Dead Men Walking

Once a week, like clockwork: The Journal lands on the lawn, the church holds services, the dog gets brushed and a Missourian gets executed. August has been dubbed Massacre Month by opponents of the death penalty; everybody else is just living their everyday lives while the state kills inmates like Triscuits, one after the other.Execution's a national trend: 38 states permit the death penalty, which now spans 50 crimes. But Missouri tied for second last year in the number of prisoners executed, and nearly 100 Missourians wait in the metaphorical condition we call death row. Everybody knows Southern states tend to dole out more death penalties -- until recently, 70 percent of the nation's executions took place in five Southern states. Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, author of Dead Man Walking, offers a different perspective. When Tim Robbins directed a film made from her book, he steered away from a sympathetic offender, an objectionable method (he switched the electrocutions Prejean described to lethal injections) and a right-or-wrong conclusion. For her part, Prejean staunchly opposes the death penalty. She's spent the past six years accompanying her fifth death-row prisoner, and she says "all of them have one thing in common: They feel very much alone and get a thousand signals a day that they are nothing but trash." Her countercultural message to them: "You are valuable, you have a dignity and worth in life that nobody can take from you."Ah, well, she's a nun: Religious types often allude to human dignity, even when others say it's been forfeited by brutality. So -- what exactly is it? "That part of the human being which is transcendent," Prejean responds, "and which no one else can duplicate. Dignity means people are worth more than the worst thing they ever did in their life. There is a ground and a transcendence in them that no one can touch." She's silent for a minute, then adds, "The death penalty is the opposite of dignity. You don't believe there is anything there to restore, so you package them and manage them like meat. We have a better attitude toward recycling beverage cans."Every year, another country abolishes the death penalty," Prejean emphasizes. "Our closest allies in western Europe have to abolish it to belong to the European Council. The first act of South Africa's constitutional committee was to abolish the death penalty. Now Poland has abolished it, and Russian officials are making statements against it."What's the teaching of her Roman Catholic faith, which sanctions "just war" but condemns abortion, on the taking of a murderer's life? Ambiguous "since Constantine, when the Church aligned itself with state power," Prejean admits. "But there's exciting news: That section of the Latin catechism is about to be changed." She takes a deep breath. "For the first time since the fourth century, the Church is unequivocally opposed to capital punishment. No exceptions." The announcement should cause some friction, in a country where many Catholics join the majority that supports capital punishment. But if that majority's so convinced, why did Prejean's book generate a hit film and comments in 2,342 web sites? "Yeah, I know, it's a very interesting question," she says, her Louisiana inflection making hills and valleys of the words. "Tim Robbins said, We're going to prove what is underneath the surface.' The fact is, most people don't reflect on the death penalty. The so-called support may be a mile wide, but it's an inch deep." [St. Louis County] Prosecutor Robert McCulloch says he agrees "with half of that: There is very wide support. But I think people understand it very well. They know what death is." According to Prejean, though, when people are given the alternative of life in prison without parole, support drops to 50 percent, she notes. "When you introduce some way for the inmate to make restitution, two-thirds of people reject the death penalty. We don't have a practical way of doing that yet, but it shows where people's hearts are."Politicians' hearts are less transparent. "The death penalty is 99 percent about politics," Prejean maintains, calling executions "a ready symbol for so-called anti-crime measures, so they don't have to dig deeper. They are very afraid to be vulnerable to their opponents by opposing the death penalty." The media formula pits victim against offender, and the winner's obvious. But for Prejean, they're setting up a false choice: She has no trouble feeling all dimensions of a tragedy. "The horror should never be glided over," she says. "In me, everything comes together. The victim, the victim's suffering and the person on death row. Spirituality can hold together opposites in a way politics never can." Prejean pictures victim and offender as "both arms of the cross," reconciled by Christ. Others might taunt her with a reminder that his crucifixion was a state execution, too. It was freely chosen, she'd likely reply. No one has the right to kill another human being. "I couldn't agree with her more," says McCulloch . "These guys don't have the right to take an innocent life." And the state? "I'm not going to sneak up on them, drag them from behind and cut them up into little pieces," he replies. "The state has a long, drawn-out and meticulous process. It's as humane as it can be."In Prejean's terms, today's Pilates still wash their hands. "The move definitely is to make death more and more antiseptic," she remarks. "They put alcohol on the arm before they give the injection. There's no blood, no obvious physical agony or torture." Debating the relative humanity of different methods has become a surreal way for the rest of us to feel civilized. "There