The death penalty

Referat / Aufsatz (Schule), 2000
16 Seiten

Gratis online lesen


I) The Death Penalty
1) History of the Death Penalty
2) Is the Death Penalty Just?
a) The Death Penalty Is Legally Just
b) The Death Penalty Is Legally Unjust
c) Executions Can Be Humane
d) The Death Penalty Can Ease the Suffering of Victims´ Families
3) Is the Death Penalty Applied Unfairly?
a) The Death Penalty Unfairly Targets Minorities
b) The Death Penalty Does Not Unfairly Target Minorities
c) Innocent People Have Been Executed
4) Does the Death Penalty Deter Murder?
a) The Death Penalty Deters Murder
b) The Death Penalty Does Not Deter Murder

II) Literature - Sister Helen Prejean: Dead Man Walking
a) The Author
b) Contents



Few issues in the United States today are as emotionally charged and controversial as the death penalty. More formally known as capital punishment, the death penalty has been hotly debated not only as a legal issue, but as a religious, ethical and political one, historically as well as in the present day.

The death penalty has been a legalised punishment since the time of the Babylonian king Hammurabi between 1760 and 1750 BC.

The crimes for which the death penalty was deemed proper have changed during the centuries. In ancient Greece or Rome one could be condemned to death even for what are today considered very minor crimes. In biblical accounts Moses proclaimed the death penalty for kidnapping and cursing at one's parents.

By the Middle Ages, England had a large number of crimes for which the death penalty was reserved: murder, treason, theft, robbery, burglary, rape and arson. As time went on, the list of such crimes, known as capital crimes, grew dramatically. By the 1600s, 200 offences were punishable by death. By 1780, the list, known in Britain as the Bloody Code, had grown to 350.

While the modern trend is toward more humane methods of execution, such as lethal injection, the ancient rule of thumb seemed to be the more bloodier and more painful, the better. For example the Old Testament mentions stoning as a preferred way of execution. Convicted criminals were also burned at the stake, drowned and crucified. Some were slowly and excruciatingly tortured to death, in the practice known as drawing and quartering.

Executions in the past were always public, in the belief, that witnessing the ultimate punishment would deter others from committing crimes. But many historians doubt the value of moral lessons learned in occasions, "where pickpockets and thieves joined the other onlookers in merriment"1. Indeed, the "merriment" more often than not had a tinge of sadistic, as people seemed all eager for blood and pain. The argument, that deterrence was the reason for executions did not seem a strong one.

From the beginning, America included the death penalty in the legal punishments as part of its criminal justice system, which was modelled on England's. Although the founders of the new country were generally in favour of the death penalty for certain crimes, many Americans in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were highly vocal opponents, known as abolitionists. The best known of them was Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Rush equated the death penalty with a cruel monarchy, specifically that of England's King George, and believed that the United States as republic should have nothing to do with executions. Rush was influential in his home state of Pennsylvania; other leaders joined his abolitionist efforts. By 1830 the movement had spread out to a number of other states, which either banned capital punishment or greatly limited the number of capital crimes. Although the public opinion has shifted on the question of death penalty, one trend that has been consisted in the late 1800s is to make executions less brutal. In 1890 the electric chair was used for the first time. Since then, other methods, like the gas chamber or lethal injection, were developed to make executions less barbaric and painful to the condemned.

Although more modern methods in carrying out the death penalty were used, the abolitionist movement was becoming more stronger and more vocal. Groups as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Legal Defence Fund began challenging capital punishment cases in court, appealing numerous sentences to the Supreme Court. The groups claimed that the death penalty violated the Eighth Amendment, which prohibited "cruel and unusual punishment". In the present thirty-eight states allow the death penalty, the remaining twelve do not.

Frustrated by what the perceive as an increase in urban state crimes -especially the vicious murders related to the drug trade- many Americans are speaking out for the death penalty. Polls indicate that as many as 75 % of Americans belief that the death penalty is appropriate in some cases.

