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A New Way to Fight the Death Penalty: Sister Helen Prejean at Augustana College January 23 and 24 PDF Print E-mail
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Wednesday, 23 January 2008 02:39

Reader issue #668 When my mother saw the 1995 movie adaptation of Sister Helen Prejean's Dead Man Walking, she was comfortable with the execution of the character Matthew Poncelet (played by Sean Penn) once he admitted his guilt.

This was undoubtedly not the reaction that Prejean sought, but it was common enough to lead the New Orleans-based nun down a new path, which she detailed in her 2004 book The Death of Innocents. In that book, she describes the cases of Dobie Gillis Williams and Joseph O'Dell, two men she believed to be innocent who were nonetheless executed.

Prejean has recognized that the tack of Dead Man Walking - an absolute moral opposition to capital punishment - might not be an effective way to convince people that the death penalty should be abolished. Instead, she wants people to first see the injustices in the way capital punishment is currently applied - from racism to innocent people being convicted and killed.

"It's the new wave of discourse," she said in an interview this week prior to lectures at Augustana College on Wednesday, January 23, and Thursday, January 24.

In her first book book, Prejean was eloquent and forceful: "If we believe that murder is wrong and not admissible in our society, then it has to be wrong for everyone, not just individuals but governments as well. And I end [lectures] by challenging people to ask themselves whether we can continue to allow the government, subject as it is to every imaginable form of inefficiency and corruption, to have such power to kill. ‘It's not a marginal issue,' I say. ‘It involves all of us. We're all complicit. Government can only continue killing if we give it the power. It's time to take that power back.'"

But supporters of the death penalty won't make that leap, she now understands. They believe in harsh justice, that killers ought to be killed.

A shift away from the death penalty needs to be gradual.

"In the moral journey ... of the American people, the heart of it is, of course, that we shouldn't kill anyone," she said in our interview. "But it is an added moral question to have a system in which you know not only that you are going to kill the guilty - so maybe in theory you're for that - ... but no one will disagree that innocent people should not be executed. So then ... people say, ‘Let's just fix the system.' And then you have to show them how it is unfixable."

That might sound difficult, given that nearly two-thirds of Americans still support the death penalty. But Prejean said that position largely stems from a lack of consideration, and that support for capital punishment is soft.

"Twenty years I've been talking to the American people," she said. "I thought I was going to find people wedded to the death penalty, vengeful. ... I haven't found that. People just don't know about the death penalty, and they don't reflect on it. It's not one of the moral issues that people give a lot of deep reflection to, because it doesn't affect them" directly.

"Most people are on the fence or deeply ambivalent about this issue," she said. "When you ... show them that an alternative is right there - because most states do have life without parole - they get it. It's not even hard. It's to get them to reflect on it" that's the challenge.


"Impossible to Prove"

Sister Helen PrejeanIn Prejean's view, the problems with the death penalty are legion, but the primary reason it can't be "fixed" by legislators or administrators is that the U.S. Supreme Court has constricted constitutional legal rights to the point that they're meaningless. The Supreme Court has made it difficult if not impossible to raise on appeal critical issues - from ineffective counsel to new evidence.

The court under Chief Justice William Rehnquist eroded "due process, equal justice under law, the right to an attorney, a jury of your peers," she said. "They took each of those constitutional protections and they tightened the criteria of it so that you couldn't access them."

In the 1987 decision for McCleskey V. Kemp, "they said that the criteria to decide that racism is at work in the selection of your jury is that the district attorney purposely and intentionally is going after you for this crime because you are black, and it's impossible to prove," Prejean said. "They make it impossible to prove racism."

The court in 1984 (Strickland V. Washington) made it similarly difficult to prove that a person's defense counsel was ineffective. "They said the criteria for determining ineffectiveness of counsel is that you have to show a one-on-one causality, a direct connection, between the fact that the jury voted for death and ... the ineffectiveness of your lawyer," she said. "And it's impossible to do things like that, because there are so many factors in a death case."

The Supreme Court wields the greatest power when it comes to the death penalty. In 1972, the Furman V. Georgia decision suspended capital punishment in the United States. Justice Potter Stewart wrote that the "Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments cannot tolerate the infliction of a sentence of death under legal systems that permit this unique penalty to be so wantonly and so freakishly imposed."

"The Supreme Court at 9 o'clock tomorrow morning could do away with the death penalty," Prejean said. "But they have their way of interpreting the Constitution," and recent courts have shown no inclination against the death penalty. She added that "if they [justices] would look at the practical effects of ... their jurisprudence, they could see those same conditions there [as in 1972] ... ."

In lieu of the Supreme Court abolishing the death penalty, Prejean hopes that citizens will apply pressure to legislators and governors - state by state - to get rid of it.

"I'm despairing of the court making the changes," she said. "So we've got to make it through the people, which will be slow and painstaking, and I don't know how long it will take in the deep South."


"My Response Had Been Far Too Simplistic"

What's missing from our 20-minute interview is the humanity that's so powerful in the pages of Dead Man Walking. Prejean is articulate and passionate in conversation, but unsourced statistics, the names of Supreme Court decisions, and anecdotes of injustice can come from any death-penalty opponent. In the book, her modesty and her complex personal struggle give weight to her conclusions and her convictions.

The chief strength of Dead Man Walking is not its argument against the death penalty but the nun's journey. She is always well-intentioned, but she makes mistakes as a spiritual advisor in the early 1980s to two convicted killers on Louisiana's death row: Patrick Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie.

(In Tim Robbins' movie, the convicts' stories were merged. Prejean believes that film is the best way to get her message to a wide audience, and she said that a screen version of The Death of Innocents is in the works.)

