Sister Helen Prejean, right, signs autographs for Christina and Teddi Munday after a lecture at the University Center the University of Tennessee campus on Friday, April 8, 2011. Prejean, known from her book and the motion picture, “Dead Man Walking”, is an internationally recognized anti-death-penalty activist. She discussed capital punishment and the criminal justice system.
Sister Helen Prejean, an anti-death penalty advocate, said Friday that the seizure in Tennessee and two other states of a lethal injection drug imported from outside the country is proof of a general lack of oversight on executions.
“We have more oversight over baby carriages but not the killing of human beings,” Prejean said.
Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee all recently turned over quantities of sodium thiopental, a sedative used during lethal injections, to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration because the drugs had been imported from another country. The drug already was in short supply in the U.S.
Prejean said knowledge and concern over what is used in lethal injections are lacking.
“We’ve been trying to make the killing by the state look like a medicinal act,” she said. “You switch to a hospital setting, a gurney and using chemicals to kill people – and there’s been no oversight of what was used actually.”
Prejean spoke at the University of Tennessee’s University Center Shiloh Room on Friday about how she got involved in advocacy for the abolition of the death penalty.
She began by simply agreeing to write to a man on death row in her home state of Louisiana. She ended up his spiritual adviser, watching his execution two years later.
Her book “Dead Man Walking,” a New York Times best-seller that was turned into a movie, play and opera, chronicles her leap into spiritually advising other death-row inmates and getting involved in advocacy after seeing how the Louisiana execution process worked.
Prejean said some people are forgotten in the media frenzy around death penalty cases, namely the relatives of the victims and the relatives of the accused.
One of the major shocks of Prejean’s life was when she spent time at a support group for families whose loved ones had been murdered.
“Person after person after person said, ‘Everybody stays away from us because people don’t know what to do with our pain,’ ” she said. “We don’t know how to help people heal.”
As for the relatives of those accused, she pointed toward the naive logic of seeking justice on a murderer and not expecting a backlash of hate on that person’s relatives.
“Do we ever think that when we put down that laser beam of hatred that we’re going to take out on this person that killed (someone) – that person has a mother, that person has brothers and sisters who are going to get the hatred, too?” she said.
Worse, she said, the very nature of seeking the death penalty can lead to apathy about relatives of the accused.
“Saying that what we’re going to do in this society is kill people who have killed other people means that we are embracing a mentality that only this kind of violence will do, and if others in the family get hurt in the process, well, they should have raised their kids better,” she said.
Overall, though, she said the tide is turning against the death penalty, with recent knowledge about wrongful executions and DNA testing proving some on death row innocent.
She said Tennessee was a unique case, in that it did not seem to have the same zeal for the death penalty as the other Southern states.
“There’s just a waning of enthusiasm about using the death penalty in the country,” she said.