An eye for an eye: The death penalty

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By Joan Irene Krohn

The late Pope John Paul II had repeatedly called for the abolition of the state-administered death penalty. His voice along with many other voices was heard in Europe, and the EU abolished the death penalty. In 2005, during Holy Week, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops called for the abolition of the death penalty, and the group initiated a national campaign to educate Catholics on this issue.

Sister Helen Prejean, the author of “Dead Man Walking: an Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty,” is the death-penalty abolitionist that Pope John Paul could have prayed for. “Dead Man Walking” was adapted into an Oscar-nominated movie in l995 by director, Tim Robbins. An opera version of the book opened at the San Francisco Opera in October 2000.

Sister Prejean will be speaking at the Kluge Auditorium at the United World College at 7 p.m. Friday. The lecture is free and open to the public.

As a nun serving the poor population of New Orleans, Sister Helen Prejean began her prison ministry in 1981. She began writing to a man convicted of murdering two teenagers, and she served as his spiritual adviser. This experience led to writing “Dead Man Walking” and to her crusade to end the death penalty. Sister Helen Prejean has witnessed five executions in Louisiana, and today educates Catholics and the public about the realities of the death penalty.

She is also a great supporter of the victim’s family and is the founder of a victim’s advocacy in New Orleans called “Survive.” Sister Helen has been the subject of numerous media stories and reviews, including features in New York Times Magazine, Vogue, Good Housekeeping, the Chicago Tribune and appearances on “60 Minutes,” “The Today Show,” “ABC World News Tonight” and “Larry King Live.”

She and her allied abolitionists have a long path to their goal: restorative justice instead of the primitive: eye-for-an-eye justice. Although 60 percent of Americans support the death penalty, when poll takers indicate another alternative such as life in prison, then 65 percent of those respondents agree with abolishing the death penalty according to Joe Whiteman, a member of the statewide New Mexico Coalition to Repeal the Death Penalty.

Whiteman reports that including the Roman Catholic Church and his coalition, Amnesty International, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the American Civil Liberties Union and many others including Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, Unitarian Universalist, Quaker groups and others are working to abolish the death penalty.

So what is the alternative that almost everyone can agree on? Most proponents call it “restorative justice.” This idea is in contrast to the justice system as we know it; our system is considered barbaric and primitive by many. Whiteman said Europeans and, in fact, most of the world have abandoned the old eye-for-an-eye system for a system.

Whiteman said he believes society needs a system with more potential to keep society safe and also support the grief and chaos felt by all the people involved in a horrific murder (the usual reason for the death penalty). Restorative justice takes into account all the people affected by the crime: the victim’s family and friends, the community, society and its need for safety, the family of the person accused of the crime — everyone impacted by the crime becomes part of the process to “restore” order, justice and peace, Whiteman said. People need to feel safe and the question is what system will keep society as safe as possible, he said.

As most people know, innocent people have been convicted and sentenced to death. In 1974, New Mexico sentenced four innocent men to death based on false witness testimony and police misconduct. Since 1973, 123 innocent men and women have been released from death rowed across the county (data from the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington D.C.) These 123 people would have been murdered by the state (the official death certificate wording) if someone hadn’t found more evidence and appeal made. Of course, the endless appeals of the present system ensure that people stay on death row (in limbo) for a long time. Researchers Radelet and Bedau found 23 cases where innocent people were executed. Northeastern University Press published their finding in 1992 in a publication called In Spite of Innocence.

Whiteman said the research proves that killing people in the electric chair or by lethal injection does not keep us safer. In fact, when societies abolish the government killing of people convicted of a murder, the murder rate goes down. If the government can kill people for crimes, then maybe the idea of vengeance and retaliation is the code of the country, Whiteman said. What is the most effective way to keep people safe? Is what we are doing now, the death penalty, effective in helping us to be safe from murder and crime?

To hear more about these questions and what people who have studied this issue know, join UWC students/ staff and the Las Vegas community to hear Sister Helen Prejean at 7 p.m. Friday at the Kluge Auditorium on the UWC Campus in Montezuma.

United World College-USA is in the northern New Mexico town of Montezuma seven miles north of Las Vegas. UWC-USA is one of 12 United World Colleges located on five continents and dedicated to making education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future.