(The recent botched executions of three death row inmates – Joseph R. Wood III in Arizona in mid-July, Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma in April and Dennis McGuire in Ohio in January – have brought the death penalty issue under intense scrutiny once again. Wood reportedly gasped for air some 600 times over the course of two hours after being injected. Longtime anti-death penalty crusader Sister Helen Prejean, author of “Dead Man Walking,” has been a spiritual adviser to many death row inmates in her home state of Louisiana. She shared her thoughts on the latest executions with NAM health editor Viji Sundaram.)
How do you respond to those who say the botched execution of convicted double murderer Joseph Wood does not amount to torture?
People can say that even if he suffered excruciating pain, he did not suffer as much as the two people he killed. But we should not lose our moral bearings. The state should not decide whom to kill. The U.S. Supreme Court said the death penalty is only to be reserved for the worst of the worst crimes. But nobody knows what that means. Look at the application of the death penalty. Who has been selected to die? Only poor people. Close to 80 percent of executions have happened in the 10 states that practiced slavery.
We have signed on to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that says no one should be subjected to torture. In my years of work with death row inmates, I have witnessed their suffering as they watch their fellow inmates led off to the death chamber. Putting people on death row is nothing short of inflicting mental torture on them.
How is it that states are given license to administer the drugs that are being blamed for the botched executions?
The Supreme Court has given absolute power to the states to choose the means of killing them, but is not asking for transparency from them. Prisons are experimenting with new drug protocols to compromise for the drugs that have traditionally been used in executions since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. As TV host Rachel Maddow said, (states) are conducting medical experimentation on human beings to see what it takes to kill a person. Those three people were supposed to die quickly, but they did not.
The whole system of the death penalty is botched, from the Supreme Court down. The court has set out guidelines that are unconstitutional. Everything is botched when it comes to human rights.
Earlier this month, Judge Cormac J. Carney of the Central District of California wrote that the death penalty is carried out inconsistently in the state, in a random and arbitrary manner with few executions. How might his words impact the debate ahead?
Judge Carney is right. Even as far back as 1994, [Supreme Court] Justice Harry Blackmun said that the death penalty experiment in the U.S. has failed after 20 years of trying to make it work. Of the more than 900 death sentences carried out in California since 1978, only 13 have resulted in executions. Further, 94 death row inmates have died of natural causes, and 39 were granted relief from their sentence in the federal courts. Carney’s ruling could encourage challenges in other jurisdictions.
In 1997, you asked Pope John Paul II to strengthen the Catholic Church’s teaching by closing its loopholes on the death penalty issue. Do you think it’s only a matter of time before Pope Francis says no to the death penalty?
There are preliminary steps being taken, quiet overtures being made, to people who have contact with the pope. Given that he visited a prison within a couple of weeks after he became pope, given his messages of the need to help the poor, I have no doubt where his heart will be, especially toward the despised. I am optimistic that he will spark life into the Catholic bishops to be actively engaged in ending the death penalty.
But for right now, what’s the road out of this?
The United States is among only a handful of developed nations that still employs the death penalty. It should follow the example of the nations that have moved away from it. The death penalty should be taken off the table.