“Dead Man Walking” Subject Still Working for Change

“The death penalty is not what you think it is. It is not reserved for the worst of the worst crimes.”

Rose Vines, Communications and Special Projects Director for Ministry Against the Death Penalty, an organization working to put an end to capital punishment, spoke calmly about this highly emotional and controversial issue.

“These days it’s the race of the victim that determines the likelihood of being sentenced to death. It’s far more likely if the victim is white. The death penalty is racist in its implementation and has a very racist origin.”

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Perhaps the most startling statistic related to the death penalty is that for every eight executions that are carried out, one death row inmate is exonerated – a ratio of greater than ten percent.

The Ministry was founded by Sister Helen Prejean in 2002. Prejean first received international attention when her book, “Dead Man Walking,” was made into an Oscar-winning film starring Susan Sarandon. When Prejean began her work in opposition to capital punishment, 80 percent of the United States population supported it.

By 2019, a Gallup poll showed that, given the choice between the death penalty and life imprisonment, only 36 percent supported execution, and government actions were trending the same way. By the end of last year, 23 states had abolished capital punishment, and three more had moratoria. There were only 18 new death sentences imposed, and only 11 executions were actually carried out – a 900 percent decline since 1999, and the seventh consecutive year with fewer than 30 executions nationwide.

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Vines pointed out that support for eliminating the death penalty is increasingly bipartisan. “Conservatives are joining the cause due to the cost. It costs much more to impose the death penalty than life in prison, primarily because there is an extensive and expensive appeals process. Also, if you are against big government, you don’t want to give government the power to kill its citizens.”

All this comes in the context of the United States being a real outlier on the issue among so-called “western” nations. Within this category, only Japan also permits executions. Vines’ take was that “the death penalty is part of our culture of using violence to solve problems.”

Locally, the State of Louisiana has not carried out a death sentence since 2010, and that person gave up his appeal rights. Yet the higher costs of incarcerating the current 62 death row inmates continue, including greater security requirements, more supervisory staff and individual cells.

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Each year, death penalty opponents in Louisiana introduce legislation to abolish it here. The bill in the state House of Representatives already failed in committee; the Senate version, SB 294, is presently scheduled to be heard in mid-May

Vines pointed out that with more than half the states currently not allowing capital punishment, “it is a fluke of geography as to whether you could face the death sentence.” Even within states that permit the death penalty, the power of individual prosecutors to seek it mean that some jurisdictions are far more likely than others to impose it.

This inequity is compounded by the data on death row inmates. The majority have diminished intellectual capacities if not being outright mentally disabled, and/or come from backgrounds of poverty and/or abuse. As Vines noted, “there aren’t any rich people on death row.”

While it isn’t possible to track precisely how much of the change in action and opinion is attributable to Prejean, her visibility and access have clearly been major factors. She has met with presidents and popes, appeared at thousands of public events, and published two more books.

“We’re really different from a lot of nonprofits because we’re built around one person,” Vines commented. “Sister Helen Prejean is known by millions of people.”

Given these circumstances, the organization centers its social media and even its website, sisterhelen.org, around Prejean. Now in her 80s, she remains highly engaged in everything from activism to counseling of death row inmates.

Capital punishment is unquestionably a difficult and emotional topic. Recognizing this, the Ministry goes out of its way not to attack people who disagree with them. Vines pointed out that the “Dead Man Walking” movie took a neutral stance, simply asking people on both sides to reflect on the issue.

Nonetheless, she asked, “What does the death penalty say about us? Because these executions are done in our names, saying that we want people to be killed for their crimes.”

 

 

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