Dead Men Walking in Ohio

By Paul Kopp

Most debates about capital punishment are narrowed to a choice between an approach from either the Old Testament or the New Testament: Do we take an eye for an eye or turn the other cheek?

Last month Sister Helen Prejean, a notable advocate for the abolition of the death penalty spoke at Xavier University. Prejean is best known for her book, Dead Man Walking, which inspired the Oscar-winning film of the same name. The book was an account of her experience in Louisiana as spiritual advisor to Death Row inmate Elmo Patrick Sonnier, whom she accompanied to his execution in the electric chair in 1984.

Prejean, 70, is a Roman Catholic sister of the order of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille. She began her work with Death Row inmates in 1981. She is now working for the Death Penalty Discourse Network in New Orleans, and travels the world meeting with prisoners and speaking out against capital punishment. She talks about her intimate experiences dealing with Death Row inmates and their families, as well as the families of murder victims, in the hope of furthering the public’s knowledge of the process of capital punishment.

“The journey that I try to help people with is first to stand with others in outrage when innocents have been ripped out of our lives by these very violent crimes,” Prejean says.

A link to slavery

Most people haven’t thought deeply about the issue because it’s something that doesn’t concern most people, she says. She also finds that, in general, once people have a more profound understanding of how the death penalty actually works, they are more perceptive to its shortcomings.

When Prejean talks about the death penalty in the United States, she is quick to note that understanding the context of the society which it came from is very important.

“You have to connect it directly with homelessness in America, people without health care,” she says. “You have to connect it with all the systemic things that are wrong, that don’t allow so many people to participate fully in American life.”


Sister Helen Prejean

Her reasoning focuses not only on the moral argument against execution, but also on inequalities within the political, racial and social climates that keep the system in place.

“Can you picture a prosecutor getting on the evening news and saying, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, one of our valuable citizens was killed last night, a homeless man in the street, and we are outraged about this. We are going to seek the ultimate penalty for the ones who killed this valuable citizen.’ You know you will never hear that,” Prejean says.

Politicians and prosecutors utilize the idea of capital punishment as a campaign tool to show they are tough on crime, according to Prejean.

“It is 95 percent about political symbolism than it is an actual effective way to deter crime,” she says.

Racism, she adds, is also a major factor.

“Eighty percent of executions are taking place in states where slavery was most present,” she says. “The places where people of color live is where the death penalty is going to be most operative.”

Though she knows where the problems with the death penalty begin, and where she feels they should end, the basis of her message is that taking one life for another is not justice, and it does not bring peace to the families of the victims. It only causes them more grief, she says.

Execution is the highest form of punishment in a justice system and culture that have lost touch with humanity, Prejean says.

“When I witnessed that first execution, I came out of the prison and threw up,” she says. “That’s why I wrote the book. People are never going to see this, so we are going to have to bring them closer to it.”

‘Becoming more uncomfortable’

Capital punishment became part of Ohio law in 1803. In 1972 the U.S. Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional, outlawing the practice across the country. In subsequent years, state legislatures passed death-penalty laws that have been upheld by the Supreme Court.

Ohio lawmakers enacted the state’s new capital punishment statute in 1981. However the state did not resume executions until 1999. In 1991 then-Gov. Dick Celeste commutated death sentences against eight men and women. Since 1999 Ohio has executed 32 exec people by lethal injection.

Ohio’s use of the death penalty as recently received nationwide news coverage due to the botched execution of Romell Broom. Over a period of two hours the executioners failed to find a suitable vein in Broom’s arm, and Gov. Ted Strickland halted the execution. A hearing in federal court n Nov. 30th could decide whether the state will try a second time to execute Broom.

Concerns about the qualifications of the technicians carrying out lethal injections have become magnified by the Broom case. Though guards are trained to administer the poison, some critics say they lack the medical knowledge to do it properly. Dr. Jonathan Groner, professor of clinical surgery at the Ohio State College of Medicine, told the Cleveland Scene, “Ohio is caught in a ‘Hippocratic paradox.’ Those most qualified to help the state in executions – doctors, nurses, practicing EMTs – are forbidden from taking part in executions by

Broom’s was the first Ohio execution called off while in progress, though two other executions over the past four years have been delayed due to similar complications.

The incident has also brought further public attention to the moral issue. Ohioans to Stop Executions (OSTE) issued a statement saying, “No amount of adjustment to the death penalty process can achieve an outcome absent of pain and suffering for victims’ family members, witnesses, corrections workers and the condemned inmate.”

OSTE, founded in 1987, works to educate the public about executions.

“People don’t know a lot about the death penalty,” says Renee Berlon, southern Ohio organizer for OSTE. “The state is split right now. People are becoming more uncomfortable with it.”

Aside from the moral issue of capital punishment are matters of practicality. The death penalty, as practiced in the United States, is a long and expensive process, stretching over an average 10 years, Berlon says. A recent study by the Death Penalty Information Center acknowledged that it’s difficult to gauge how much a death sentence costs, but estimated $30 million per execution. Berlon says most northern states aren’t executing.

Ohio has 135 inmates on Death Row. Kentucky has 35 on Death Row; Texas has 350.