Dignity and the Death Penalty

by Fadya Salem



The Journal for Social Justice, University Ministry, and the Center for Public Interest Law had the honor and privilege of hosting Sister Helen Prejean for a roundtable discussion with students, faculty, and alumni in April.

Sister Helen, Nobel Peace Prize Finalist and New York Times bestselling author of the academy award winning movie, Dead Man Walking, is an anti-death penalty advocate who has served as a spiritual advisor to death row inmates.

As a law student, I was eager to join the discussion with Sister Helen. After having studied wrongful convictions in an undergraduate course, I came to law school with the desire to advocate for those who have wrongfully fallen victim to the criminal justice system. I learned from Sister Helen the importance of not only fighting for the people we believe are innocent, but to advocate for the rights of those who have done something wrong, because they too should still be treated with dignity.

My religion, like some others, teaches that there are certain acts that are punishable by death. I sought to participate in this discussion in hopes to reconcile my religion’s views with my moral belief that the death penalty is wrong. I was moved by Sister Helen’s discussion on Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, whom she spoke on behalf of during his trial, and her insistence that, although his actions caused three people’s death, he still has human dignity.

Sister Helen began her anti-death penalty advocacy while living in the St. Thomas housing project in inner-city New Orleans.  It was there that she became aware of the harrowing connection between poverty and oppression and prison.  While in St. Thomas, she became pen pals with a Louisiana death row inmate.

The roundtable conversation began with Sister Helen describing her first experience as a spiritual advisor for a death-row inmate.  She described it as a “secret ritual” that much of the rest of the world renounces.  This experience became the subject of her first book, Dead Man Walking.  The book was published in 1993, a time when 80% of Americans supported the death penalty.

Despite the large number of death penalty supporters, Sister Helen knew the story needed to be told.  She finds that many people who support the death penalty do not know much about the process and what it entails.  She works tirelessly to resist the death penalty and educate the public as a lecturer and writer.

When asked how she chooses inmates to work with, Sister Helen said it is a decision that she can’t explain. She has been a spiritual advisor to five death-row inmates, visiting with them from throughout their time in prison and to their execution.  She also counsels the families of murder victims as the founder of “Survive,” a victim’s advocacy group in New Orleans.

A powerful point in the conversation came when Sister Helen pushed the group to think about how we treat a human with dignity.  With the firm belief that “everyone is better than the worst thing they’ve ever done,” she reminded attendees that, despite their actions, people in jail are still human, which is the same value that St. Vincent advocated in his work.

I recall a discussion in my criminal law course about different methods of executions, when a fellow student asked, “If they killed someone, why do we care how we treat them?” For many people, the death penalty is such an abstract phenomenon that may be difficult to conceptualize. Sister Helen adamantly believes that if people knew what happens at executions, there would not be as many supporters.

Sister Helen described the important role lawyers play in anti-death penalty work: Lawyers are critical in framing the story told about inmates and furthering the idea that they are better than their crimes. For death-row inmates, lawyers and advocates are often times the only human dignity they have left. It is the passion for human dignity that keeps Sister Helen moving forward in her fight against the death penalty.

Fadya Salem just completed her first year of law school at DePaul.  A Chicago native, she is an alum of the University of Illinois and hopes someday to practice law within the public interest arena.   

An earlier version of this piece was published online by the Center for Public Interest Law at DePaul University in May.

Justice Killing?

blind justice

by Katie Brick

I was inspired when I read about Denise and Bill Richard, parents of an 8-year boy killed in the Boston Marathon bombing, who asked Federal prosecutors to take the death penalty off the table. I was challenged – would I do the same if my kids were killed that way? Theoretically: yes. But I would never ever want to test that theory, nor am I in an omniscient position to judge how grief impacts people or what they think will bring them solace.*

So I am one of the growing number of people who want the death penalty to be taken out of the equation in the U.S. Don’t give it as an option to prosecutors, to bereaved loved ones, to the criminal justice system.

