A Lottery for the Poor
Reviewed by John Cole Vodicka
Vol. 16, No. 1, 1994, pp. 20-21
Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States, by Sister Helen Prejean (Random House, 1993, 278 pages).
Not long ago I heard Danny Lyon, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee photographer who chronicled much of the Southern civil rights movement in the early 1960s, describe his photographs of that era as “pictures that force us to remember, force us to confront and grapple with” an issue or event that we might otherwise choose to ignore or forget.
Lyon’s pictures—of police dogs and white men assaulting African Americans on the streets of Birmingham, of dozens of teenage African American girls peering through the bars of their crammed Lee County, Georgia jail cell, of the “white” and “colored” drinking fountains on either side of the Coke machine—are pictures that starkly reveal the inhumanity and brutality of segregation, photographs seen by millions of people to whom the civil rights movement was otherwise little more than an abstraction.
Now, a Catholic nun from south Louisiana has written a riveting book that offers a close-up, often wrenching view of another real-life subject that is too often debated in the abstract: the death penalty. The book is Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States, and its author, Sister Helen Prejean, constructs a persuasive, first-person, moral and practical argument against the death penalty. It is a powerful testimony to the destructiveness of our system of punishment. And more importantly, it is a narrative that describes the death penalty in very human terms, a book that helps us all get to know the names and faces of those caught up in the macabre process we call capital punishment.
Her journey begins ten years ago in a New Orleans housing project where Prejean worked, taught, and walked with the poor. It carries us through the executions of two Louisiana death row prisoners whom she befriends and whose lives she fights to save. Along the way, we are introduced not only to these prisoners but also to the condemned inmates’ families, the families of the murder victims, prison officials and guards, chaplains and church leaders, lawyers, elected officials (“Politicians feel like they’ve got to get a little blood on their hands in order to be re-elected,” Prejean says), pardon board members, and witnesses to the executions.
As we get to know these people, as we hear them agonize or make excuses about their place or role in the death penalty process, we see clearly that state-sanctioned killing is a brutalization that mars each of their lives, and indeed, mars our lives as well.
Woven into Prejean’s account are the sobering facts about the death penalty: that it is a lottery which affects primarily the poor, the luckless, and people of color; that nearly three-fourths of those sentenced to die are there because their victim was a white person; that most defendants were improperly represented by trial lawyers and some awaiting execution have no attorney at all; that it costs more money to execute someone than it does to keep that same person in prison for life; that there are innocent men and women executed; that the system usually ignores or exacerbates the many needs of a murder victim’s family.
Over and over Prejean tells us that until we face these harsh facts and come to know the issue in human terms, we are not entitled to have an opinion on capital punishment and call it just.
“By choosing to kill,” Prejean writes, “Americans diminish themselves financially, socially and spiritually.” We legitimize retaliation as the way to deal with conflict, and we all pay a price when we allow state killing to be carried out in our names. In this sense the death penalty means cruel and unusual punishment not only for the condemned prisoner but for the innocent as well, for all of us. The picture Prejean lays before us shows that the death penalty only allows us to extend the pain, to continue to blame one another, to turn against one another, to hate better.
“To understand the death penalty,” Prejean explains, “is to come to understand three of the most important, deepest wounds in this society. And that’s racism—white life is much more prized than black life in this country; the assault on the poor, the separation from them; and that it’s okay to use violence to try to solve problems.”
Dead Man Walking, which at its most basic is the account of a middle class white nun’s relationship with two condemned Louisiana prisoners, is a remarkable story of a courageous, committed, and compassionate woman of great faith who allows not only murderers into her life, but also most of the other actors who must participate in the grisly business that is the death penalty. As Prejean walks with Pat Sonnier and Robert Willie to the electric chair at the Angola Penitentiary, she reaches out to their victims’ families, prison officials, and others—many of whom despise her views on capital punishment. She has an amazing capacity to listen to her adversaries, to engage them in dialogue and debate, and to embrace them as fellow human beings struggling for recognition, an explanation, and justice.
Twenty-two years ago, writing in Furman v. Georgia, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall argued that “informed public opinion” about the death penalty was anything but informed “ [sic] …the American people are largely unaware of the information critical to a judgment on the morality of the death penalty… if they were better informed they would consider it shocking, unjust and unacceptable.”
“Perilously close to simple murder,” is how recent convert, justice Harry Blackmun, the lone—and departing—death penalty opponent on the Supreme Court, characterized the 1993 execution of Leonel Herrera.
Sister Helen Prejean believes deeply that capital punishment shocking, unjust, and unacceptable and says it is her ambition to turn public opinion against the death penalty.
Dead Man Walking is a testimony to what one person can do affect change, to reshape the debate on an issue that tests the moral fiber of our society. Her book, though painful and difficult to read, ultimately reinforces the value and sanctity of human life.
Dead Man Walking challenges the reader, forcing she or he to confront and grapple with an issue that, after reading Sister Helen Prejean’s story, remains in the abstract no longer.
John Cole Vodicka directs the Prison and Jail Project for Koinonia Partners in Americus, Georgia. He has actively been involved against the death penalty for more than twenty years.