Thursday, December 4, 2008

Westchester Guardian/Jeffrey Deskovic.

Jeff Deskovic

Renowned Author And Advocate Sister Helen
Prejean Speaks Of Her Incredible Journey,
Part 2

Sister Prejean spoke about how many murder victim’s family members were shortchanged; given the false dream that prosecutors sell to them that
the execution of a convicted defendant would make them feel better, as a type of panacea. There was a buildup in family members sometimes of 5, 10, 15, or 20 years throughout the appeals process and all of the attendant publicity which makes them relive the crime, and unwanted attention.

And then, at the Pardon Board Hearings, the message would be sent that “All we have to do is get through this last hoop.” During those years, hatred and anger would fester and take its toll. Meanwhile, the real issue was that the family members would have to learn how to deal with the loss
of their loved one.

Sister Prejean stated that she had witnessed a dynamic along the journey, which was when traumatic, life-changing moments occurred, which she terms “rivers of fire”, during which people are challenged within themselves by the circumstances; during such moments of truth people can go either way: become angry and bitter, or rise above it. Human transformation can occur in which people rise above their tragedies to become people who reach a kind of inner peace when they come to grips with what happened and overcome it, reaching a kind of moral plateau, reaching a potential that humans have. A couple of examples that she mentioned were that of Lloyd LeBlanc in several ways: allowing him to befriend her despite her being against Sonnier’s execution and being his spiritual advisor, and visiting Patrick Sonnier’s mother, giving her flowers and telling
her that she didn’t hate her.

Another example was Bud Welsh, who lost a daughter named Julie in the Oklahoma City Bombing. He was for the death penalty for Timothy McVeigh, but when he went to turn on the radio, he remembered a recent previous occasion during which his daughter said that she was against
the death penalty, and so to honor her memory he realized he could not support the death penalty for McVeigh.

It started out that the other victim family members thought that he had gone off the deep end, but by the end, about half of them no longer were in favor of the death penalty. They realized the toll that the desire for the death penalty was taking on them.

Human Costs And Morality

Sister Helen Prejean spoke about how the mental rationalizations that various actors in the criminal justice system offer to others who are involved point to the innate recognition that the death penalty is wrong. She says how prosecutors in the courtroom tell the jury, when encouraging them to impose the death penalty, ‘You didn’t put him there. He put himself in that position.” And, how prison wardens say a similar thing to the guards that accompany the condemned to the death chamber, and strap them down. If there were nothing immoral about it, why is there the need by people in authority to offer a justification allowing people to put distance between themselves and their actions?

Who responds in a similar way when doing something good? She further said, “The fact that executions take place hidden from the public at large, rather than say being broadcast, because it was too ghastly, spoke to its immorality.”

The imposition of the penalty affects the prison guards. As particularly horrific examples, she pointed to two instances in which the reality of just
what execution is was brought to life: There was the execution of Louis Williams. When the time of execution came, and the authorities arrived at his cell, he held onto his cell bars as long as he could, quoting a biblical verse over and over calling for God to save him while also making eye contact with the guards while yelling “I’m innocent! I’m innocent! Don’t kill me!”

Then there was the execution of Mr. Riley, which took place in the gas chamber at San Quentin Prison. The authorities had underestimated how thin his wrists were, and so after he was strapped in and the door was closed followed by the warden giving the signal so that the pellets were dropped, his hands slipped out, he undid the rest of the restraints, and he went up to the glass and started banging on the glass for them to let him out, saying “I don’t want to die.”

Risk Of Executing Innocent People

Sister Prejean then discussed the possibility of innocent people being executed. She referenced her book The Death Of Innocents. The book reviews the cases of two people who Sister Prejean served as a spiritual advisor to, who she believes were innocent but, nonetheless, were executed.
The following excerpt is taken from Random House: “Dobie Gillis Williams, an indigent black man from rural Louisiana with an IQ of 65, was accused of a brutal rape and murder. Williams’s inept defense counsel, later disbarred for unethical practice for unrelated cases, allowed the
prosecution’s incredibly contrived scenario of the crime to go unchallenged. Less than two years after Williams’s execution in January 1999, the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to kill a man so mentally disabled.

In 1986, Joseph Roger O’Dell was convicted of murder in Virginia despite highly circumstantial evidence from a jailhouse snitch. For twelve years, O’Dell sought DNA testing in the forensic evidence, which he claimed would exonerate him, but the courts refused. After his execution on July 23, 1997, the state destroyed the evidence. As a result, its conviction of O’Dell could never be scrutinized. The reader of this book will be the first ‘jury’ with access to all the evidence the trial juries never saw,” says Prejean, who accompanied both men to their executions.

