As Sister Helen sees it, the death penalty represents "government-sanctioned killing." A member of the Sisters of St. Joseph, the Louisiana native drew national attention when the critically acclaimed 1995 motion picture Dead Man Walking, based on her book, won an Oscar.
Her lecture here was especially timely given the current state of political affairs in the Garden State. Proposed legislation awaiting action in Trenton would do away with capital punishment, replacing it with life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Celeste Fitzgerald, director of New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (NJADP), said the State Assembly's Judiciary Committee is scheduled to act on the legislation Dec. 6 with a vote expected Dec. 13. Although a specific date for State Senate action on the bill has not yet been determined, Fitzgerald sees a vote being cast "no later" than the end of the current legislative session Jan. 7. Tentative dates for State Senate action are Dec. 10 or 17; Jan. 3 or 7.
Fitzgerald described her Trentonbased, 12,000-member group (founded in 1999 with only five members) as "very hopeful" the death penalty will be abolished in New Jersey. She said the last state to legislatively do away with capital punishment was Iowa in 1965. If New Jersey does likewise, it would become the 14th state to eliminate the death penalty.
Noting the return of capital punishment in the United States 31 years ago, Sister Helen said religious groups in Canada convinced that country to do away with the death penalty. The "same groundswell," she declared, exists in New Jersey. "In New Jersey, truth is springing up out of the ground."
The United States Supreme Court reinstituted the death penalty in 1976. Since then there have been 1,098 executions in the United States-53 last year. Lethal injection represents the dominant method (85 percent) for carrying out executions, followed by electrocution (14 percent) and gas chamber/hanging/firing squad (1 percent).
New Jersey, which has had the death penalty on the books since 1982, has not executed anyone since 1963. However, the state currently has eight men on death row.
At a state study commission hearing in July 2006, the Catholic Bishops of New Jersey issued a statement, declaring that the death penalty "is not consistent with evolving standards of decency. Because the State of New Jersey has other means to redress the injustice caused by crime and to effectively prevent crime by rendering the one who has committed the offense incapable of doing harm and because we recognize the dignity of all human life, we continue to consistently and vigorously oppose the use of the death penalty."
Sister Helen began her presentation by recalling a chance airport meeting with death penalty proponent U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a Catholic. He will never, she said forcefully, be there when the condemned is strapped into the electric chair and "he will never touch the tears."
Stressing "the dignity" of everyone's life, Sister Helen somberly mentioned her personal "crucible" of accompanying six prisoners to the death chamber. "Truth springs out of human suffering," she said.
Focusing on the executions to which she was an eyewitness, Sister Helen lamented that in this country "we are steeped in a culture that violence is how we get justice." Declaring "people have to be brought down to the suffering," Sister Helen regretted that in this country "we kill to prove we are tough on crime." Often, she continued, psychiatrists wind up counseling guards who carry out an execution.
Time and again during her presentation, she expressed profound sympathy for the plight of the families of murder victims. Citing the pain felt by victims' families, Sister Helen said they "must be listened to." She mentioned one family is active in the effort to abolish the death penalty in the state. Sister Helen emphasized that statistics have shown that as many as 70 percent of victims' families "break up" due to the emotional aftershocks caused by the violent crime.
Sister Helen referred to a Texas case where a woman had been sentenced to death for killing a baby in her care. In Texas, she noted, part of the death penalty requirement is to establish that the accused poses a future danger to society. The condemned babysitter was poor and the court would not allow a head trauma expert to testify. The prosecutor, she explained, claimed that the women "had to be a murderer."
She found a lawyer in Philadelphia whose firm agreed to take the case. Four head trauma experts eventually gave their expert opinions in the women's defense and the medical examiner ultimately withdrew his testimony. The woman had come within two days of being executed. Sister Helen remembered that among the woman's reaction was that "Texas thinks it is God."
Following Sister Helen's presentation, those in attendance signed petitions to state lawmakers, calling upon them to end the death penalty.