When the time from sentencing-to-death can be decades, there is a pragmatic reason for ending the death penalty. Each new appeal and delay brings the tragedy back up in the minds and hearts of survivors. In a Boston Globe piece titled, “To End the Anguish, Drop the Death Penalty,” the Richards wrote, “The defendant murdered our eight-year-old son, maimed our seven-year-old daughter and stole part of our soul. We know that the government has its reasons for seeking the death penalty, but the continued pursuit of that punishment could bring years of appeals and prolong reliving the most painful day of our lives.”   They continued, “As long as the defendant is in the spotlight, we have no choice but to live a story told on his terms, not ours. The minute the defendant fades from our newspapers and TV screens is the minute we begin the process of rebuilding our lives and our family.”

In my opinion, religious principles are another reason to end the death penalty.   My religious denomination, among many others, opposes the death penalty on religious and spiritual grounds. Thank you Catholic Church for offering some clear reasoning about themes of the dignity of the human person and protecting life vis a vis the death penalty, which can be seen in an April statement opposing the death penalty from the Massachusetts Catholic Bishops.

With DePaul University’s mission and geography, the issue of the death penalty is particularly relevant to those of us who attend and work here. DePaul is grounded in a Catholic tradition that opposes the death penalty. Our Vincentian character calls us to attend to the dignity inherent in each human person and particularly to serve those who are on the margins of society – people who disproportionately are sentenced to death. For example, while African Americans comprise about 14% of the U.S. population, they make up 42% of people currently awaiting execution.

Students who volunteer or do academic work throughout Chicago as part of our Urban mission tenet become aware of the disproportionate incarceration rates of people of color and many students are from communities where the justice system has often proved itself to be unjust and worth questioning. Our College of Law has been a leader around justice in capital cases, and I have been to some incredibly moving DePaul educational events on the topic.

In fact, anti-death penalty activist Sr. Helen Prejean felt such a kinship between her work and the DePaul mission that she donated her archives to the University, and each spring we now have Sr. Helen Prejean Week, which she anchors. During her most recent visit, the DePaulia reports that Sr. Helen said, “It boils down to this: That no human being can ever be identified completely with the worst act of their life…Life is fluid. There’s a transcendence in us. We can change.” This is another reason I do not believe in the death penalty – I have heard incredible stories about death row inmates that involve wisdom, repentance, faith, and human connection. What human can decide to end a life? Is that not up to God?

In a talk at DePaul, I heard Sr. Helen say that she believes most people who are in favor of the death penalty are simply undereducated. They don’t understand the lack of justice with much of the process around who gets sentenced to death, they mistakenly believe it will bring healing and resolution to victims’ loved ones and communities, and they are not aware of other just alternatives that will protect communities and hold people accountable for their actions.

It seems as if Massachusetts, whose last state execution was in 1947, may have gotten the education Sr. Helen is talking about. A recent Boston Globe poll showed that just 19 percent of Massachusetts residents wanted the Boston Marathon bomber to get the death penalty. So whose needs are being met with achieving the verdict of death? Why does killing someone to punish them for being a killer seem righteous to a majority of Americans – albeit a shrinking one as attitudes continue to change? What is the meaning in sentencing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death when those who might have opposed such a sentencing were excluded from the jury pool and the Federal government had to spend so much time and money not to prove him guilty – that was never in doubt – but to convince a jury to sentence him to death?

As a person of faith, I hope this high profile case continues to raise these sorts of questions. I hope it causes more of us – including me – to continue our education around capital punishment and what must be done. I hope for more healing now that the trial is over (is it over?) and will keep all those impacted by the Marathon bombing in my thoughts and prayers, for that is one thing I can do here and now.

 *I suggest reading the novel “The Sweet Hereafter” by Russell Banks for some perspective on how the legal system can delay the healing of individuals and rip communities apart. This book still haunts me when I scan the news or hear about families like the Richards, and indeed, sometimes art or literature moves me more than religious dictates around ethical issues.

Katie Brick is the Director of the Office of Religious Diversity at DePaul University.