The objections of the abolitionists are varied: The death penalty, they insist, violates religious beliefs about killing, remains unfair to minorities and is therefor unconstitutional, inhumane and barbaric. They disagree that the death penalty is a deterrence to crime, and worry that innocent people may be executed.


a) The Death Penalty Is Legally Just

Most opponents of the death penalty are fond on quoting the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, the one that forbids "cruel and unusual" punishment. According to them the death penalty is cruel and unusual and therefor unconstitutional. But read the Constitution more carefully, you will find that the death penalty is mentioned - twice. Twice the legality of taking a criminal's life is not only mentioned but assumed.

Although the Constitution is specifying that the death penalty may be used, it warns that there are certain stipulations that must first be met. The phrase "due process of law" may be a subject to debate, but not the idea that the individual can, under some circumstances, be deprived of life. The only question here is the process by which that can be accomplished. Throughout the history of the United States movements have attempted to abolish the death penalty on legal grounds and in some points they actually were successful. For example in 1972 the Supreme Court abolished the arbitrary way in which the death penalty was applied: "The infliction of death as a punishment for murder is not without justification and ... is not unconstitutionally severe"2.

From this time on the Supreme Court has made every possible effort to make the death penalty fair. It has demanded balance and consistency, equality and fairness.

After all it is still important to keep in mind that the death penalty's abolition would take place on moral grounds, and would have nothing to do with its constitutionality.

b) The Death Penalty Is Legally Unjust

As I said before, most opponents of the death penalty refer to the Eighth Amendment that forbids "cruel and unusual" punishment. In other words, if the Supreme Court should decide that the death penalty is cruel and unusual, then it would be deemed unconstitutional, and scrapped. However this is possible, because it is important to understand that even though the justices of a former Supreme Court might have disagreed that executions were cruel and unusual, this fact does not mean that the Supreme Court in future may rule the opposite. Law in the United States is not written in stone, and there is no doubt that society has changed its views of the notion of cruelty over the years.

Over the course of more than six hundred years, humankind has moved from drawing and quartering prisoners to beheading them, from shooting the by firing squads to hanging them. These changes were motivated by a desire to be more humane, more merciful. The electric chair was introduced in 1890 to modernise and humanise past methods of executing. It was hoped that this chair would do what other methods had not done - provide a quick, human death.

However, abolitionists do not see the new methods of execution in that way. For them, the death penalty itself "is today an unusually severe punishment, unusual in its pain, in its finality, and in its enormity. No other existing punishment is comparable to death in terms of physical and mental suffering"2. The inability to find a means of killing that is not demeaning and cruel proves that the Eighth Amendment is violated every time a prisoner is plucked from death row and strapped into the chair, hanged or injected with poison.

c) Executions Can Be Human

Opinion polls taken in 1997 suggest that America is more in favour of the death penalty than ever before. More than 70 % of the Americans seem to want the state to dispose of the most brutal criminals in the most final ways. But while the numbers may seem overwhelming, some experts believe that people may lose the resolve if they knew more about the facts of execution.

This theory is called the "Marshall Hypothesis", named after former justice Thurgood Marshall. Marshall, a long time opponent of capital punishment, believed that if Americans would knew more about the cruel and inhumane methods of execution, "the great mass citizens ... would conclude that the death penalty is immoral and therefore unconstitutional"3. Although the methods of capital punishment today are more human and more merciful, it is a fact that the four means of execution - electrocution, lethal gas, lethal injection and hanging - can occasionally cause pain and suffering. The electric chair, and hanging, too, sometimes fail to be quick, and there have been glitches in lethal injections - executioners sometimes had difficulty finding a suitable vein into which to inject the poison, and some victims have suffered breathing trauma before being rendered unconscious by the injection.

No matter, how "clean" the system of execution has been up till now, there are slip-ups, which occasionally happen and which can cause great suffering.

