The Death Penalty – An Interview with Sister Helen Prejean (NBS News Rachel Maddow 19 June 2013)

[Source: The Rachel Maddow Show, NBC News, 19 June 2013]

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This is a man named David Keaton. Mr. Keaton is from Florida. He was convicted in 1971 of murdering an off duty sheriff and he was sentenced to death, but he was not executed. He was actually released two years later when the real murderer got convicted. David keaton did not do it.

After the exoneration of David Keaton, the next two death row exonerations in America were also from Florida. Willburt Lee and Freddy Pitts on death row for 12 years but released and pardoned after somebody else confessed. Florida leads the nation in exonerating death row prisoners. Going back and saying we know we’ve been planning to kill you, but now we believe you are innocent. Good thing we didn’t go too fast. Florida is number one in that in the nation.

It’s not just the total number of exonerations that makes Florida so impressive. For every three prisoners florida has killed, Florida has said to another prisoner, actually, we messed up in your case. Three to one. For every three they have killed, they have said to one, we messed up in your case, you are free to go, good thing we didn’t go too fast.

Since the supreme court cleared the way for states to begin executing prisoners again in 1976, Florida governors have been executing prisoners at an average rate of about two a year. That has not been fast enough, though, for Florida’s current governor, Rick Scott. He’s been going twice that fast. Eight times since he took office in January 2011, Governor Scott has given the order to kill a prisoner, and even that is not fast enough for Rick Scott. Last week he signed a bill clearing the way for Florida to kill prisoners even faster. That’s the priority now in his state.

Same deal in North Carolina where the new Republican majority there decided they want to speed up executions in their state as well.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court started allowing states to start killing prisoners again in 1976, it is the state of Texas that killed more people than the next several states combined. In Texas, they are on the verge of executing their 500th prisoner. That is expected to be next week. So in the bright red states in our country, that is the situation wheith killing prisoners right now.

In the rest of the country, things look different right now. In Maryland the democratic majority legislature there this year voted to repeal capital punishment. Governor Martin O’Malley signed that into law last month. When Maryland banned that practice of killing prisoners, it joined New York and New Jersey and New Mexico and Illinois and Connecticut to make six states that have all banned capital punishment just in the past six years.

Overall, capital punishment is banned in 18 American states. Nebraska came close to banning it last month. So did Delaware, where a ban passed the state Senate this spring before it failed in the House.

In march in Colorado, very interesting situation there, there was a bill to ban capital punishment moving in Colorado, but it failed in House committee once Governor John Hickenlooper signaled he might veto that bill. That means that Governor Hickenlooper will not stop Colorado from having a system to execute prisoners, but he also says that he does not want to participate in it, himself. In May, Governor Hickenlooper issued a temporary reprieve for a prisoner who was scheduled to die this summer. The governor said the state did not have the drugs on hand to carry out a death sentence. He said the death penalty does not make the world a safer or better place, and in any case, he said, this prisoner’s death would weigh on his personal conscience. So Governor Hickenlooper banned that specific execution at least while he is in office, but the system, itself, is still in place. Thanks in part to him leaving it there.

We have a weird relationship with the death penalty in this country. Some states trying to speed it up, others getting rid of it, some debating which way to go. Some Governors going both ways at once. We have a weird relationship with choosing to kill people who are already imprisoned. We have a weird relationship with the whole idea of a dead man walking. A prisoner confined and contained, living nevertheless with a scheduled date at which the state government will kill them. 20 years ago this year, Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun from Louisiana published her account of serving as a spiritual adviser to a man. That book, “Dead Man Walking,” became a famous movie of the same name starring Sean Penn as the prisoner and Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen.

(Susan Sarandon speaking) The story of “Dead Man Walking” starts off and it was very important that it started off with just a little visit, and then little by little she gets more and more involved and she kind of had all these doubts, and that’s what I really liked about her was that she didn’t go into the whole situation a hero. She just got sucked in deeper and deeper and deeper, and the more she knew, the more she got involved.

(Dialog from the movie beginning with ‘Sister Helen’)

You’re a fool. You are making it so easy for them to kill you. Coming across as some kind of a crazed animal nazi racist mad dog who serves to die.

Is that what you think?

You’re making it so difficult to help you.

You can leave.

I’m not going to do that. it’s up to you. you want me to go, you say so.

(Susan Sarandon speaking)

I remember when we had the first edit and we invited her to see it and I thought, oh my god, this is going to be so hard for her and I was kind of worried about her emotionally and to have to go through that again. When it was over, I said, are you all right? She said, actually doing it was much harder. I thought, oh, duh me, this is only a movie.

Rachel Maddow (RM): Joining us now for the interview tonight is Sister Helen of the Congregation of St. Joseph. She’s a leading American advocate for abolishing the death penalty. She’s the author of “Dead Man Walking” which is out 20 years ago now. Sister Helen, thanks for being here.

Sister Helen (SH): Great. I looked over my shoulder, it was 20 years.

RM: Yeah. How did that happen?

SH: how did that happen?

RM: 20 years of this advocacy and activism. seeing the way that things have changed, do you feel like you have a long view now of what works and what doesn’t in trying to get people to see this issue your way?

