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Saturday, November 16, 2019

10-24 Today's Catholic

Parents of victims, condemned join Sister Prejean in opposing death penalty
by Carol Sowa

    SAN ANTONIO • “Belt it out!” enjoined Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, when the microphone did not pick up the gentle voice of Sister Agnes Marie Marusak, CDP, giving the opening prayer for the Journey of Hope panel at Our Lady of the Lake University (OLLU) on Oct. 24.
    Despite laughingly protesting that “sisters don’t belt out,” Sister Marusak upped her delivery volume for the prayer written by Sister Prejean, a tenacious advocate for abolishing the death penalty. It concluded with the words: “Let us go forward now, knowing that the violence stops with us. Bless us, oh merciful God, and give us the strength for the journey.”
    Involved in a major way in that journey is Journey of Hope...from Violence to Healing, a national organization led by murder victims’ family members who believe in the healing power of forgiveness and who delivered a series of presentations in San Antonio Oct. 23-25 as part of their Texas tour.
    One of their most notable speakers was Sister Prejean, author of the book Dead Man Walking (later successfully turned into a film by Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon) and, more recently, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions.
    Sister Prejean is definitely not afraid to “belt out” her feelings on the subject of the death penalty. Joining her on the podium for the OLLU presentation were Marietta Jaeger-Lane, a Catholic whose young child was kidnapped and murdered, and Carter Flores, whose son, lacking the financial resources for adequate legal representation, is currently on death row in Texas. Accompanying them as a resource person was David Atwood, founder of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
    “I’m going to talk to you about waking up,” said Sister Prejean, who noted that most people rarely think about the death penalty unless it affects them personally. She pointed out that when the state executes someone, however, they are doing it in the name of their citizens. She related that originally execution was the only means for a state to protect society from dangerous individuals and the church sanctioned this. Today, however, the Catholic Church, and most Protestant denominations as well, have begun a journey towards ending this harsh and antiquated system.
     Sister Prejean’s own journey began while working with the poor in New Orleans. “I began to get involved with the death penalty because I got involved with poor people,” she said, noting that “the people we saw in the Super Dome are the people who get the death penalties — always poor people. It’s always people who don’t have the resources to make the law work for them.”
    Poverty, she said creates “a greased rail going to prison.” “When we’re not attending to the social fabric, we’re not attending to justice,” she said. “We are throwing human beings away.” Locked away where they are out of sight, they become invisible to us, much like the poor who live in our own cities, she observed.
    Sister Prejean’s personal journey involving the death penalty started when she was asked to correspond with an inmate on death row in Louisiana. Later, she would be present at his execution in the electric chair. “I saw Patrick Sonnier defenseless,” she said. “I saw him after a spiritual journey of two and half years, where the man they killed was a very different man who, with his brother, had committed a terrible act of violence.”
    That was the turning point for Sister Prejean. “I had to start telling the story,” she said. Her book and the film of Dead Man Walking followed, all done in order to wake up the American people and get them to reflect on what they are doing when they allow the state to decide who can live and who can die.     “We barely know how to collect the taxes right or fill the potholes!” she exclaimed. “Who has the wisdom to be able to know if somebody should live or die?”
    In her second book, The Death of Innocents, she tells of Dobie Gillis Williams, an African-American man with an IQ of 65 convicted and executed in Louisiana. “The story will break your heart,” she said, “but we need to have our hearts broken because we have to be brought close to this to see the terrible injustice and suffering.”
    The book also tells the story of Joseph O’Dell in Virginia, who spent 12 years on death row and was denied by the courts a DNA test that could have proven his innocence. After his execution, the state then destroyed the DNA evidence in the case. Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul II and the Italian parliament all became involved in O’Dell’s case, but to no avail.
    Later, Sister Prejean had the opportunity to dialogue with Pope John Paul regarding the death penalty and the Catholic Church. “The Catholic Church had a teaching, but it had loopholes in it,” she said, pointing out its wording “that the state has a right to execute people for grave or grievous crime in order to defend society.”
    The pope himself had said much the same thing in an encyclical, stating the death penalty’s use should be rare, if nonexistent, as society now has prisons to keep citizens safe without having to kill people. “It’s why the majority of countries in the world don’t have the death penalty anymore,” Sister Prejean noted.
    She pointed out to the pontiff that the wording allowing the state to execute “in cases of necessity” was being used by various nations to defend practices from stoning a woman for adultery to receiving the death penalty for being found with drugs in an airport. “Any country or state that executes is always going to claim it’s a necessity,” she told him.
    As a result, the pope changed the wording of his encyclical and the 1,700-year-old wording of the Catholic Catechism was also changed to reflect that, no matter how “grave or grievous the crime,” a society with a way to defend itself without killing should not practice the death penalty.
