by Fr. Keith Branson, C.PP.S., Publications Editor
Spring was in the air on Saturday, March 7th when Sr. Helen Prejean, C.S.J. came to St. Joseph, Missouri to make a presentation: Dead Man Walking: The Journey Continues… She was glad for milder weather, since her previous stop was Regina, Saskatchewan where the outdoor temperature was 20-below at her arrival. The event was co-sponsored by Missionaries of the Precious Blood and Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, who contributed information and opportunities for action to those in attendance.
The frame for her presentation was the two arms of the Cross—one representing the Perpetrator of capital crime and the other the Victim. Our culture tells us we need to choose between the two; we have to be on one side or the other. Sr. Helen’s ministry has been about embracing both side of this Cross, to walk both with those on their journeys to execution for capital crimes and with the families of the victims as they seek to find their way in the absence of their lost loved ones.
The process of execution in the country is now a secret one, where everything possible is hidden, even from “official witnesses,” for executions themselves are “morally corrosive for people to see it.” States are allowed to experiment with different killer cocktails out of sight and without accountability. The Death Penalty itself is based on the myth that violence can be redemptive.
She defined racism as: “The power of institution hooked to prejudice.” Our society generally refuses to see how racism still is part of our culture, in spite of electing a black President. We mask our racism through many means of self-deception.
In walking with the victims, she pointed out that the continuing publicity in death penalty cases constantly re-opens wounds for their families, pulling them into the spotlight time and time again as each appeal and motion becomes news. There is no institutional support for victims’ families other than a promise of vengeance, which is usually postponed for decades. If they speak out against killing the perpetrators, it is seen as a sign of disloyalty to the victims.
Sr. Helen called us to action, and most of the afternoon saw presentations by Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty that offer us a way to speak out and do what we can. Most powerful was the testimony of a young man who was able to reconcile with his father who had killed his mother. Articles like this can only give the iceberg’s tip, and I encourage you to look farther and explore the full story as much as you can. We are the moral agents of our state governments; our silence only enables them to kill in our names.