By Darla Shelden
City Sentinel Reporter
Renowned anti-death-penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean was guest speaker at a Halloween-eve lecture held at the University of Central Oklahoma Pegasus Theater in Edmond.
The free event was hosted by the Oklahoma Scholar-Leadership Enrichment Program (OSLEP). A class titled “Engaging and Informing Citizens about the Death Penalty in the U.S.” was offered for college credit.
UCO event co-sponsors included Conservatives and Progressives United to Abolish the Death Penalty and the Department Of Political Science.
Traveling on a busy lecture tour since September, Prejean, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, an order of Catholic nuns, arrived a little over an hour late due to flight delays. About 80 people were in attendance.
To open the event, students in the OSLEP program presented their findings on the death penalty. They spent two weeks studying the following issues: 1) Is the death penalty moral and constitutional? 2) Is race an issue? 3) Should executions be made public? 4) Should physicians participate? and 5) What is the cost of using the death penalty?
The students represented campuses including Langston University, University of Oklahoma, University of Central Oklahoma, Oklahoma State University, Southern Nazarene, and East Central University.
The students concluded the death penalty is a moral issue and that, as a civilized country, America should stop killing people to show that killing is wrong.
One student from Texas said she was pro-death penalty before taking the class, but says she now opposes capital punishment. She said the majority of the class was against the death penalty.
Recent studies show that the death penalty is still supported by the majority of Americans, however only 32 percent of millennials (or Generation Y – those born from the early 1980s to the early 2000s) support capitol punishment.
Sr. Prejean states on her website, “The death penalty is one of the great moral issues facing our country, yet most people rarely think about it and very few of us take the time to delve deeply enough into this issue to be able to make an informed decision about it.”
Upon arriving, Sr. Prejean expanded upon the issues the students discussed and responded to questions from the audience.
Besides the evident conflict physicians have with their Hippocratic Oath, Prejean questioned how any kind of killing can be considered humane.
The lethal injection method of execution was developed by Dr. Jay Chapman, a physician from Oklahoma, because he felt it seemed more humane than other methods.
Today several states, including Oklahoma, are investigating lethal injection protocols that have been notoriously botched.
Prejean believes this is reason to reconsider the ruling in the Kentucky US Supreme Court Baze v. Rees case, in which the lethal injection protocol did not amount to unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment.
“The role physicians play no matter what the method of execution, is to sign the death certificate,” Prejean said. “By the way, you have to put the cause of death as homicide, which is defined as a human being killing another human being.”
She pointed out that it is conflicting to their sworn duties to signal that a person being executed was not dead and to administer additional deadly chemicals, whereas in a hospital that would be a time to signal for “code blue” or life saving measures.
Prejean said that much of the execution process is cloaked in secrecy. “It is unclear what consideration is given to the selection of execution personnel, the skills they need, the training they might require and how to handle the post traumatic stress which many have now admitted to suffering from after being involved in executions,” she said.
Prejean reinforced the students’ findings that prosecutors are more likely to seek a death sentence when the race of the victim is white and particularly when the accused is black. Statistics show that most death row inmates are persons of color and almost always from a lower economic class that prevents them from being able to afford good representation.
The students felt that executions should be open to the public. They reasoned that executions are paid for with taxpayer money and that the process should be more transparent.
In Oklahoma, after the infamous botched execution of Clayton Lockett last April, the protocols were re-examined. Ironically, the result was to make the process more secret, such as allowing only five media representatives rather than twelve and with new rules regarding when the curtain can be closed and audio cut off from the execution chamber.
“Oklahoma has been bad,” Prejean said. “It is so not worthy of you, the people of Oklahoma. It is why we’ve got to shut this thing down.”
The source of drugs used in lethal injections remains a controversial secrecy issue since Europe stopped the export of anesthetics to the US in 2011. Now, several states that allow the death penalty are postponing executions due to troubles with obtaining the proper chemicals to use in the procedure. Some states are even considering other methods of state killing.
The cost of the death penalty is perhaps the most widely misunderstood issue.
Students said that a study reported by Fox News found “a death-penalty trial costs $1 million more than one in which prosecutors seek life without parole.” The Constitution requires a long and complex judicial process for capital cases. This involves two trials and lengthy and costly appeals.
The death penalty process itself has the risk of executing an innocent person, in which there are no “do-overs.” Prejean noted that to date 156 people have been exonerated from death row, 10 of those in Oklahoma.
The student group also referred to a recent Kansas study, which concluded that capital cases are 70 percent more expensive than comparable non-death penalty cases.
Students pointed out that former State Senator Connie Johnson, now the chair of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, proposed legislation in 2011 to study the death penalty’s cost and impact on crime in Oklahoma, but the bill died without being heard.
The students said the best tool to combat the death penalty is to educate people about the issue. Sister Helen urged members of the audience to get involved. “Sign a petition or begin to speak out,” she said. “With the spotlight ever shining on Oklahoma, now is the time to do just that.”
Prejean shared her story of how she became involved in the anti-death penalty movement.
“I didn’t start out as a nun involved with anyone on death row. I was working in a Catholic Parish teaching kids in the school. For me the awakening was what Christianity is really about – to make our way to poor people and wounded people where the system is broken and the people do not get what they need to have a dignified life.”