    “Dig into this issue,” Sister Prejean urged, “because in it we find what is the heart and lifeblood of our society.” She pointed out it is the poor who are “chosen for the death penalty,” with racism factoring in as well. Quoting a lawyer on the legal justice system she said, “You have more chance if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent.”
    She reflected on the execution of Patrick Sonnier. “Is it that we don’t give people room to be redeemed?” she asked. “Is it that we feel as a society we’ve got to freeze-frame people in the worst act of their lives and then freeze-frame ourselves as having to kill them, that redemption doesn’t count?”
    Marietta Jaeger-Lane spoke of the fatal family vacation which she, her husband and their five children took to Montana in 1973. While camping out, their seven-year-old daughter, Susie, was abducted in the middle of the night. They appealed in a press conference to the kidnapper to get in touch with them, but received no response.
     Jaeger-Lane recalled the authorities dragging the nearby river. “My heart would stop every time the boat would stop,” she said, “because I was so afraid that my little girl was going to be found in that water and I didn’t want her to be there.” As the day progressed, and with nerves on edge, her rage and desire for revenge on the perpetrator increased. She fantasized the FBI catching the man and telling her she could do whatever she wanted with him. “I knew, by the end of the day, that I could happily take his life with my bare hands and a smile on my face,” she said.
    That night however, as she tried to sleep she verbalized her rage. “But I no sooner turned over to go to sleep when I heard God say to me, ‘But that’s not how I want you to feel,’” she related. Though she knew Christians were called to forgive their enemies, Jaeger-Lane at first could not see this applying when her innocent, defenseless child was involved.
    “Over and over and over again I argued with God,” she said. “I justified myself. I tried to prove my side of the case.” God, however, was patient and persistent and eventually Jaeger-Lane “gave God permission to change my heart.”
    Nearly a year later there was still no word on Susie and, in an interview with a reporter from a Montana newspaper, Jaeger-Lane related that she would “give anything for the chance to talk to the kidnapper myself,” a quote that was included in the newspaper article that followed. The story was printed the day before the one year anniversary of her daughter’s disappearance and read by the kidnapper, who called Jaeger-Lane in the middle of the following night — one year to the minute that Susie had disappeared.
    While it was clear the kidnapper was calling to taunt her, Jaeger-Lane’s earlier surrender to God had caused such a change in her that, despite whatever the man might have done, she had begun to see him as precious in God’s eyes. In fact she had been praying for him during the year her daughter had been missing. Originally, these were simple prayers, such as, “If he’s hunting or fishing, may he have a good catch,” or “May he not have any car troubles if he’s traveling,” she recalled.
    “The more I prayed for him, the more I discovered it was easy to pray for him,” she said, “because if he had Susie, I wanted him to be good to her, and if he didn’t have Susie, I wanted him to have the courage it would take to come forth.” The caller was not expecting her genuine feelings of concern and compassion and finally broke down sobbing, saying he wished that the burden of what he had done could be lifted from him.
    “That’s when I knew what a miracle God had worked in me,” she said, “because, as desperate as I was to get Susie back, I knew I was desperate to help this man.” The phone conversation lasted over an hour, but because of electronic difficulties authorities were unable to trace the call. However, in his long conversation with Jaeger-Lane, the man had let slip clues to his identity which the FBI was able to use to apprehend him.
    Irrefutable evidence of the crime was later found in his home and Jaeger-Lane learned that Susie had been murdered a week after the kidnapping. But, by this time, her concept of justice had been changed to God’s justice — restoration.
    “I came to realize that to kill somebody in my little girl’s name would be to violate and profane the goodness and sweetness and beauty of who she was,” she said, “... that she was worthy of a more noble and honorable memorial than a cold-blooded, premeditated state-sanctioned killing of a restrained person, however deserving of death we think that person might be.” As a result, she pushed for the murderer receiving life imprisonment, rather than the death penalty. Later, she visited the young man’s mother to comfort her.
    Jaeger-Lane concluded her OLLU presentation by saying, “Don’t kill in my little girl’s name. ... This is not the way that God calls us to live. God calls us to aspire to a higher moral principle that says that all of life is sacred and all of life is worthy of preservation.”
    Also speaking that day was Carter Flores, whose son, Charles Flores, has been on death row nearly seven years, convicted of a murder he steadfastly maintains he did not commit, with no physical evidence or eyewitnesses linking him to the crime.
    Flores noted that “unless you have been close to someone who has experienced the same thing that my wife and I have in these last few years,” it is hard to comprehend. “My son was railroaded and we were railroaded along with him,” said Flores, noting that he and his wife were wrongfully jailed twice. He added they were not the first parents this has happened to.
    His son is currently seeking to hire a competent appeal attorney, basing his appeal on several grounds, including ineffective assistance of counsel at trial, being prevented from presenting his alibi during the trial, new evidence that has surfaced and abuse of power by the prosecutor.
    Flores believes his son will eventually be exonerated, as this has happened in cases with similar circumstances. However, he must first raise the funds to hire a competent attorney — something he lacked in his initial trial.
    Sister Prejean concluded with an appeal to the audience. “Can we find a lawyer for him? Can we get in there in this case and can we save his son’s life? Is he going to die at the hands here of Texas, along with how many other people who maybe are innocent?”