Another subject to debate is the question if the death penalty really does to be human. Many people are of the opinion that before feeling sorry for the executed, we should remember the real victims, who did not have such merciful options.

d) The Death Penalty Can Ease the Suffering of Victims´ Families

In recent years there has been a move toward recognising the rights of crime victims and their families. It is increasingly common for a tearful family member to address the murderer in court, to be given an opportunity to express the grief and pain resulting from the loss of a wife, a husband, a brother or a daughter. Sixteen states allow victims families to view executions, the idea being the victim's loved ones can gain peace of mind through the killer's death.

But opponents argue that such "peace of mind" and having "a place at the table" are merely euphemism for vengeance. Here the question arises if death by lethal injection really "equal" the death by raping and strangulation, or the torture of mutilation.

Supporters of the death penalty say, that it is not merely vengeance, but retribution - a way that society can balance the scales. It is a way of giving the victims and their families a feeling of satisfaction for what was done to them, to make them whole as possible or to restore integrity. This method shows the victim's families that "society and the entire system care enough about us to see to it that our daughter's killer receives his appropriate punishment. It let us know that they did right by us as far as they could"4.

But there are also many opponents who respond to the great Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi was convinced that "an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind". For him the notion of justice as a retaliation or vengeance is a trap of violence. Experts are also of the opinion that feelings of vengeance which can only be quenched by seeing the murderer die in the electric chair or by lethal injection cannot bring about closure. Such emotions cannot do anything but keep up the grieving person feeling raw and bitter, because the road of executing a convicted killer is usually more than a decade long - if it ever ends. "The continuos sequence or courtroom scenes inherent in death penalty cases only serve to keep up emotional wounds raw and in pain for years"5.After all, the opponents of the death penalty believe that with capital punishment the cycle of suffering continues, without healing or help for any of the victims. In fact, when executions occur, there are new victims - a new set of parents, brothers, sisters, who are grieving.

In conclusion it is infinitely more important that the victims and their families are honoured and valued by a violence free response to such crimes. Rage and loathing, carried to such an extreme, demeans us all.


a) The Death Penalty Unfairly Targets Minorities

There has been a great deal written over the years about the discrepancies in the way Americans of colour, especially black Americans, are sentenced in murder cases. In fact, one of the chief arguments heard against the death penalty is that it is racist. And since it is flawed in such a way, the argument goes, executions should be abolished.

Before 1972 judges and juries were allowed wide discretion in imposing the death penalty or lesser sentences in murder cases. A great deal of inconsistency arose, because of prejudice or sheer whim. But in 1972 racial discrimination concerning the death penalty was addressed to the justices of the Supreme Court, who decided that the death penalty was indeed being applied in arbitrary, inconsistent ways, clearly a situations in which racism could prevail unchecked. The Supreme Court determined that until States eliminated this arbitrariness, prisoners could not be executed. In other words, the death penalty was declared unconstitutional and suspended.

But as time went on, these laws passed the inspection of the Supreme Court, so that the death penalty could once more be used.

But that does not mean that racism has been disappeared of the application of the death penalty - or any other aspect of the criminal justice system.

Death penalty opponents are convinced that changes made in the statutes were only cosmetic and that there is still far too much power in the hands of judges and juries, who consistently misuse it. The statistics speak for themselves: Today black Americans make up 12 % of the population, but account for 42 % of the inmates on death row. From 1976 to 1998 eighty-one blacks have been executed for killing whites; only four whites have been executed for killing blacks. In the last years, an amazing 97 % of the victims of executed criminals were white. Study after study has supported these findings, and eventually the evidence became so overwhelming that the federal General Accounting Office (GAO) did its own research. In a 1990 report the GAO reviewed several relevant studies and concluded:

"In eighty-two percent of the studies, race of the victim was found to influence the likelihood of being charged with capital murder or receiving the death penalty, i.e., those who murdered whites were found more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered blacks."6

b) The Death Penalty Does Not Unfairly Target Minorities

No one can doubt that in the past racist attitudes accounted for inequity in many areas of social and political life. As long as ignorance exists in the world, it seems likely that there will always be some who prejudge on the basis of race.

