By Eddie Mikus
Fordham University welcomed renowned anti-death penalty activist, Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J., on March 26 in Bepler Commons. The Roman Catholic nun and author of Dead Man Walking, a novel about her experiences with a death-row inmate, challenged an audience to consider some of the moral issues relating to the enforcement of capital punishment.
“When we say we’re pro-life, a lot of people say, ‘Well, I’m pro-life and I’m against killing unborn children,” Prejean said, describing the attitudes of some death-penalty supporters. “But those criminals, if they’re really found guilty, and they did those terrible crimes, well they crossed the line themselves. And you’ll hear prosecuting attorneys during trials say to the jury, ‘Don’t feel any sympathy for this person. This person crossed the line…don’t have compassion for them, they don’t deserve compassion.”
This is the third time in the past ten years that Prejean has been invited to Fordham. She gave a similar lecture in May 2005 and was honored by the Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education in October 2010.
During her talk, Prejean claimed that the enforcement of the death penalty was contrary to internationally-accepted moral standards and that it could constitute torture.
“In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed in 1948, led by Eleanor Roosevelt, Article 3, every human being has a right to life,” Prejean said, referring to a 1948 United Nations document. “No exceptions, except if you do this real bad thing. Then you don’t have a right to life. “
She posed the question as to whether the psychological implications of the death penalty can be considered torture, which is a hot topic among Fordham faculty and students in recent months. At a recent teach-in by Fordham Faculty Against Torture, Dr. Meyers, professor of history, sparked a similar discussion on what actions constitute torture.
“Do [death row guards] take [inmates] out of their cells and pull their fingernails out? Do they do water torture and drop drops of water on their head until they go crazy. No. They just put them in a cell 15, 20 or 30 years and say, ‘One day we’re going to take you out and kill you,’” Prejean said.
Prejean believes practice entails a state entity imposing mental or physical anguish upon a defenseless person.
“Everyone I know on death row has had the same nightmare,” Prejean said, “dreaming that ‘they’re coming for me. It’s my time to go. The guards are coming for me, they’re dragging me out of my cell’…mental torture.”
Prejean also argued that politicians are willing to overlook certain requirements regarding who can be executed in order to present a favorable image towards voters.
“The Supreme Court has said that you can’t kill a person who is so mentally ill that they don’t realize they’re being executed,” Prejean said. “Once you make legal that you can kill a human being in this country, all these things go by the wayside. That you are a juvenile, that you had an abusive childhood, mitigating circumstances.”
The event was sponsored by Fordham Club and co-sponsored by Respect for Life, campus ministry, The Curran Center for American Catholic Studies, and the theology department.