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Editor’s Note: Earlier this week, California voters defeated Prop. 34, an initiative that would have repealed the death penalty in the state.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.

Page 1 of 1


User Comments

JCF on Nov 11, 2012 at 00:08:59 said:

[Wow, Hang-Em-High trolls on this thread!]

I genuinely feel for survivors (victims and families) of violent crimes, including murder. I understand the desire for revenge must be OVERWHELMING.

But that doesn't change the reality that the death penalty is barbaric, INHERENTLY prone to unjust abuse (of the innocent, of the insane, of the poor, of the racially-discriminated against). It is not necessary to protect us from violence (that's what "Life Without Parole" is for).

Civilized societies have abolished it. One day (GODSPEED!) California and the rest of the United States will, too.

God bless you, Sr Helen, for your work. It WILL bear fruit, in God's Good Time.

Dudley Sharp on Nov 10, 2012 at 11:17:25 said:

Sister Prejean has no clue.

PROP. 34: The Truth Will Kill It . . . and it did
Dudley Sharp

An honest discussion about Prop 34 would result in its overwhelming defeat.


Are the cost claims made by the pro Prop 34 folks reliable (1)? No.

The ACLU cost review was easily destroyed (1) and Mitchell and Alarcon, of the $4 billion study infamy, refuse to share their database (1), which we can presume has problems and, therefore, no one can, responsibly, depend upon that review.

Is it possibly that life without parole (LWOP) may cost more than the death penalty? Yes (1).

Is it required that California citizens allow their representatives to be so irresponsible with both their state budget and death penalty management? Of course not.

Virginia has executed 75% of those sentenced to death and has done so within 7.1 years, on average.

All states, inclusive of California, could implement similar protocols and save money over LWOP.


Is it true that innocents are better protected by a death penalty protocol? Yes, in three different ways (2). Innocents are more at risk without the death penalty (2).


Ask the media (or insert any industry) this question.

How principled are you?

If you had a group of corrupt people, who only wanted to shut down the media, by sabotaging the media, would you say, OK, shut down all media?

Or would you say, let's clean it up, get you bad folks out of the picture, and make it work?

A vote for Prop 34 is a vote for folks who have intentionally obstructed justice in these cases, meaning anti death penalty legislators, the defense bar and judges who have made the death penalty so irresponsible and who are the same folks telling us to reward them by giving them what they have been working for, based upon the horrible system they have engineered.

A better idea.

How about demanding a responsible system, such as Virginia's, whereby 75% of those sentenced to death have been executed within 7.1 years, on average - a system similar to what Ca should have, if responsible folks were in charge.

Calif has executed 1.4% of those sentenced because such mismanagement is what such obstructionists (read Prop 34) had in mind.


In addition, 80% of US folks support the death penalty for, truly, "death penalty eligible" murders (3), just as from 56% to 83% have also supported the death penalty when, wrongly, asked about their approval for the death penalty for murders, for which about 90% are not death penalty eligible (3).

1) a) California Death Penalty Cost "Studies"

b) Judicial Watch Issues Report on California End the Death Penalty Ballot Initiative

c) Fiscal expert debunks cost savings argument of Prop 34

2) a) The Death Penalty: Saving More Innocent Lives

b) Innocents More At Risk Without Death Penalty

3) US Death Penalty Support at 80%; World Support Remains High

Dudley Sharp on Nov 10, 2012 at 11:04:32 said:

Sister Helen Prejean: A Critical Review
Dudley Sharp


Did she consider the mental suffering of a parent who lost their innocent daughter to a rape/murder or, possibly, the mental (and physical) suffering of that girl, as she was being raped and murdered?

Of course she considered it and she made her choice - the murderer.

" . . .makes you realize the Dead Man Walking truly belongs on the shelf in the library in the Fiction category."

"Being devout Catholics, 'the norm' would be to look to the church for support and healing. Again, this need for spiritual stability was stolen by Sister Prejean." (2)

The parents of rape/torture/murder victim Loretta Bourque, a Dead Man Walking Case

"I wouldn't have had as much trouble with (Prejean's) views if she would have told the truth . . ." " . . . (Sr. Prejean) based her book on what was in I guess a defense file and what (rapist/murderer) Robert Willie telling her." " . . . she's trying to mislead people in the book. And that's something that she's going have to work out with herself." "(Sr. Prejean's) certainly not after giving anybody spiritual advice to try to save their soul." (2)

Case Detective Michael Vernado, in the rape/torture/murder of Faith Hathaway, a Dead Man Walking Case

Book Review: "Sister Prejean's Lack of Credibility: Review of "The Death of Innocents", by Thomas M. McKenna (New Oxford Review, 12/05). www(DOT)

"The book is moreover riddled with factual errors and misrepresentations."

"Williams had confessed to repeatedly stabbing his victim, Sonya Knippers."

"This DNA test was performed by an independent lab in Dallas, which concluded that there was a one in nearly four billion chance that the blood could have been someone's other than Williams's."

