Sister Helen Prejean, author of “Dead Man Walking,” this year’s Fort Lewis College common reading experience book, spoke in an interview Tuesday about her experiences in activism against the death penalty.
Each year the common reading experience book is chosen for its subject matter and thought-provoking ideas, Bridget Irish, the director of the common reading experience, said.
Prejean has extensive firsthand experience in dealing with this issue. She has spoken with families whose lives have been shaken by this process and has accompanied six convicted criminals to their execution, she said.
The death penalty places the power of choosing life and death in the hands of an imperfect system. Over 144 wrongfully convicted people have come off of death row due to mistakes made during their trials, Prejean said.
“When you look at what it means for us to have government power to say, ‘okay, we can kill our citizens,’ it involves guards, good men whose job gets to be included to take a person and kill them,” she said.
The conversation about the death penalty aims to raise public awareness, she said.
The capital punishment system in the United States began in 1976, she said. Since then, prisons have conducted over 3,000 executions, but public support for this practice began to drop in 2001, Prejean said.
As people become closer to the process and more aware of what it actually involves, they realize some of the flaws in the death penalty, she said.
In her experience, once the public knows they are safe from a violent offender, the desire for the death penalty to be administered lowers, she said.
The death penalty does not serve to alleviate the suffering of anyone involved, she said. It victimizes the offenders and re-victimizes the families of the original victims by giving the convicts more notoriety, Prejean said.
“The mental anguish to prepare and anticipate death is always extreme, and so to torture citizens, at least mentally, and then kill them, is not worthy of us as people,” she said.
The looming option of a death sentence can taint a jury’s ruling, especially in particularly prominent cases, she said.
“First we must take death off the table,” Prejean said.
Alternatives to the death penalty include a life sentence for perpetrators, she said.
“The closer the American people come to it and really reflect on it, the easier it is for them to put it down, and we’re seeing that now,” she said.