Last week, our nation witnessed the re-activation of capital punishment for federal death-row convictions. The death penalty in federal cases has been on hiatus for 17 years, but the Justice Department is moving forward with four executions this summer.
Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, is known for her book, Dead Man Walking, which chronicles her experience working with a death row inmate. In a recent article for America magazine, she stated that as a result of her Catholic faith, she is “compelled to speak out” about these executions — and her words are worth sharing.
While citizens around the nation have been reacting to the news of the recent executions, Sister Helen has been in this fight for 30 years now. As an advocate for abolishing the death penalty and a spiritual advisor to death row inmates, Sister Helen has long been outspoken about the immorality and injustice of the death penalty. In her article for America, she emphasizes one of the most troubling aspects of death row: its faultiness.
Is anyone with even the slightest leaning of support for the death penalty not stunned — shocked, flabbergasted — that, since the resumption of executions in 1977, for every 10 executions carried out in this country, one more wrongfully sentenced person on death row has had to be freed? Would anyone be inclined to book a flight on an airline with that kind of track record?
She goes on to say that the death penalty has been “riddled with a staggering number of mistakes, flaws, and unconscionable biases, which have resulted in 168 wrongful death sentences thus far — and counting.”
We’ll say that again: 168 wrong deaths thus far.
That number marks 168 avoidable yet irrevocable and fatal failings. If that number does not open our eyes to the truth that we are fallible human beings who should not have the power to decide who lives and who dies, then we are not the advanced society we claim to be.
Aside from these wrongful deaths, the taking of any life by government authority is something that we must question. And as a nation, we have started to question this power more and more.
Sister Helen draws the connection between the recent federal executions and the “awakening to the systemic racism” that our nation is experiencing. She points directly to the influence of such racism within the prison system:
Racism in the selection of citizens for death in the flawed federal system is as bad, if not worse, as state systems. Of the 61 condemned persons on federal death row, almost 60 percent are persons of color.
Mistakes and discrimination have no place in life-or-death decisions. And yet, as Sister Helen makes clear, they play a fateful role. As long as systemic racism permeates our social systems, injustice will prevail — and it will continue to claim lives.
As we consider what it means to support life, these disproportionate numbers that Sister Helen outlines must be a part of the conversation. When looking at the social issues in our society, we cannot forget to look inward. We cannot forget to recognize our own biases and mistakes. And we must recognize that the answer to eliminating racism, hatred, and fear is not more death.
We have a lot of work to do when it comes to solving our problems and creating a more just society. But as Sister Helen demonstrates, we have a voice and we called to use it. We join her plea in saying: Stop the federal killings.