But many supporters of the death penalty are of the opinion that this is certainly not the norm and the majority of the Americans attempt to meet challenge or fairness when put to the test. For them the argument to eliminate the death penalty on the ground that it could conceivably be racially biased is illogical. As some social scientists say, using that logic, "would require us to condemn virtually every legal system in the history of the world"7.

Another argument for the death penalty supporters shows one important study in 1987 which shed some much needed light on the reasons for the discrepancy. For one thing the study found out that the crimes committed by blacks tended to be those for which the death penalty is called for. Black-on-white murders (blacks as murders, whites as victims) more frequently involved kidnapping and rape, mutilations, tortures and beatings. On the other hand most crimes involving black victims stemmed from disputes or fights - crimes for which the prosecutors rarely seek the death penalty.

So for the death penalty supporters the argument that more blacks than whites might be caught is immaterial. And the fact that some deserving white criminals were not caught or convicted may point to trouble, but it says nothing about the death penalty itself.

c) Innocent People Have Been Executed

The history of criminal justice system in America as elsewhere is rife with account of people who have been wrongly accused of heinous crimes and sentenced to death.

Two professors, who were strong opponents of the death penalty, published a sensational research study, which was an in-depth look at death sentences handed down in the twentieth century. This study found out that in the United States between 1900 and 1885, 349 people incorrectly convicted of capital crimes were later found to be innocent. Of these, 23 were actually executed.

While their study the two professors found several key areas in which the system "broke down", including deliberately falsified testimony from witness, negligence on the part of attorneys or law enforcement personnel, coerced confessions, racial bias and community pressure for a quick conviction.

Another reason why innocent people have been executed is the lack of money of prisoners on death row. None can afford high-powered attorneys - or any attorney, for what the matter. Most are represented by court-appointed counsel, as it is the right of people who cannot afford a lawyer. Unfortunately, these are generally the most underpaid, overworked attorneys, and because of the high turnover in public defenders offices, the least experienced.

Another problem for the convicts who desperately want to prove their innocence are the hearings which mostly cannot help. Even if a new bit of evidences surfaces that would prove a prisoner did not commit a murder, he might be very well unable to get such a hearing in which to introduce it. In the most states, there is simply no formal procedure by which a defendant could produce new evidence of innocence before his execution.

In other words, the criminal justice system, so large and fraught with the potential of human error, is not good enough, as abolitionists think, to wager human lives. The fallibility of human judgement is unavoidable in such a human system.

The supporters of the death penalty make no discussion on the fact that it is certainly possible that an innocent person could be executed; it is, after all, a system devised and run by human beings. It is also possible that an innocent person has already been put to death.

But what the supporters now argue is that, however, such an ultimate error could occur should not be a reason to abolish the death penalty. Even Hugo Bedau, a strong opponent of the death penalty, acknowledges that it is "false sentimentally to argue that the death penalty ought to be abolished because of the abstract possibility that innocent people might be executed."8


a) The Death Penalty Deters Murder

The idea of deterrence is that a potential murderer might not act, because he feared execution. The death penalty is scary for all of us. No matter what method of execution is used, it sounds dreadful, because death is final and irrevocable. People fear it; therefore if anything can keep one person from committing a murder, it is the fear that he, too, will die. Penalties of any sort keep people in line - that is why the criminal justice system exacts them. The stiffer the fine, the more severe the penalty, the greater the fear. The death penalty is the highest penalty, so it is obviously the highest thing people are afraid of, which keeps them in check.

But on the other hand, abolitionists of the death penalty are convinced that most murders are not committed by rational, clear-thinking people. Most murders happen in the passion of the moment, and nobody with any sense is suggesting that these murderers are going to stop and weigh the consequences of what they are doing.

On the other hand, many examples can be given, where serial killers, burglars, gang members, and others who plan their crime in advance can and do think of the possibilities. Many refused to carry weapons, for fear that a killing would occur and they would be charged with murder in the first degree, carrying the death penalty.