" . . . despite repeated claims that (Prejean) cares about crime victims, implies that the victim's husband was a more likely suspect but was overlooked because the authorities wanted to convict a black man."

" . . . a Federal District Court . . . stated that 'the evidence against Williams was overwhelming.' " "The same court also did "not find any evidence of racial bias specific to this case."

(1) Prejean: Death penalty is torture, online, October 1, 2012,

(2) "Sister Helen Prejean & the death penalty: A Critical Review"

The Death Penalty: Justice & Saving More Innocents
Dudley Sharp

The death penalty has a foundation in justice and it spares more innocent lives.

Anti death penalty arguments are either false or the pro death penalty arguments are stronger.

The majority populations of all countries may support the death penalty for some crimes (1).

Why? Justice.


Of all endeavors that put innocents at risk, is there one with a better record of sparing innocent lives than the US death penalty? Unlikely.

1) The Death Penalty: Saving More Innocent Lives

2) Innocents More At Risk Without Death Penalty


1) Saint (& Pope) Pius V: "The just use of (executions), far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this (Fifth) Commandment which prohibits murder." "The Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent" (1566).

2) Pope Pius XII; "When it is a question of the execution of a man condemned to death it is then reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned of the benefit of life, in expiation of his fault, when already, by his fault, he has dispossessed himself of the right to live." 9/14/52.

3) John Murray: "Nothing shows the moral bankruptcy of a people or of a generation more than disregard for the sanctity of human life."

"... it is this same atrophy of moral fiber that appears in the plea for the abolition of the death penalty."

"It is the sanctity of life that validates the death penalty for the crime of murder. It is the sense of this sanctity that constrains the demand for the infliction of this penalty. The deeper our regard for life the firmer will be our hold upon the penal sanction which the violation of that sanctity merit." (Page 122 of Principles of Conduct).

4) Immanuel Kant: "If an offender has committed murder, he must die. In this case, no possible substitute can satisfy justice. For there is no parallel between death and even the most miserable life, so that there is no equality of crime and retribution unless the perpetrator is judicially put to death.".

"A society that is not willing to demand a life of somebody who has taken somebody else's life is simply immoral."

5) Billy Graham: "God will not tolerate sin. He condemns it and demands payment for it. God could not remain a righteous God and compromise with sin. His holiness and His justice demand the death penalty." ( "The Power of the Cross," published in the Apr. 2007 issue of Decision magazine ).

6) Theodore Roosevelt: "It was really heartrending to have to see the kinfolk and friends of murderers who were condemned to death, and among the very rare occasions when anything governmental or official caused me to lose sleep were times when I had to listen to some poor mother making a plea for a criminal so wicked, so utterly brutal and depraved, that it would have been a crime on my part to remit his punishment.".

7) Jean-Jacques Rousseau: "Again, every rogue who criminously attacks social rights becomes, by his wrong, a rebel and a traitor to his fatherland. By contravening its laws, he ceases to be one of its citizens: he even wages war against it. In such circumstances, the State and he cannot both be saved: one or the other must perish. In killing the criminal, we destroy not so much a citizen as an enemy. The trial and judgments are proofs that he has broken the Social Contract, and so is no longer a member of the State." (The Social Contract).

8) John Locke: "A criminal who, having renounced reason... hath, by the unjust violence and slaughter he hath committed upon one, declared war against all mankind, and therefore may be destroyed as a lion or tyger, one of those wild savage beasts with whom men can have no society nor security." And upon this is grounded the great law of Nature, "Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed." Second Treatise of Civil Government.

"Moral/ethical Death Penalty Support: Christian and secular Scholars"

"The Death Penalty: Neither Hatred nor Revenge"

"The Death Penalty: Not a Human Rights Violation"

"Killing Equals Killing: The Amoral Confusion of Death Penalty Opponents"

1) US Death Penalty Support at 80%; World Support Remains High(COLON)//

Much more, upon request.

Paula on Nov 10, 2012 at 04:17:25 said:

Sister Helen knows not what she speaks and is LIAR. ONLY 17 states don't have the DP in the United States Thirty-three still have it on the books, even if they are not using it. . And Texas has executed about a half dozen DR inmates so far this year alone. Where does she get her "facts" from? The woman is crazy, I wonder how she would like it if someone killed one of her loved ones? She lies all the time about the DP and the "innocence" of its inhabitants.

Paula on Nov 10, 2012 at 04:08:58 said:

Sister Helen knows not what she speaks and is LIAR. ONLY 17 states don't have the DP in the United States Thirty-three still have it on the books, even if they are not using it. . And Texas has executed about a half dozen DR inmates so far this year alone. Where does she get her "facts" from. The woman is crazy, I wonder how she would like it if someone killed one of her loved ones. She lies all the time about the DP and the "innocence" of its inhabitants.




Just Posted

NAM Coverage

Civil Liberties

Why There Are Words

Aug 10, 2011


Advertisements on our website do not necessarily reflect the views or mission of New America Media, our affiliates or our funders.