She said, “At St. Thomas, African Americans became my teachers and introduced me to another America. All the rules were different for things like healthcare and the police.” She asked, “Why was I given so much? Every family I visited had somebody in prison.
“When you’re poor, you can’t pay bail and you have to sit in jail until your trial. Some people were in prison 3, 4 and 5 years because they couldn’t get an attorney. Everywhere I looked, it was overwhelming.”
It was while working at the St. Thomas Housing Project that she first became a pen pal of Patrick Somnier, a Louisiana State Penitentiary death row inmate convicted along with his brother Eddie of killing two teenagers, Loretta Ann Bourque and David LeBlanc.
“I thought I’d only be writing letters. I never dream I’d be an advocate. I was thrown into the realities of life and the events that can happen to people,” said Prejean.
After witnessing his execution, she wrote a book about the experience. “Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States” became a movie, an opera, and a play for high schools and colleges.
“I had met both of the Somnier brothers and I knew they had goodness in them. They were not evil people. There are some people who are sociopaths because their wiring is screwed up, they’re really sick, but they’re few and far between.
“There’s a psychologist that’s begun to find that what makes people act violently most of all is shame. It’s that flashpoint of shame.”
Sister Helen later realized that she had downplayed the victim’s families because she “didn’t know what to do.” While working on Dead Man Walking it was her editor that said, it was cowardice.
At Somnier’s Pardon and Parole Board hearing, during what she called the “worst possible time,” she met the parents of the two victims.
Leblancs’ father said, ‘Sister all this time you’ve been visiting with those boys, but you never once reached out to us.” After a time, he told her he “went there with vengeance,” but “didn’t like what what was happening to himself.” Prejean said, “He helped me to understand that you forgive your enemies so that your enemies don’t destroy you.
“When you look at what’s happening in Oklahoma and you see who gets it – it depends on geography,” Prejean observed. “It’s really like throwing the dice. For something to be lawful it needs to have some kind of predictability. But what if it is just chance, first with geography, then secondly are you poor and can you afford an attorney?”
Prejean has now accompanied six men to their deaths.
Believing that some of those executed were not guilty inspired her to write her second book, “The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions.”
Most recently, as spiritual advisor to Oklahoma death row inmate Richard Glossip, Prejean has catapulted the death penalty into the global spotlight.
Glossip was arrested in 1997 in connection with the killing of Barry Van Treese. The confessed murderer, Justin Sneed ultimately testified Glossip paid him to commit the murder. Over the course of two trials and in varied interrogations, Sneed offered several differing accounts of what happened. Sneed struck a plea deal and received a sentence of life without parole, while Glossip was sentenced to death.
Sr. Helen enlisted the help of Colorado death penalty expert attorney Don Knight, renowned Supreme Court lawyer Mark Olive, and Oscar winning actress Susan Sarandon, who became her friend while portraying the role of Prejean in the movie Dead Man Walking. With multiple appearances on national television, Glossip’s case soon gained wide public attention.
Four press conferences featuring Sister Helen, two with Knight, were hosted on Glossip’s behalf at the State Capitol by the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty drawing local, national and international media.
Glossip’s case has garnered the support of notable anti death penalty advocates such as actress Susan Sarandon, Dr. Phil McGraw, billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson, Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project, MoveOn.org and even Pope Francis along with others who have rallied to save Glossip – a man who Prejean and others believe to be innocent.
Spared from execution a fourth time, Glossip received a stay of execution from Gov. Mary Fallin on September 30 just moments before he was scheduled to be put to death.
The 37-day stay was issued after discovering one of the three drugs approved for Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocol, potassium chloride had been replaced by potassium acetate.
Then, on October 1, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt issued an indefinite stay for the three scheduled executions of Glossip, Benjamin Cole and John Grant citing the drug mix-up as the reason.
Only after Glossip’s near execution was the autopsy report released revealing the wrong drug had been used on Charles Warner who was executed in January.
“When we make a mistake there’s often not even an apology or even remuneration for the lost years of your life,” Prejean said. “All of this is part of the machinery of death that we have put into place. It boils down to, it’s legalized – we do to you what you did to the victim.”
Prejean challenged the audience to consider what happens to the guards, wardens and others whose job it is to do these killings.
“They say it’s a legal act and that they are just doing their job,” Prejean said. “But it’s killing with intent someone who has been rendered defenseless. When you look at it in its essence and see what it is – the faces on the guards that have to do it – you can see it for what it is — it’s inevitable that we’re going to execute the innocent,” she said.
“You’ve got poor defense, rabid prosecutors who get political points for it, and you have a Supreme Court that just turns it over and says let states take care of killing their criminals. You have a recipe there. It’s a perfect storm. It’s inevitable that the innocent will be executed.”
Challenging the audience, Prejean said that In a Democracy there is no way to be neutral.
“If you’re not doing anything, then you’re supporting the status quo. Oklahoma has killed 112 people – all done in your name. So when your mind awakens and you get it, I urge you to act. Once you start to act it’s liberating,” she said.
When asked if the recent focus on Oklahoma could result in the abolishment of the death penalty Prejean said, “I think it might help. Part of that is up to us.”
Following the lecture, Prejean spoke individually to those attending the book signing.
Prejean added, “When we put this thing down, it’s going to be so good for us to give up death like this.”
For more information about Sister Helen, visit her website.