So what abolitionists now suggest is that any severe punishment which is consistently and speedily exacted can be a deterrent to crime; therefore, they suggest, why not just sentence our most wicked criminals to life in prison without parole? No one would no longer have to worry about them committing further crimes, plus society would not have to face the moral quandaries that occur when it kills a killer. But here the question arises of how do we know that such a prisoner cannot escape or that later laws or court rulings could enable him to be paroled? Many death row inmates had their sentences commuted, or changed, to life imprisonment. They were released into the general prison population, often with frightening results. In Texas, for example, twelve of forty-seven commuted prisoners were responsible for twenty-one serious violent crimes against other inmates and staff. One killed another prisoner. One was released on parole (a new court ruling made that possible) and killed a young girl.

We should remember that these were criminals who had been supposedly sentenced to life in prison without parole.

b) The Death Penalty Does Not Deter Murder

Many abolitionists of the death penalty argue that this final penalty could never be a deterrent, because the conviction process takes too much time. As a former FBI investigator explained: "The dim prospect of a possible death sentence and execution somewhere at the end of a fifteen-year procedural morass - that is, if you get caught, if you don't plea bargain, if you draw a tough judge and a tough jury, if you don't get reversed, if they don't change the law, et cetera, et cetera - isn't much of a deterrent."9

So the closer the punishment is to the crime, the more effective it will be. If a murderer could be punished swiftly, in a matter of a few weeks, even hard-core abolitionists admit that we would see a marked degrease in the members of such crimes. Would-be murderers would stop and consider their acts if they knew justice would be swift and sure.

But the problem of these days is the machinery of justice - especially as it pertains to the death penalty - because it cranks very slowly. A person convicted today and sentenced to death waits an average of nine years until the date of execution; lots of prisoners wait longer. The reason for the long delays is built into the criminal justice system. Capital punishment statues provide for an automatic review of every death sentence by a state appeals court. If that court upholds there are provisions of postconviction hearings in the state court system. And if there are any questions of federal law involved in the proceedings, the case can travel up to the Supreme Court. All of this takes time - lots of it.

But the long paper trails involved in trying and appealing (and trying and appealing again) are not only time-consuming, but costly. For example, California spends $90 million each year on capital cases; one single execution costs on an average about $2.7 million. Surely the money could be better spent and the waste of time, too, is irritating to everyone.

But there are also many abolitionists who are convinced that even if the conviction process will speed up - greasing the wheels of the criminal justice system - there would be no deterrence. Nothing exists today that proves that putting prisoners to death keeps others from murder. What advocates of deterrence claim is the threat of being put to death for committing murder can strike fear into a potential murderer's heart. The very severity of the punishment - the electric chair, hanging, lethal injection - can do what life behind prison bars cannot do, they say. But abolitionists now argue that it is not the severity of the punishment that deters. If it was, would not we still be boiling people in oil, or lopping the hands of thieves, or chopping their heads off? Would not we want the most severe punishment to be even more severe? And would not we expect to see real results? And we would do it in the public square at moon, and set up the bleachers to make sure that everyone has a bird's-eye view, or televise it to see the widest possible audience. In former times that was how things used to be. But it did not work; even though the punishments were gruesome and highly publicised, crime continued. But what is then the reason why so many people believe in the deterrence of the death penalty? The answer is that the "normal" people would fear being caught and tried, they would fear being convicted and placed on death row. But exactly this is the weakness of the deterrence theory - that we are not murderers, as researchers of the death penalty wrote: "Murderers are not like most people, except that they are human. Murdering - killing - is deviant behaviour, improbable behaviour, unpredictable behaviour. It is not likely, therefore, that before committing a crime, a murderer has nightmares about the prospect of a murder trial, a conviction, and death by whatever means. It may not even enter his consciousness."10

Also other research damns the deterrence supporters. A comparison of the murder rates in states with the death penalty and those without yields surprising result. Some studies found that in clusters of states matched along ethnic, religious, and economic lines, the death penalty had no effect on the murder rates in the state examined.



