Sister_Helen_Prejean

In the early morning of April 5, 1984, a prison vehicle brought me from the execution chamber to the front gates of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, where I promptly bent over in the dark and threw up. I had just witnessed a man electrocuted to death at the hands of my state. His killing was a legal act, declared so by the U.S. Supreme Court. About 80 percent of Louisiana citizens supported it, and few church leaders publicly protested it.

I was soon to learn it was not that our citizens' inherent vengefulness that led to popular support for the death penalty. The truth was that in the late 1970s, violent crime was on the rise, fear was palpable, and “tough on crime” politicians misled us into thinking that some criminals were so evil that only death was a fitting punishment. And surely, with the “best system of justice in the world,” the chances of condemning an innocent seemed negligible.

Today, with 30-plus years of state executions and a whole lot of mistakes under our belts, we are beginning to see things differently. Per capita, our state has wrongfully condemned more people to death than any other state. Consider Glenn Ford, who was exonerated after almost 30 years on death row, then died one year later of lung cancer. Or ask John Thompson, who spent 18 years in prison, 14 on death row, because a prosecutor had hidden blood evidence ultimately used for Thompson’s exoneration. Or ask Manuel Ortiz, a courageous man whose innocence I believe in and whose spiritual adviser I am privileged to be, accompanying him and fighting for his release as he agonizes through 27 years in the hell hole of Louisiana’s death row.

Louisiana is not alone in its wrongful convictions. As of April 2019, 165 wrongfully convicted death row prisoners have been exonerated. When you look at the practice of the death penalty, mistakes are inevitable. Some 98 percent of people tried for capital murder are poor and cannot hire crackerjack defense lawyers, which means that the truth often does not come out at trial.

Death penalty cases are expensive to prosecute, too, because the penalty is final, and trials and appeals are complicated. Those convicted spend 19 years, on average, on death row, forcing victims’ families to endure years of appeals under a public spotlight. What if we took the millions of dollars spent on a handful of capital cases and funded support services for victims instead? Or redirected resources into educating and mentoring at-risk kids to help prevent violent crimes from happening in the first place?

As we conclude Holy Week, we have for the third year bipartisan bills to repeal the death penalty before the House (HB 215) and Senate (SB 112). Louisiana has the chance to become the first “Deep South” state to end the death penalty. And now, for the first time, an initiative is being launched for the full force of Catholic young people across the state to join forces with their bishops through larepeal.org to turn Louisiana from a death state to a life state. As we have seen with young people from Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida seeking to end gun violence, and with the million students from 120 countries who marched to address climate change, when young people, our future, are on the move, there’s hope.

Holy Week: What a perfect season to turn death to life in Louisiana. 

Sister Helen Prejean, a Baton Rouge native and member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, is an internationally recognized opponent of the death penalty. She's authored three books, including "Dead Man Walking" and the forthcoming "River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey." She writes at sisterhelen.org.