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Saturday, November 22, 1997

Sister Helen Prejean: pen-pal to the condemned


The Financial Times

NEW ORLEANS - You know you've got problems when your mailbag starts to contain correspondence from Sister Helen Prejean. For the past five years, the campaigning nun with the taut literary style and the Cajun drawl has been pen-pals with prisoners on death row across the United States.

"I take one person at a time," she says enthusiastically. "I'm accompanying a man now in Louisiana. He's my fifth one."

It hardly seems polite to ask what happened to the previous four. But it isn't really necessary.

In remarkably short order, Sister Helen Prejean has become the most effective crusader in the U.S. against the death penalty. She has played a lonely but successful role in keeping alive debate on what for most politicians is a closed subject.

Her grim register of pen-pals is one element in an energetic campaign that takes her to death row, to visit the inmates, to leafy university campuses and dusty church halls, where she describes the horrors of the chair and lethal injection, and to Washington to do battle with her opponents in Congress.

It has also won her international recognition - so far this year she has delivered speeches in Ireland, Italy and Japan, a country that executes criminals with even greater alacrity than the U.S. There is whispered talk of her as a potential nominee for next year's Nobel Peace Prize.

Her passionate denunciation of the grisly process (which she has witnessed herself) is both emotionally and rationally powerful. "I've gone with four people to executions - three in the electric chair here in Louisiana. When you watch it, this scripted death, you experience it as a profound act of despair. It degrades us, demeans us as a people."

Undeniably persuasive though she is, she acknowledges that her crusade would never have escaped the pages of the social policy press had it not been for the movie "Dead Man Walking." The Oscar-winning film of Sister Helen's book was a remarkable box office success.

Directed by Tim Robbins and starring Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen, it told the story of the nun's death row friend Robert Willie, executed in 1986 for the murder of a teenage couple in Louisiana. It gave Sister Helen what any American cause needs these days - Hollywood validation.

Sister Helen was initially doubtful of the merits of putting her story on celluloid. "I was a bit concerned when I first heard they wanted to do a movie. Hollywood has something of a reputation for trivializing nuns," she says.

But she was impressed by the passion of the Robbins-Sarandon team and realized they shared her vision of what should be the film's basic thrust.

A shabby house on the wrong side of the streetcar tracks in New Orleans, "Hope House" is a haven of Christian help and monetary salvation in the Crescent City, and Sister Helen's home base, where she has worked on and off for 20 years with other sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille.

Against the familiar grimy backdrop of urban poverty - drug sellers and gunfire on the streets, deprived and abused children in the homes, half the young men dead or in jail - it becomes clear that the origins of Sister Helen's compassion for the condemned stem from her attitude towards social as much as criminal justice.

"Part of the soil that leads to the death penalty is what's happening in these projects right here. People live out the death penalty here, too, even if they don't go to death row, because you've got no healthcare, you're forced to live in a place where your children are shot on the streets. You've got no choice."

She points out that the majority of prisoners on death row are blacks sent there by all-white juries. Black juries don't vote for the death penalty, she says.

But she is clearly conscious that this compassion for the poor, criminal class can be misconstrued as lack of compassion for the victims. She has helped establish charities that provide psychological and religious support and other help to the families of victims of violent crime.

Earlier this year she won a surprising ally in her struggle - the Pope. Her greatest adversary in Louisiana is Harry Connick, district attorney for New Orleans. Connick is a Catholic; a prosecutor with a penchant for quoting St. Thomas Aquinas in his pleas for capital punishment for his victims.

The Aquinas doctrine of the just war has been the basis of Catholic teaching on the death penalty for centuries. If society feels that the taking of life is necessary to preserve its existence, it may do so, provided strict conditions are met.

Troubled by what she saw as the exploitation of St. Thomas, Sister Helen wrote to the pope, telling him the death penalty was being justified in terms of strict Catholic ideology. She was not encouraged by the immediate reply. But earlier this year, to her astonishment, the Vatican issued its revised catechism, which had a much harsher wording on the death penalty. An important line, which said the death penalty could morally be held in reserve for cases of extreme gravity, had been removed.

Sister Helen says Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the pope's principal thinker on church doctrine, was disturbed that Catholic prosecutors were using the catechism for their campaign. "Cardinal Ratzinger said in his press conference that, in effect, he could not see how Catholics could defend the death penalty any more, because there are such severe criteria for its use."

Shifting the Vatican from centuries of canon law must seem like small beer compared with the task of changing U.S. public opinion and the votes of members of Congress and the Supreme Court.

As early as next year, the U.S. will start to see a tidal wave of executions. A large number of death row appeals that have dragged on for years will run out of time, says Sister Helen, and the number of executions will escalate sharply.

The problem, she acknowledges, is that executions have become a political touchstone. Support for capital punishment regularly runs at more than 70 percent in opinion polls, and even otherwise liberal politicians are disinclined to oppose it.

Sister Helen contemptuously recalls how Bill Clinton used the issue to political advantage while governor of Arkansas in 1992. In the course of his election campaign, he made a point of returning to Arkansas to authorize, and officiate at, the execution of a lobotomized death row inmate.

Does she have any chance of changing minds in the current political climate? Sister Helen is, as ever, remarkably upbeat. She is pinning her hopes on the rest of the world, believing the U.S. can be shamed into realizing it is one of the last few supposedly civilized countries that still kills its citizens.

"As we become more international, Americans are going to be increasingly accosted by diplomats, church people and others about the death penalty. It's going to become more and more uncomfortable for us."

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)

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