a) The Author

Sister Helen Prejean is a Catholic nun who grew up in Louisiana in the 40ies and 50ies in an as solid family one could hope for with loving and caring parents. As a child, Helen often got in touch with racial segregation and physical violence against blacks, things and attitudes which could, in her opinion, neither be understood nor justified, and her way to fight racial segregation and to help the poor has become the work in St.Thomas, a New Orleans housing project of poor black residents, by teaching high school drop-outs. Of course it was not easy to for her to adapt to the new living circumstances; she firstly felt like entering a war zone, a foreign country without any rules. By working with sixteen-year-old girls, having already one or two children of their own and illiterate and violent teenagers, her attitudes toward "living a fulfilled life" has changed, she got used to appreciate simple things and essential goods and realised how deprived her former life was. Sister Helen is an energetic and animated woman who does little to remind that she is a nun.

"Dead Man Walking" is a result of her visits to two death-row inmates at Louisiana State Penitentiary where she serves as a spiritual adviser.

b) Contents

In January 1982, Helen Prejean is asked to become a pen pal of a death row inmate, who's name is Patrick Sonnier and who was sentenced to death because he and his brother killed a teenage couple after raping the girl. At first, she feels uncomfortable and also a bit guilty having a close relationship with a murderer and so to say betraying the victims and their families. But regardless of Pat`s past, the relationship between him and the nun becomes closer and deeper after exchanging letters for several months, Patrick invites the nun to visit him and to become his "spiritual adviser", which means that she will be allowed to remain with the condemned man in the death house when relatives and friends must already leave and that she will witness the execution.

After their first meeting, the nun is positively surprised how human and even likeable the man is and it becomes it becomes hard for her to imagine this guy, being still so grateful to have somebody to talk to and treating her really friendly, committing the evil crime he is arrested for. Helen starts visiting Pat regularly and they usually lead some kind of small talk, Pat still refuses to talk about the murder, which the nun accepts; she appreciates her role as a listener who Pat seems to have never had.

One day in July 1983, Pat tells the nun that he received his death warrant, he is scheduled for the execution on Friday, August 19. And now, for the first time, Pat starts talking about the murders. He tells Helen that originally nobody was suppose to get killed. His younger brother Eddie, however, got upset, lost his temper and shot the kids. Pat's plan was now that each one of the brothers should confess the murders in order to confuse the police and eventually to gain a more lenient sentence. Eddie, however, misunderstood his brother; he thought they both would accuse the other one being the killer. Thus, Pat had confessed, Eddie confirmed his statement and, as a matter of a fact, Pat was sentenced to die whereas Eddie received a life sentence.

Today, Pat feels remorseful and ashamed for what had happened. He somehow accepts his present situation and that his is made responsible for the murder. He neither claims not to have killed the teenagers nor feels hatred or bitterness toward his brother.

The nun hears of a lawyer in Atlanta called Millard Farmer who defends death row inmates and decides to call him. Millard, who is aware of wasting too much time, immediately orders the transcripts to study the file. While preparing the petition of a stay of execution, Millard Farmer discovers several severe mistakes made by the defence attorney in Pat's trial who was incapable of defending his rights in an adequate way. Having had Millard as an attorney in his first trial, they are sure, Pat would have never received the ultimate sentence. Now, however, it is to late, and the only thing Millard can do is to prepare the petition and to hope that the Court, which is normally interested in speeding up executions, will not refuse to hear the case. But the petition is denied by the U.S. Supreme Court. The execution is set on April 5, 1984. Among the speakers who claim for the death penalty is the father of the boy who was killed. Helen starts talking to the man and he tells her about his deep pain and the never ending mourning about the death of his son. He also asks the nun why she spends all her time worrying about Sonnier and does not see that they, the "real" victims, needed her too. The nun is shocked and accuses herself having made a big mistake in giving all her power to Pat and forgetting about the victims` families.

