Amy Goodman's latest syndicated column is, "The Catholic nun who changed the US debate on the death penalty forever. Sister Helen Prejean's Dead Man Walking shook American attitudes on capital punishment. And 20 years on, it still inspires." It's via the Guardian.
Thirty years ago, a Catholic nun working in a poor neighborhood of New Orleans was asked if she would be a penpal to a death row prisoner. Sister Helen Prejean agreed, forever changing her life, as well as the debate on capital punishment in the US.
Her experiences inspired her first book, "Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States," which has just been republished on its 20th anniversary. She was a penpal with Patrick Sonnier, a convicted murderer on death row in Louisiana's notorious Angola prison.
"Dead Man Walking: Extended Interview with Sister Helen Prejean on Decades of Death Penalty Activism," is the Democracy Now interview conducted by Amy Goodman and Nermeen Shaikh. There is video at the link.
Here's a brief excerpt from this must-watch, must-read interview:
AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting that Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote the introduction to the new book, which has a new subtitle, Dead Man Walking: The Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty That Sparked a National Debate. And he writes, "As we held our national 'Truth and Reconciliation Commission' hearings and worked to rebuild our country, people around the world were making the same connections about the death penalty—how racist, unfair, and broken it is—and slowly a new global movement for the abolition of the death penalty began." So, you wrote this book 20 years ago. Eighteen states have now banned the death penalty. I think most people don’t realize that of the thousands of murders that take place, far less than 1 percent of those cases is a death penalty imposed. And as you point out—so, when people just say, "Well, of course, if you murder someone, you should be murdered," as you point out, you want to look at who actually gets murdered in that very small—who actually gets the death penalty in that small percentage of cases.
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Yeah, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: So what about the fact that 18 states have banned the death penalty and where it’s going today?
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Yeah. We started seeing in 2001 a trend away from the death penalty, in huge contrast to the 10 Southern states that practiced slavery, that do 80 percent of all the executions in this country, and we just have witnessed in Rick Scott, Florida governor, who said, "We’re going to put the death penalty on a fast track. It’s taking too long." And he has the power to do that as governor. And so, there are 13 people who have exhausted their appeals in the courts that he’s lining up on a fast track to be executed. And I just read that his—that he just got bumped up in terms of support of the people.
We have different cultures in this country. The Deep South states have always been the ones with the toughest penal reform. We are the highest incarcerator in the world, and Louisiana, my state, is the highest incarcerator of everybody. And we’re one of the death penalty states. All the Southern states are. And here’s another constitutional issue. Here’s another thing the court never looks at: the huge disparity of practice that 80 percent of all the worst of the worst people, who are on death row, happen to be in the 10 Southern states that practiced slavery. Whereas, when New York had it, when New Jersey had it, and the states that don’t have it—you know, they did less than 1 percent of all the executions. So the Northeast has been the first states to do away with it.
There is more coverage of Sister Helen's work at the link.