Prejean: Death penalty is torture

WHEELING – To some, the death penalty may seem like a fitting end, a just end, for an unforgivable crime and an immoral life.

The further away you are from the execution, the easier it is to have this opinion.

That’s not the case for Sister Helen Prejean, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph order of nuns, author of Dead Man Walking and nationally-recognized activist against the practice of legal executions.

To Prejean, the practice of the death penalty is nothing more than sanctioned homicide and torture.

“I hope one day we’ll come to the understanding that the death penalty, by its very nature, is the practice of torture,” Prejean said. “The mental suffering and torture are as real as the physical torture.

“It’s extreme mental and physical assault on someone who is rendered defenseless.”

I don’t think there is any greater suffering, mentally, than for a human being to know that, today is my last Tuesday, my last Wednesday you anticipate and can’t help but go there in your imagination.

“You die 1,000 times before you actually die.”

Prejean was in town recently to give a pair of lectures on capital punishment, one at Wheeling Jesuit University and the other the following day at Mt. St. Joseph’s Chapel in Wheeling.

Prejean began her prison ministry in 1981 after writing back and forth with death-row inmate Elmo Patrick Sonnier in Louisiana, she was asked to be his spiritual adviser.

Sonnier was convicted for the 1977 rape and murder of Loretta Ann Borque, 18, and murder of David LeBlanc, 16.

Sonnier waited nearly six years from the date of his conviction, April 25, 1978, until his execution date, April 5, 1984.

According to Prejean, the wait for most inmates on death row is substantially longer.

“Every night you have the same nightmare, the guards are coming for me. You kick, you scream and then you wake up and it’s not your time,” Prejean said. “The average wait time in California is 20 years on death row, most places, it’s 14.”

I n her experiences with death row inmates and executions, Prejean fully believes justice is seldom served, not for the accused and not for the victims or their families.

The familes are asked to wait years, often decades, for “justice.”

Every time there is a new trial or appeal, the family gets carted outback in front of the public to answer questions about how they feel. Every time that happens, they must revisit the crime and be reminded on that empty chair sitting in their home.

“When New Jersey did away with executions, 62 murder victim’s families testified in favor of abolishing the death penalty,” Prejean said.

“They said ‘Don’t tell us you’ll give us justice and wait 10-15 years for closure to come. We have to deal with the empty chair, to deal spiritually with the fact we have lost a loved one. It re-victimizes us.”

Prejean also explained that, despite all that is happening, when the death penalty is granted, there is another mother sitting in that courtroom, who will have to experience the traumatizing effects of the death of her child.

To illustrate, Prejean tells the story of Lloyd LeBlanc, the father of Sonnier victim David LeBlanc.

During the execution, Sonnier looks at David’s father and asks for his forgiveness LeBlanc nodded his approval.

D espite everything that had happened to his son, his family, LeBlanc would not let hatred consume his heart, his soul, according to Prejean.

“Everyone is telling him, you have to be for the death penalty or it doesn’t look like you loved your boy,” Prejean said. “It’s pure culture. The ultimate loss demands the ultimate punishment.

“But he said that he got into a place where he wanted to pull the switch himself and he didn’t like what was happening to him,who he was becoming.

“They killed his son, but he would not let it kill him. Hated would not overcome him”

Prejean believes that is what forgiveness is at its heart.

“Don’t let your love and integrity be poisoned by the hate or you’ll lose who you are,” she said.

She also talked about a Newsweek story about former Virginia executioner Jerry Givens, who while working for the state division of corrections, saw to the execution of 62 men.

Givens talked about the “executioners high” that he felt after either pulling the switch on the electric chair of initiating the lethal injection process. But he also spoke about how he felt afterward, after he went home at night to sit down in his chair.

He talked about how it felt looking at the death certificate that stated homicide as the cause of death and knowing that he did that.

“He said it was the equivalent to putting a gun in a defenseless person’s face and pulling the trigger,” Prejean said.

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