Helen is visiting Pat daily, often going beyond her personal limits. She talks to the inmate, more often, however, listens to him and prays that he will have the strength to make his last walk.

It is April 4, 1984. Like every day, Helen goes to see Pat after visiting his younger brother. They pray together, and Pat says he will take the opportunity to address his last words to the fathers of the victims who will also witness the execution in order to see him die. Helen, however, is capable of persuading him to let his last words not to be words of hatred or bitterness but words of forgiveness and maybe even excuse.

At 6 p.m., Pat receives his final meal. He is interrupted when the warden tells him that the Court, again, turned him down. Two hours later Millard phones and says that he was neither successful in persuading the governor granting clemency. And now, it was for sure, there is no way out: this day, short after midnight, Patrick Sonnier will die on the electric chair.

When it is over, it is still very hard for Helen to realise Pat is dead. And the thing she upsets most of al is the anonymity of the system; in fact nobody can really be made responsible for the death of Pat Sonnier. The governor, the wardens, the members of the pardon board, even the executioner - they all can argue that they were just doing their jobs within the system. Helen, knowing she did everything she could do for Pat, decides not to get personally involved in a death case any more and better accepts the death penalty as a part of society. But when she gets letters of people being upset, mainly Catholics, who cannot understand her love and compassion given to a killer while neglecting the victim's families, she decides to inform the public about the death penalty, especially about the way it is carried out. Together with Millard Farmer, she founds a training group for people who want to become spiritual advisers of death row inmates. For her, the time of public witness, public education and campaigns has become in order to make destinies of (innocent) death row inmates public. She absolutely devotes herself to her work with the main goal to finally abolish the death penalty.

One day in October 1984 the nun receives a phone call of Millard Farmer. He tells her he represents two death row inmates and asks her to become, again, a spiritual adviser of at least one of them. Even though Helen swore herself after the death of Patrick not to become a spiritual adviser any more, she agrees, because she feels she cannot protect herself from the horror of death row while a man urgently needs her help and love.

The inmate's name is Robert Willie and the crime he committed is somehow similar to Pat's one. Again, Helen feels a bit uncomfortable by getting in touch with a man who committed that evil crimes. She also decides not to make the same mistake again and forget about the victim's families, although they are declared supporters of the death penalty. After the first meeting with Robert Willie, the nun, who expected to see a paranoid and crazed man, again wonders how Robert, whose behaviour was polite and friendly, could have committed such a cruel murder. They lead a long conversation, Helen tells him about her being a nun and about her work. Also Robert refuses to speak about the crime and does not show any remorse. This confirms the nun in her decision to get to know the victim's families.

A few days later, the nun visits Robert the second time. It has become hard for her to concentrate on his case, always thinking of the victim's families and their pain they now suffer, all because of the man she is fighting for. Thus, she asks Robert to tell her about the murder, the reasons that made him participating in the crime. He assures the nun he feels sorry about what happened and that is has never been is his intention to kill somebody. Joe, his friend, went crazy and started raping and stabbing the girl. In this situation, he was too afraid to interfere. Secondly, he emphasises, he neither raped another girl nor shot a boy in his head.

The nun and Millard Farmer decide to try a petition to the Federal Fifth Circuit Court, but not really surprisingly, the Court denies this petition; Robert Willie is determined to die on December 28, 1984 on the electric chair. Helen starts now visiting Robert more often, preparing him for his execution, guiding him, talking to him. And Helen tells him the same as Patrick Sonnier; that his last words can be words either of love or hate and that a wish for peace for the victim's families is maybe the best thing he can do to them.

Even though the nun experiences the whole process of counting days, waiting for the execution, already for the second time, it is hard and painful for her, maybe even harder, because she now knows what is coming up next. She forces herself not to let herself go but stay strong, accompanying Robert to the electric chair.

