If the movement to ban capital punishment in the United States has a face, it is that of Sister Helen Prejean, a Roman Catholic nun from New Orleans. Since the early 1980s, she has ministered to many death row inmates and witnessed several executions. She has written two books, The Death of Innocents: an Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions and Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States, which served as the basis for a feature film.
Prejean will be in Birmingham next week to give a lecture titled “Questioning the Death Penalty.” She will deliver the second annual Bishop’s Faith and Ethics Lecture at Birmingham-Southern College on Monday, March 31, at 4 p.m., and will speak at Highlands United Methodist Church in Five Points South at 7 p.m. Both events are free and open to the public.
Prejean regularly challenges people in faith communities to seek the abolishment of capital punishment and to focus on healing and forgiveness. She argues that the use of the death penalty is unjust because race and class often play a role in who is sentenced to death.
According to Reggie Holder, director of ministries at Highlands United Methodist, Prejean is also known for helping the families of victims of violent crimes to heal.
“She is firmly involved in being in contact with the victim’s family,” Holder says. “And it’s painful. It’s hard work. The business of reconciliation and forgiveness and not responding in-kind to violence is hard work. We don’t like to dig that deep. We want it to be easier.”
Prejean’s visit was arranged by a small but dedicated group of people at Highlands Church who are opposed to capital punishment and are working to increase public awareness of the issue in Alabama. The group includes Holder and church member Bill Clark, a criminal defense attorney. It was Clark, Holder says, who suggested a few years ago that they have Prejean speak. According to Holder, several other local faith organizations and social groups helped, in some cases financially, to make her visit possible.
“Bill’s feeling and my feeling and that of our little group that has worked to bring her here, is that this is an issue that a lot of people have not given a lot of thought to, that it’s really sort of the status quo, particularly for our legal system, and that people of good conscience and good faith, when they study it a little bit, begin to see some of the inadequacies of the system,” Holder says. “Our goal is to bring her here and begin some public discourse about the fact that Alabama has the highest per capita rate of executions of any state.”
Perhaps the group’s most important objective is to convince the state of Alabama to reconsider its use of capital punishment.
“A number of states have called for a moratorium of the death penalty,” Holder says. “Some members of the legal community in Alabama have called for that, and again that’s a part of that conversation to say ‘Let’s just slow down enough to look at this.’”
According to Holder, Clark, who is a former president of the state bar association, has been very active in this effort. Holder also points out that Senator Hank Sanders from Selma has regularly introduced bills in the Alabama Legislature seeking to declare a moratorium on the death penalty.
And like Prejean, Holder is troubled by the ways in which race and class seem to influence the way in which death sentences are meted out.
“The death penalty is practiced mostly in Deep South, former slave-holding states,” he says. “It’s a new sort of institutional racism, and most of us don’t think about that, until you look at the numbers.” In regard to those numbers, Holder refers interested persons to the web site of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery (www.eji.org).
Holder points out that the United States is one of the few nations that still practice capital punishment. “If you look at the nations that do, it’s not company that I think we’re proud to be in,” he says. “It’s Middle Eastern countries that we have some problems with, and China. Even Russia no longer practices capital punishment. No European countries.”
In addition to Highlands Church and Birmingham-Southern, the other sponsors of Prejean’s appearance are the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church, Urban Ministry, Inc., Temple Emanuel, Canterbury United Methodist Church, Birmingham Islamic Community, Beloved Community, Project Hope, St. Mark Catholic Church and Prince of Peace Catholic Church.