Sister Helen Prejean’s work against the death penalty

By Effie Caldarola | OSV News

Sister Helen Prejean, a dynamic foe of the death penalty, had just spoken to a crowd in a small town in Nebraska as part of our campaign to do away with execution in the state.

The year was 2015, and I worked for Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, which hosted Sister Helen. I was driving the two of us back to my home in Omaha through the dark, empty roads. Typical of Helen, she had agreed to stay in my guest room rather than stretch our organization’s budget for the privacy of a hotel.

And as we drove, I remember Helen, the very definition of an extrovert, talking animatedly and punching buttons on my console to make the heater work faster. I was exhausted and ready for bed; Helen, in her mid-70s then, was full of energy.

And when we arrived to find my husband up, she graciously sat down for a late-night glass of wine with us. Helen, a sister of St. Joseph, is the ultimate people person.

Her 1995 book, “Dead Man Walking,” told her story of befriending a man on death row and accompanying him to his execution. When it was made into a movie, with Susan Sarandon winning an Academy Award for the role of Helen, the Louisiana native became well known. Her book and the movie ultimately began a conversation on the death penalty that resulted in a shift in public opinion.

Her advocacy reached Rome, where she met with Pope John Paul II. Western nations had banned the practice. The U.S. stands out, along with countries like Iran, North Korea and China, as an outlier on the issue.

In his encyclical “The Gospel of Life,” Pope John Paul II called us to choose to be “unconditionally pro-life,” and in a 1999 visit to the U.S., he urged repeal of the death penalty.

In 2018, Pope Francis revised the catechism to call the death penalty “inadmissible.”

Sister Helen Prejean, a death penalty abolitionist, is seen in Anaheim, Calif., calling for an end to the death penalty in this 2016 file photo. In a statement issued through the progressive group MoveOn, the Sister of St. Joseph said her mission was both to serve as Texas death-row inmate Ivan Cantu’s spiritual adviser during his incarceration and “publicly share the injustice” of his execution Feb. 28, 2024. (OSV News photo/CNS file, J.D. Long-Garcia, The Tidings)

Killing to prove killing is wrong makes no sense. Everyone deserves a chance at repentance.

In the U.S., the death penalty is related to the growth of Jim Crow after the Civil War. Even today, it carries a racial tinge. The Death Penalty Information Center reports that in Louisiana, for example, the odds of a death sentence were 97% higher for those whose victim was white than for those whose victim was Black. Whose life matters?

Some claim it as a deterrence to murder. But the Northeast has the lowest murder rate in the nation, and only 0.5% of all executions. The South accounts for 80% of executions and yet has the highest murder rate in the nation.

One of the strongest reasons for abolishing the practice is the horrifying statistics on how often we execute an innocent person. One would be too many, but an average of four wrongly convicted death row inmates have been exonerated yearly since 1973, and only after long and expensive appeals. That’s a lot of innocent people who might have been killed.

One of those exonerated, after 19 years on death row, was Curtis McCarty, who also spent a night at my house during a speaking tour. Years were taken from McCarty for typical reasons: false witnesses, misleading forensic evidence and in his case, official misconduct.

In honor of the indefatigable Helen Prejean, who at 85 is still working for justice, visit for information about a group that works in close collaboration with the U.S. Catholic bishops. There you can learn about the death penalty and how you might help in sending messages in opposition to scheduled executions.

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Effie Caldarola is a wife, mom and grandmother who received her master’s degree in pastoral studies from Seattle University.


Author: OSV News

OSV News is a national and international wire service reporting on Catholic issues and issues that affect Catholics.

1 comment

The death penalty truly needs to be abolished! Thanks for running this article on one of my mentors – Sr. Helen!

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