SH: You know what I’ve come to see is you bring them into the story. The American people are not wedded to the death penalty. They just never think about it. The minute you can bring them into reflection, the book does that, the film did that. then Tim Robbins has written a play for high school and college students to do, where they get — they take all the parts. They’re the guard. They’re the victim’s family. They’re the mother of the death row inmate. They’re the governor. They’re everybody, and they go into a deeper reflection. What you have to do in a story, and what I’ll do with all the audiences, I do a lot of speaking, is you bring people over to both sides. Let’s look at this terrible crime. We’re outraged over the crime. Look at this. That person deserves to die. Is that what justice means from — you bring them over from the victim’s suffering, and you bring him over to the other side. The guards who have to do the killing. In “Dead Man Walking” I talk about the guards. Nobody thinks about the guards, but they’re just regular guys, and they’re told, ‘Tonight, part of your job is you take that person out of their cell and you take them out and kill them.’ You just hope to God the guy goes peacefully. You’ve had situations where the guy fights them all the way and you’re looking at a guard and you’re just saying, ‘Don’t kill me, don’t kill me,’ and they know they’re killing somebody who’s defenseless. Everybody. It cost everybody. We have to move this thing out of this country. We have to change this thing.

RM: I have been thinking about the way that you have told those stories. In “Dead Man Walking” and your activism over the years, thinking about the Governor Hickenlooper story in Colorado, because he has effectively, politically intervened to keep the system in place, but he is obviously tormented in a way. That I take very seriously about him not wanting to be one of the cogs in that machine.

SH: Absolutely.

RM: The machine will stay, but he won’t play a part in it. He’s going to leave the machine there. He doesn’t want to be one of those guards.

SH: Actually when I’m talking to audiences, I take them there. I’m honest on both sides. I bring them into the pain on both sides. I say to them, so if you believe in the death penalty and that it ought to happen, that justice demands it, could you do it? Could you do it? If there’s a part of you that goes, ‘well, I don’t know if I could do it,’ I say there’s a part of your moral conscience that has not said yes to the death penalty. And so reflection is is what it’s all about. I just came from Oxford University. I come from England. They say, ‘What is it about the american people? Why are you so people so vengeful? You’re holding on to the death penalty.’ I say, we’re not holding on to the death penalty. We don’t think about it. Anything that causes reflection, like your show where you get your facts and you help people think. The arts. Film. Books. I didn’t know the power of a book when I wrote “Dead Man Walking.” I’d never written a book before. You know, I’m from the south. Talking is what we do. But i mean, reading books. Okay. But it’s an intimate experience, and people, they don’t have to debate. They get new information. But they’re also using their own imagination to go to some deep places, and it’s very intimate and almost everybody comes out not the same on the other end of the book. So I believe in the book and the good work that it’s doing. And the film really captured that ambivalence, too. Like Tim said, we’re not going to do propaganda, and we’re going to shingle in 400 arguments to get people against the death penalty. We’re going to bring them over to both sides and leave them there.

RM: When you talk about getting people to reflection and getting people to a places where we can use a part of our mind and our soul that we wouldn’t necessarily use, even in artistic context, is this religious practice? You are obviously a Catholic Nun. You’re devoted to the Catholic Church. This activism a form of religious practice and getting people to reflect that way?

SH: Absolutely it is. What is the deepest spiritual part of all of us? Religious practice or spiritual practice. okay? what’s the heart of all the traditions? Is that everybody is my brother and my sister, and i cannot turn a switch and say you are not human like the rest of us and we can kill you. it is deeply spiritual. It’s about the soul of all of us, and I think, you of the American people over these years. I talk to everybody. I talk in synagogues. I talk in universities. I talk in civic clubs. I talk all over. And it’s once you can get people to be able to identify that the human being who did that outrageous act is more than that one act in their life, but it’s a journey to get there. You can’t do it through preaching at people. You can’t do it from, you know, just pure argument. You have to do it through story, and people are open and people say, let me tell you what happened to me. Like Susan was talking about the film. That was “Against All Odds.” I did that film. Every hollywood studio turned down that film. They never dreamed it could be a box office success. And I tease Susan because she cried when she saw herself in the dailies, because, you know, not much makeup. It’s her first nun thing. She goes, I don’t want to look at the dailies. On the night of the academy awards, I said look at that, Susan, your spiritual essence came out. They’re for good people. But every hollywood studio said, well, you got no romantic interest. Let us spice it up between the nun and the death row inmate then we’ll have us a movie. Tim is saying no, no, no, that’s not what this film is about. It’s a journey, we’re going to bring people deeper into the reflection on the death penalty. After “Dead Man Walking” came out, notice how movies changed in the United States. They all were deeper. “Dancing in the Dark.” “Green mile.” All of them were deeper. Before the formula movie was, is he guilty or not? Yeah, he did it. Justice is done. In with the execution. End of film and end of reflection. “Dead Man Walking” left you there looking at bodies. Now the victim’s here, the guy on the gurney here, where are we, what have we accomplished?

RM: Showing and not telling in a way that lets people tell, themselves.

SH: Yeah, I learned that little journalistic principle before I wrote  “Dead Man Walking.” You show, you don’t tell. As Tim said, you don’t insult the intelligence. You don’t have to preach at them.

RM: Sister Helen Prejean, advocate for the abolition of the death penalty. Author of “Dead Man Walking.” It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years. I’ve learned so learned so much from your career and talking to you.

SH: Thank you, I have learned from you, too. You do good work.

RM: Thank you.


Disclaimer. The Johnson County Justice Center website is an educational resource supported by a broad range of county residents with diverse political views. For this reason, a conscientious effort is made to avoid news sources and commentators that might be politically polarizing. Rachel Maddow is an example of a reporter who is recognized as generally being liberal and favoring Democratic positions and views. The purpose for offering the above video is to provide essential information about social trends and opinions regarding the death penalty.


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