After Robert's funeral, Helen spends some time with his mother, sharing her feelings of grief and mourning. Still, she decides to keep on fighting for the abolition of the death penalty in the U.S., giving lectures, organising public demonstrations and leading seminars to inform the public. She also participates in a meeting of a victims` group, where parents of murdered children share their feelings of pain, sorrow and anger. The pain she experiences is overwhelming. The motto of the group is "give sorrow words", and Helen listens to parents talking about their marriages broke after their child's death and how difficult it is, for some of them even impossible, to cope with the loss of their child. She gets to know the racial disparities, how unfairly mainly black victims are treated by the criminal justice system and - the worst of all - how impossible it is for most of the parents to lead a normal life again. They are avoided by friends who do not know how to react and often consider committing suicide, some try to rumble the pain with alcohol or drugs.

Thus, Helen decides to propose to her abolitionist group to inaugurate an assistance program for the victims´ families. In 1988, they establish the New Orleans victim assistance group, supported by a few church groups.

Through the years, Helen saw many people die, more people mourning, but she also experienced that killing another human being has never set an end to the grief, on the contrary, added to the pain of the victims´ families. Forgiveness is never easy, each day it must be prayed for and struggled for and won.

"When Chava Colon from the Prison Coalition asks me one January day in 1982 to become a pen pal to a death-row inmate, I say, Sure. The invitation seems to fit with my work in St. Thomas, a New Orleans housing project of poor black residents. Not death row exactly, but close." Thus begins Sister Helen Prejean´s story of her encounter with the death penalty in America. When she first writes to Patrick Sonnier, the condemned killer of two teenagers, this unassuming Roman Catholic nun is wholly unprepared for what will follow. As she grows to know Sonnier, she sees the terrified human being beneath the surface of the repentant killer and becomes increasingly disturbed not only by the inhumane conditions of his confinement but also by the terrible anguish he suffers during the long countdown toward execution. She also sees the moral struggles of the officials who have to carry out killings that the law demands but that they do not personally believe in. And she comes to know the dismaying truth about the death penalty's disproportionate cost in money and sources, and how fragile and sometimes chaotic the criminal justice system can be. Her experiences soon lead her to ask: How can society benefit from replicating the violence it condemns? She mentions along the way all the arguments against the death penalty - that it does not deter; that it is inflicted unequally on the poor, on southerners, on blacks; that it is expensive; that it does not statistically reduce crime; that revenge is an evanescent and spiritually imprisoning satisfaction.

It is her experience that is important in the book - the need to serve life in a context of death. She tells her story with a quiet eloquence, not indulging personal attack. Yet we learn, by the narrative's cumulative force, how the killing process hardens, corrupts, or deadens those who serve it.

For me, the book presents a unique perspective on one of the greatest moral dilemmas in America, from a nun who works closely with both death-row inmates and the families of victims. Without denying the inmates brutality, she nevertheless comes down squarely against institutionalised killing of criminals.

It is fascinating that Helen´s account is even handed in reporting the perspectives of inmates, victims´ families and prison employees. Skilfully waving her reflections, she asserts her belief that capital punishment is immoral, while not attempting to explain away the arguments and feelings that support the opposite conclusion. Her experiences with the men on death row and the victims´ families convinced me that the death penalty serves no legitimate end.

In my opinion, Sister Helen Prejean is an excellent writer, direct, honest and unsentimental; her accounts of crime and punishment are fascinating and gripping, and her arguments are really persuasive.


1 Loeb, Crime and Capital Punishment

15 von 16 Seiten


The death penalty
417 KB
Arbeit zitieren
Olivia Sövegjarto (Autor), 2000, The death penalty, München, GRIN Verlag,


  • Noch keine Kommentare.
Im eBook lesen
Titel: The death penalty

Ihre Arbeit hochladen

Ihre Hausarbeit / Abschlussarbeit:

- Publikation als eBook und Buch
- Hohes Honorar auf die Verkäufe
- Für Sie komplett kostenlos – mit ISBN
- Es dauert nur 5 Minuten
- Jede Arbeit findet Leser

Kostenlos Autor werden