Nuns -- as I learned in my Sunday school, Bible school and catechism classes at St. Pius V Roman Catholic Church -- are a deceptively tough bunch. Today the toughest is probably Sister Helen Prejean.
Prejean is the anti-death penalty activist whose friendship with a Louisiana death row inmate inspired the 1995 film "Dead Man Walking." She has toured the country since then, this plucky, bespectacled, graying nun, preaching against the evils of the death penalty. She scolds us for clinging to it, exhorting us that we are better people than to execute murderers. She does this in an increasingly conservative political climate where getting tough on crime is popular and many politicians are urging a return to the death penalty.
In early November, she strode to the podium at the Johns Hopkins University's Shriver Hall to once again speak out against the death penalty.
"We demean our very souls," Prejean told the packed auditorium, "by allowing [the death penalty] to be a part of our society."
She said all the traditional anti-death penalty things: It's applied in a racist manner. It's not a deterrent to murder. It disproportionately affects the poor and can never be equitably applied.
"Who gets killed and how much we value their life determines who gets the death penalty," Prejean intoned.
It was all very fine, noble talk.
But I left Shriver Hall feeling that Prejean and others opposed to the death penalty weren't quite getting the point. At the time, I couldn't put my finger on the point they were missing.
Less than three weeks later I learned my youngest brother had been stabbed to death. His murder devastated my mother and his surviving siblings. Almost at the exact moment I heard my brother had been murdered, I knew exactly what the point was that death penalty opponents were missing.
While they were being noble in opposing the death penalty, they were being noble about someone else's grief. They were being noble with a thing they had no right to be noble with.
I imagine if families of homicide victims had any one message to deliver to death penalty opponents, it would be this: Be noble with your own grief. Don't presume to be noble with ours.
For death penalty opponents, life imprisonment with no parole for murderers is justice. On average, do the families, friends and loved ones of homicide victims regard life without parole as justice? I suspect not. Life without parole for murderers smacks of being more of a free ride than justice.
A convicted murderer is in many cases a career criminal, one who is attuned to prison life. Prison isn't so much a punishment as it is a second home. The murderer gets three square meals and a place to put his head. He can get visits from families and relatives and is free, if he wishes, to sodomize weaker inmates and fine-tune buggery into a veritable science. He is free to attack and even murder other inmates and corrections officers.
How many death penalty opponents, I wonder, would willingly take a job as a corrections officer knowing they would have to come into daily contact with the very cutthroats whose lives they want to save?
The logical alternative to the death penalty is not life without parole, but life without parole in solitary confinement and no visits from friends, loved ones and relatives. There should be no contact with the outside world at all for convicted murderers. It should be as if the convicted murderer himself were dead.
Do you think death penalty opponents would accept such an alternative? Of course they wouldn't. They'd whine that convicted murderers were being deprived of their rights, that we would be picking on the poor babies.
"The death penalty assumes there are some among us who are not fit to live among us, that they have to be terminated," Prejean told the Shriver Hall audience. But that's not at all what the death penalty assumes.
The death penalty assumes the convicted murderer has taken something precious away from the family and loved ones of his victim and that he should give something in return. The murderer's miserable, sorry, pathetic excuse for a life is as good a something as any.
Death penalty proponents realize that the homicide victim dies only once, but that the victim's family and loved ones die many deaths. It is for that reason that the death penalty is not only just, but necessary.
Pub Date: 12/18/96