1999: Sister Helen Prejean Speaks Against Death Penalty

February 23, 2023 all-day
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Sister Helen Prejean, author of the best-selling book turned movie, Dead Man Walking, today came to Michigan to warn policy-makers to “look down the road” before putting the death penalty on the ballot.

“I am here to talk to you before you go down that road,” said Prejean to a packed capitol building committee room. “I want to say to Michigan, not in your state, you were the first English-speaking government to put in your constitution that you wouldn’t have the death penalty.”

Prejean was in Michigan at the behest of Sen. George McManus (R-Traverse City). McManus said he has been a long-time opponent of the death penalty.

“I don’t like to see government in the killing business,” said McManus. “It’s that blunt. It’s that simple.”

In a release, McManus pointed out that the death penalty will cost Michigan taxpayers three times more for each execution than a life sentence behind bars. Currently, the State of Texas spends $2.3 million per execution.

A 1995 California study shows that homicides increased twice as fast during the years in which California carried out executions as when there were no executions-a fact that McManus asserted proves that the death penalty does not serve as a crime deterrent.

“It doesn’t deter crime,” said McManus. “It doesn’t save money. It doesn’t heal the victim’s family. So, if it doesn’t do all those things, what good is it?”

Prejean in her remarks, asked lawmakers to consider carefully just how they would craft a death penalty that treats all classes of victims and criminals the same.

“What are going to be your criteria?” asked Prejean. “Who are you going to sentence to death?”

Prejean contended that you cannot design a death penalty that treats all life equally.

“Will it be policeman? Will it be if you kill a child … you’re going to have to define a child. Our state, Louisiana, says 12 or under. How are you going to face a mother that comes before you and says: ‘my child was killed who happened to be 13 years old. Are you going to say my child isn’t worth the death penalty because my child happens to be 13 and not 12.'”

Many states and the federal government provide for the death penalty for those convicted of killing police officers. Prejean asked lawmakers what they would say to a woman whose husband was a fire-fighter killed by a sniper while working on a burning building.

“How are you going to do this? You’re not going to do this any better than anyone else,” said Prejean. “There will always be a difference between when a nobody from Detroit gets killed … and a judge is killed. There will always be a difference if a white suburban housewife is killed or if a minority kid or a black kid is killed.”

To prove her point, Prejean pointed out that 76 death row inmates have proven their innocence-inmates that often lacked the financial resources to mount a successful defense in the court system.

One such case occurred last fall in the State of Illinois. Anthony Porter, a 16-year death row inmate was vindicated when five Northwestern University journalism students and their professor turned up evidence that proved he didn’t commit the double murder he was convicted of. The guilty party in the crime confessed and turned himself in earlier this month.

Prejean noted that often death row inmates that are proven innocent are vindicated because journalists or others investigate the actual circumstances of the crimes involved not, as death penalty advocates would argue, because the “system works.”

Source:  “Anti-Death Penalty Author Brings Message to Michigan“, MIRS Capitol Capsule, Tues., Feb. 23, 1999