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Sister Helen Prejean: Prop 34 ‘Tilled the Soil’ of the Anti-Death Penalty Movement

Posted: Nov 10, 2012

Editor’s Note: Earlier this week, California voters defeated Prop. 34, an initiative that would have repealed the death penalty in the state. But Sister Helen Prejean, who wrote “Dead Man Walking,” says the tide may be turning. The longtime opponent of capital punishment spoke with NAM health editor Viji Sundaram by phone from her New Orleans convent.

California has the largest number of prisoners on Death Row -- a total of 722 people -- which is almost two times as many as those in the next largest state, Texas. Prop. 34, the initiative to repeal the death penalty, was backed by high-profile individuals, from Bill O'Reilly to Alec Baldwin. Yet, it went down in defeat, with 52.7 percent of voters rejecting it. Do you see the defeat as the end of the struggle to end capital punishment in California?

It was very close, and [it was] the first all-out initiative to end capital punishment. But think of the millions of people who were educated by it. It tilled the soil. In three years, opponents will be ready to push for a ban again.

You yourself did your share in tilling the soil by coming to California in early October and stumping for Prop. 34.

Yes, I hit a lot of cities and Catholic churches. You know, the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops has been advocating for years for the abolition of the death penalty, and a Catholic campaign has been set up to end the death penalty.

Catholics are pro-life, but that term has now been extended to include a respect for all life, including those on Death Row. I pointed out to Pope John Paul II in a letter I wrote to him in 1997 that Catholicism talks about the inviolable dignity of every life. I asked how the Catholic Church could uphold the dignity of the innocent and not that of the guilty.

During the pope’s visit to the United States in 1999, he called the abolition of the death penalty an “authentically pro-life position,” likening it to the abolition of abortion, euthanasia and patient-assisted suicide. And Roger Cardinal Mahony, Archbishop of Los Angeles, said Catholic bishops backed Prop. 34. That’s what I call action.

Do you agree with the financial argument against the death penalty made by Prop 34 proponents, that the state can’t afford to house Death Row inmates, given how much it costs for the appeals process?

When it comes to housing Death Row inmates, taxpayers are paying for both sides – the prosecution and the defense. We’re spending millions to put people on Death Row. California has spent $4 billion since capital punishment resumed in 1977. And only 13 inmates have been put to death in that time. The death sentence costs California an additional $184 million a year above and beyond what it would be spending were all its inmates transferred to life without parole, the alternative put forward by Prop. 34.

States that still have the death penalty should put all those billions spent in housing Death Row inmates into law enforcement and solve unsolved crimes.

There were reports that Death Row inmates themselves actually opposed Prop 34 because it diminished their chances to appeal their cases.

It's understandable that some Death Row inmates would not want capital punishment to be abolished because when you get a death sentence you get special lawyers appointed to you to have your constitutional rights provided. The Supreme Court has said getting a death sentence is different and special care needs to be given. California [embraces] that idea.

But in the Deep South, lawyers are not automatically assigned to Death Row inmates. They need to get pro-bono attorneys to take on their case.

Why do you think there is still so much opposition to ending capital punishment?

Currently, 34 states have repealed the death penalty through their legislatures, including five in the last five years. There is a diminishing of the practice – even in Texas [considered ground zero for capital punishment]. There, there have been only two or three executions in as many years. Most people do not want to kill their fellow citizens.

Having the death penalty has very little to do with crime and criminal justice. It’s about politics. Prosecutors score political points for showing they’re tough on crime. They’ve put all those people on Death Row knowing fully well they won’t be executed.

And the most common reason why a person ends up on Death Row is because of “prosecutorial misconduct” [illegal or inappropriate behavior of a prosecutor, such as withholding evidence].

The death penalty is about us as a society. [Martin Luther King, Jr.] used to point out that the budget is a moral document because all that money spent on killing a few people is not being spent on law enforcement.

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