By using the withheld evidence to reconstruct the crimes for which these two men were convicted, Prejean shows how race, prosecutorial ambition, poverty, election cycles, and publicity play far too Sister Helen Prejean great a role in determining who dies and who lives. Sister Prejean also mentioned that in the O’ Dell case the prosecution hid evidence, and that his defense attorney was working with the prosecutors.

Questions And Answers

Following her presentation, Sister Prejean received a standing ovation, after which there was a question and answer session. In response to a question about Justice Scalia, who Sister Prejean had previously written about in Dead Man Walking, stating “his opinions are inconsistent with justice”, Sister Prejean stated a justification that Scalia offered: “I rule on what’s there.” The problem, she pointed out, is that when Nelson Mandela reads the Constitution, does he understand it the same way as an audience member might? Her point was that people’s background, experiences, and education all impact upon how they understand the Constitution, and therefore Scalia’s rulings, which often favor procedure over justice, guilt and innocence, don’t hold water.

Another audience member asked her about Troy Davis, whose case was previously written about in The Guardian. For those who may have missed
that issue, seven out of nine witnesses who testified against Davis at trial have recanted, stating that they were coerced by police to testify. Sister Prejean stated that the number of signatures on petitions pertaining to Davis now numbered six hundred thousand. She stated that all of the public attention that his case has received, along with the grass roots work, including the petitions, are the clear reason that he received a last minute stay of execution. An interesting statement from the audience came from a retired Supreme Court Judge who used to preside in Brooklyn. He agreed with what Sister Prejean had presented in her lecture, and pointed out a couple of things that he felt were unfair towards defendants. He stated
that prisoners on Rikers Island were given a cold breakfast since they were awakened prior to breakfast being served, and thus they had a cold breakfast.

While in the holding area in the courthouse, they were given a thin baloney sandwich, and that would be the last thing that they ate, since by
the time they were transported back to the jail they would have missed the evening meal. Then the next day, the cycle was repeated. He felt that it was hard to fully concentrate with that mistreatment going on. He also said that public defenders would frequently only visit their clients once or twice before trial, and that this would impact upon the level of preparation. He finished his statement by saying that in his opinion, there were a lot of innocent people in prison in New York.


Having learned that CW-11 pulled the Jeanine Pirro judge show off the air, I want to take this opportunity to thank all of the many thoughtful individuals who took the time and effort to contact Warner Bros. and CW-11 to express their outrage and disapproval over the airing of the program. There can be no doubt that your expressions of disapproval, and your threats to boycott CW-11, its affiliates and sponsors, played a signicant role in convincing network executives to remove the show. Once again, thank you for thoughtfully taking the time and effort to hold
the media accountable.

Journey Of Religion

Sister Prejean spoke about the “Journey Of Religion”. She played a major role in the now well-known Catholic Church position against the death penalty. She wanted the Bishop to take a position against the death penalty, but he would not do it. She mentioned that she had written the book Dead Man Walking, and how 1.3 billion people around the world had seen the movie. She also began giving lectures around the country, and that all three things succeeded in raising awareness about the death penalty, and that this had helped shape world opinion.

At some point in time the Pope had stated that he was against the death penalty except in instances where societies needed it in order to protect themselves. Sister Prejean told the Pope that the ‘protect societies’ clause would be used by everybody to justify executions, and that sure enough, it was. Sometimes prosecutors would reference it when trying to persuade Catholic jurors to impose the death penalty.

Sister Prejean assisted efforts at getting world wide attention for Joseph O’Dell through media coverage, so much so that everybody, even people in Italy, were saying “Who is Joseph O’Dell?”. The Italian Parliament unsuccessfully sought to intervene in his case. e mayor of Palermo used to visit Joseph O’Dell, at one point telling him that if the state of Virginia went ahead and executed him, that they would fly his body to Italy so that he would not be buried in Virginan soil. Even the Pope asked the question, “Who is Joseph O’Dell?”

Sister Prejean believed that the awareness raised in that case was a further watershed moment. At some future point in time, the Pope condemned the death penalty outright, at one point saying, as reported by AP writer Julia Lieblich, on Jan. 27, 1999: “Pope John Paul II condemned capital punishment in some of his strongest terms yet Wednesday, urging 100,000 worshippers at a Mass in this death penalty [St. Louis] state to spare even those who commit ``great evil. ``Modern society has the means of protecting itself without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform,’’ he said at the Trans World Dome on the final day of his visit to the Americas. I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty which is both cruel and unnecessary.’’ Following the position of the Pope, the bishops and all of the clergy, came out publicly against
the death penalty.

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