StMU Research Scholars

Thou Shalt Not Kill

Capital punishment has been used in the United States since its independence from the United Kingdom and is still applied in many of the 50 states today, with most executions in Texas, Virginia, Georgia, and Alabama. Over time, advocates have agreed that the death penalty is morally wrong and they argued that it should be considered unconstitutional, yet they have not achieved an end to capital punishment in either state legislatures or in the Supreme Court.1

During the 1700’s, advocates against the death penalty were able to restrict this punishment to those committed heinous crimes. In 1847, the anti-death penalty community helped capital punishment to be removed from Michigan. This was changed after World War I ended. In 1924, the state of Nevada decided to use lethal gas as an execution process. Then came the execution of Gee Jon for murder, which brought back death as the punishment for inflicting death or murder. 2 Anti-death penalty movements did not regain strength until Sister Helen Prejean helped to cast the debate in different terms.

Sister Helen Prejean speaks during a demonstration against the death penalty, 2016 | Courtesy of CNS photo/J.D. Long-Garcia, The Tidings

Since 1981, Sister Helen Prejean has been a strong voice, and a most prominent one in the anti-death penalty community. Most humans and governments will not heed God’s commandment Thou Shall not Kill, but Sister Prejean became a strong advocate for that commandment. Beyond the religious imperative, Prejean explains how capital punishment is not useful in any way and is very dysfunctional. She has dedicated her life to God in the prison ministry in New Orleans. While Sister Prejean was living in the St. Thomas housing project, she began to write to a man who was convicted of killing two teenagers, Patrick Sonnier. Sonnier was to be executed by the electric chair in the State Prison of Louisiana.3

While Sister Prejean continuously visited Sonnier, she realized that executions were a huge issue, not only in Louisiana, but around the world. Sister Prejean wrote about her experiences in the book she wrote Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty.4 She writes and explains how Louisiana’s prison system corrupts those who are involved with carrying out the execution. Especially security guards or “prison wardens” are not alert when working, along with working in that environment, is the feeling of being stressed. The stress can cause them to react in a certain ways toward prisoners and even accept the death penalty against them.5 Prejean mentions how many politicians support the death penalty mainly because they do not want to be mocked for being weak on crime by having an anti-death penalty stance.6

Helen Prejean during these times took the initiative to spend time with the victims’ families and understand why the death penalty is a win for them. The reason the victims’ families believe this is a pro for them is because it is “healing” and they receive “faux closure”. During those fifteen years, she continued to witness five other executions in Louisiana and to this day gives the younger generation information on the death penalty by writing and giving lectures.7

Prejean always took the anti-death penalty to the political system and even caused a few battles with some victories that were not big, but in that time it was still something to her. She did everything she could to gain justice, but the movement ultimately could not completely end capital punishment in the US.8

Sister Helen Prejean at the Angolan State Penitentiary, 1961 | Courtesy of Brooks Kraft/Sygma/Corbis

Prejean did her best to abolish the death penalty and she always gave many reasons for it, but with the issues coming against the fear of criminals and the devaluation of human lives, it is still unlikely to see its eradication in the US. Today, Prejean as the founder of “Survive” runs this victim’s advocacy group in New Orleans. In addition to that, she counsels inmates who are on death row and she provides support to the families of victims who were murdered.

Barry Scheck’s Innocence Project helps those who are innocent to increase awareness and prevent execution. Prejean has received an award from the Innocence Project of Florida for her outstanding work in advocating against the death penalty. “Sister Helen asked…”, during her speech, “…but what about the people advocating and fighting for them and the people working at innocence projects?”.9

No matter the outcome, fighting for what is morally right continues to drive advocates who stand against the death penalty. Prejean will continue to investigate flaws in the death penalty system which has led to many innocents being wrongly executed. Sister Prejean questions the justice system because of the discriminatory way that capital punishment is disproportionately applied to minorities. As she continues, there is still hope in Washington for the Death Penalty to be removed. Senator Miloscia warns against the killing of innocent people, he calls these “improper death penalty executions.”10 Although many still support the death penalty, change occurs when new elected officials like Governor Inslee pronounce themselves against capital punishment. As we learned from Sister Prejean, fighting for justice is a moral commandment.  

  1. George Brauchler and Rich Orman, “Lies, Damn Lies, and Anti-Death Penalty Research,” 93, no. 3 (2005): 635-714.
  2.  McLaughlin, Jolie. “The Price of Justice: Interest-Convergence, Cost, and The Anti-Death Penalty Movement,Northwestern University Law Review,108, no. 2 (2014): 675-710. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost.
  3. “Biography” Sister Helen Prejean.
  4. Helen Prejean, Dead man walking: an eyewitness account of the death penalty in the United States, (New York: Vintage Books, (1994).
  5. Lewis, Dorothy Otnow, Catherine A. Yeager, Pamela Blake, Barbara Bard, and Maren Strenziok“Ethics Questions Raised by the Neuropsychiatric, Neuropsychological, Educational, Developmental, and Family Characteristics of 18 Juveniles Awaiting Execution in Texas.” Journal Of The American Academy Of Psychiatry And The Law, 32. No.4 (2004): 408-429 PsycINFO, EBSCOhost.
  6. Daniels, Kristen Whitney. “Helen Prejean sways hearts with stories.” National Catholic Reporter 53(24), (2017): 1a-2a.
  7. Press Release. “Innocence: Another Exoneration from Death Row—Reginald Griffin of Missouri,. Death Penalty Information Center. (2015).
  8. Mallory, Conally. “Abolitionists at home and abroad: a right to consular assistance and the death penatly.” Melbourne Journal Of International Law no. 1 (2016).
  9. De La Fuenta, Alejandra. “My Experience at Innocence Project of Florida’s 2016 Steppin’Out Spring Gala.” Plain Error: The Official Blog of The Innocence Project of Florida. (2016)
  10. Lauren Gill, “End of the Death Penalty? Washington Could Become the Next State to Abolish Capital Punishment” Newsweek, (2018).

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121 Responses

  1. I do not believe that we as a country should use the death penalty. First of all, we as citizens are the ones paying to fund it which means not purposely, but we are advocating for it. This is not a humane style of punishment, where as we as humans should not be the ones to hold another man or woman’s fate of life in our governments hands. Sister Prejean make a strong point by trying to get rid of this inhumane act.

  2. Great article! Capital punishment has been such a touchy subject since the beginning of time, people compare it with abortion a lot of the time. In ethics, we learn that it is morally wrong to kill people, even if it is the government doing it. I’m glad she stood up for what she believed in though. Sadly, the government is “an eye for an eye”.

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