is torture, of course," remarks Prejean. "You are dealing with conscious human beings who die a thousand times before they die. Everybody I've known on death row has the same nightmare, where (guards) are dragging them out of their cell." What determines which prisoners get executed -- the heinousness of their crime or the color of their skin and money? "You left out the most important, who did they do it to?'" Prejean retorts. "If it was a crime against someone homeless or poor, or a person of color, there will be much less rage in the community." McCulloch says the system's quite fair, and accusations of inequity are based on only surface counts. "When you look strictly at the numbers, you will see a higher percentage of racial minorities executed," he admits. "That's accurate but meaningless. You have to look at who's committing the murders." What drives McCulloch crazy are people such as the university professor who, on the basis of court records alone, "has decided I ask for death for racial reasons. He knows nothing about those cases, he hasn't talked to me, he's looking at dry documents and determining that the race of the victim is more important to me than whether the guy was kidnapping, raping or pillaging. It's just plain stupid." What determines whether someone will kill? "How much love they've had in their life, how much connectedness," Prejean answers instantly. "It's never people with community and purpose in their lives, a place to go and people who care about them. When people are disconnected, they are walking time bombs. That's the thing we need to attend to, and it's very much a societal responsibility. In the U.S. we tend to be very individualistic about responsibility. More than 90 percent of people who make their way to death row were abused as children, and we say, Oh, they need to be responsible for their actions.' In Europe, people take responsibility as a society."Oddly enough, McCulloch -- who's familiar with Prejean's analysis of the death penalty and pronounces it misguided -- agrees with her that prevention would be possible, if it could happen earlier. "The problem is, it starts long before we ever see anybody in the criminal-justice system," he says, citing signs of antisocial behavior in children with no loving, mature adult to teach them otherwise.McCulloch 's primary concern, though, is the victims of crimes -- an argument Prejean knows all too well. "People who say they care about victims, I'd like to talk to them about what victims they care about," she says. "Is it only victims of individualized street crime? What about victims of institutionalized violence, living in rat-infested houses with no food?" She sighs. "I understand the rage, I feel it. But I've been too close to what happens when society says we need to do this. It dehumanizes all of us. First of all, it is an act of despair, because it's saying, The only thing we know to do with you is what you did to your victim.' And it makes other innocent victims: the strapdown teams, the guards and wardens. They know they are complicit, and that has a deteriorating effect on people. It's not uplifting."Shouldn't we be most concerned about the grieving families of innocent victims? "For the families I have known, it's the opposite of closure," Prejean remarks. "If someone gets life, they slip into the system and you can forget about them. With the death penalty, the family begins another part of their journey, waiting, and the media are on them constantly." Even the death brings little relief: People say, "He died too quick, I hope he burns in hell." "What they were promised was that, if they watched a person die, they would be healed," Prejean says softly. "It's a false equation."Despite the state's objectifying approach, death can call forth strength. "All the people I've been with died with great dignity," Prejean recalls. "A number have said, Just pray for me that God holds up my legs,' because they very much want to be able to walk." So is the state giving them a noble death? According to Prejean, dignity comes in spite of, not because of, the sentence. Proponents of the death penalty argue that, by facing their own death, sociopathic killers can develop empathy, confronting the meaning of the death or deaths they caused. In Prejean's experience, impending death doesn't create empathic insight. "There's a surge of terror, and all their energy goes toward facing their own death," she explains. "I've never seen this, Oh, look, I did this to you and look, the same thing's happening to me.' It's not that kind of consciousness." Prisoners invariably address their victims' families in their last words, she notes, but that remorse comes in the long years alone on death row, not in the dramatic moments before the execution. OK, proponents challenge, what would she do? "First, draw a line and say no more death, no more imitation of death, no more duplication of death," she retorts. "Use prisons to incapacitate dangerous criminals (as opposed to the drug, property and consensual-crime offenders we now lock up). Then, get to the soil of society to do the prevention. There is not a will to get to that yet, because that's where the poor and struggling people of society are, and we don't care enough about everybody in society yet." Prejean's voice is neutral, accepting but not resigned. "When politicians talk about their constituents, they are talking for the most part about people of their own class and status. We have not yet embraced justice for all."Does she think we ever will? "Oh, yeah," she answers instantly. "You gotta believe that we can be better than we are." Dignity cuts in all directions.

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