieldy power that Trump has, he will have killed 13 people [by the end of his term].

But it is changing. Executions are down. Prosecutors aren't seeking death. Jurors aren't giving death. Innocent people [are] later exonerated. 

This is an amazing statistic, but for every 10 people, of the 1,500-plus people we've executed ... one person has had to be freed [from death row]. That's how broken this thing is, and the people are getting it. 

Last week, Trump's Department of Justice filed an amendment that would expand the methods that can be used in federal executions. It could bring back electrocution. It could bring back the firing squad. Why do you think that is significant, and why is it happening now?

When someone who prides himself on using force to get what he wants done, he may think lethal injection looks too weak — let's have a firing squad. That's what's so wrong about putting this kind of power in the hands of a man like Donald Trump. 

Here's a fact: nobody is executed unless a prosecutor or district attorney seeks it all the way through to the very end. If they do not seek death, people don't die. And look at that unwieldy power in the hands of frail human beings, politically driven, partially seeing. 

We can never allow them to have that power. And please, God, these lives could be spared. But I'm really scared for the people involved in this because it all hangs with Donald Trump. 

Prejean has advocated for the abolition of the death penalty for more than 4 decades. (Tim Boyle/Newsmakers/Getty Images)

Do you think that there is a chance that Brandon Bernard will escape the death penalty? 

Here's the thing: You have to stand up for what you believe and you have to speak the truth. No matter what the others do, you have to do that. 

I feel for that prosecutor. There was a cry for the death of this young man ... and the prosecutor [recently] said, I was not as strong in my conviction as I should have been. I didn't listen to my conscience and I went along.

Also five of the nine jurors who were still alive just said they never got real information about Brandon. He wasn't one of the people that did crimes and was going to be violent in the future. He has the best record in prison — the warden speaking for him.

And here's what's so cruel and terrible about the death penalty. When you decide that you are going to end a human being's life, you cut off all chance of their changing, nor do you even recognize how they might have changed from the time they did a crime as an 18-year-old to who they are now. 

That development of life doesn't matter to you, and God, that's such a sin and it's so wrong. And that's why we have to work and change it.

Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Pedro Sanchez.