She writes about her horror at the men's crimes: "This Robert Willie, who is he? I recoil at the thought of him. How dare he calmly read law books and concoct arguments in his defense? He should fall on his knees, weeping, begging forgiveness from these parents. He should spend every moment of his life repenting his heinous deed. But, judging from my first visit, he seems to be in a world of his own, oblivious to the pain he has caused others. Remorse presupposes enough self-forgetfulness to feel the pain of others. Can Robert Willie do that?"

And then she deftly argues that his apparent lack of remorse might be exacerbated by the death penalty itself: "I ... wonder whether his death sentence makes his own repentance even more difficult. Someone is trying to kill him, and this must rivet his energies on his own survival, not the pain of others."

She questions her own goodness, and on several occasions in Dead Man Walking calls herself naïve: "I keep thinking of the gifts of my own upbringing, which I once took for granted: I can read any book I choose and comprehend it. I can write a complete sentence and punctuate it correctly. If I need help, I can call on judges, attorneys, educators, ministers. I wonder what I would be like if I had grown up without such protections and supports. What cracks would have turned up in my character? What makes me think that I wouldn't have been pregnant at 17? How law-abiding would I be?"

And she finds fault with herself beyond the hypothetical; her most grievous error was her failure to also offer support to the families of Sonnier's victims.

"I feel I am still right to oppose capital punishment, but I had not thought seriously enough about what murder means to victims' families and to society," she wrote. "I had not considered how difficult the issue of capital punishment is. My response had been far too simplistic."

The revelation that led to The Death of Innocents was similar. A straightforward moral objection to capital punishment, she realized, was less effective than spotlighting the faults of the current system, and then leading people to the central moral issue.

But in Dead Man Walking, her epiphany was personal rather than political.

"I had to reach out to murder victims' families," she said in our interview. "What they need after a terrible murder is somebody reaching out to them and accompanying them and helping them. The big thing I learned about murder victims' families is that people tend to stay away from them ... and they're left in isolation."

She also found that her fight against the death penalty meant that she often couldn't effectively provide support for victims' families herself, because of a perceived conflict of interest. But she did help create Survive, a group for families of crime victims.


"I'm Not Going to Let Them Kill Me"

Sister Helen Prejean Prejean is resolute that the death penalty does little to soothe victims' families or provide them closure. Lloyd LeBlanc, the father of one of Sonnier's victims, "realized that the anger and the bitterness was going to kill him," Prejean said. "The way he put it was, ‘They killed my boy, but I'm not going to let them kill me.'"

That kind of open-heartedness in the face of intense personal tragedy, Prejean said, gives her hope: "I get to experience these fantastic human beings, who are the real heroes in this story - because I'm just the storyteller - and point the way for all of us."

She's underselling herself, though. Her direct conversations with politicians and criminal-justice administrators are encouraging in the sense that these people admit their reservations about capital punishment. Yet they're discouraging because that honest introspection rarely leads to action.

Prejean recounted one such exchange in the book, with a Louisiana prison administrator:

"‘You don't seem to believe that the death penalty is morally right, but here you are lining up the witnesses, designing the protocol. Do you experience any conflict of conscience between your personal religious beliefs and what your job calls you to do? If Jesus Christ lived on earth today, would he supervise this process?'

"Predictably, he explains that he doesn't make the law; he's only following the law and, in fact, doing his best to make the ‘process' as ‘humane' as possible. ...

"There it is again, I can't help but notice - the severance of personal values from public duty - just like Governor Edwin Edwards, who felt moral repugnance for the death penalty but who nevertheless allowed it to be carried out. ...

"I ask him whether it isn't ethically dangerous to submerge personal convictions so that they have no bearing on one's work. What, I ask, if the law which a government uses to legitimize killing is itself morally wrong, as in Nazi Germany? Aren't there, I argue, some rights fundamental to human beings - such as the right not to be tortured or killed - that everyone, including governments, must respect?"

There is a resignation there, and Prejean herself felt powerless to effect change: "It all seems so intractable," she wrote. "I tell myself that I had simply better accept the fact that the death penalty is here to stay in our society, at least for a while, and there is nothing I can do about it."

That didn't last, though, as she recognized the limitations of providing spiritual guidance to the condemned. Dead Man Walking can be boiled to down to one elegant call to activism that still seems to drive Prejean: "Being kind in an unjust system is not enough."


Sister Helen Prejean will present Dead Man Walking: The Journey Continues at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, January 23, in Augustana College's Wallenberg Hall (3520 Seventh Avenue in Rock Island). She will also give a Community Convocation address at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, January 24, in Centennial Hall (3703 Seventh Avenue). Both events are free and open to the public.



The Death Penalty in Illinois and Iowa


In 2000, Illinois Governor George Ryan instituted a moratorium on executions, and in January 2003, he commuted the death sentences of everybody on the state's death row, claiming that the capital-punishment system in Illinois was "arbitrary, capricious, and therefore immoral."

Legislative reforms of the death penalty followed, and Governor Rod Blagojevich has indicated that if the reforms prove effective, he will consider allowing executions to resume in Illinois.

The Iowa legislature abolished the death penalty in Iowa in 1965, and numerous efforts to reinstate it have failed.

Comments (9)Add Comment
written by Dudley Sharp, January 23, 2008
III. Death Of Truth: Sister Prejean's book Death Of Innocents


quote: "The DNA report commissioned by O'Dell and his lawyers actually corroborates O'Dell's guilt. There is a three-probe DNA match indicating that the bloodstains on O'Dell's clothing is indeed consistent with the victim Helen Schartner's DNA as well as her blood type and enzyme factors." "There is certainly no truth to O'Dell's accusation that evidence was suppressed or witnesses intimidated by the prosecution."

(b) "Sabine district attorney disputes author's claims in book"

quote: "I don't know whether she is deliberately trying to mislead the public or if she's being mislead by others. But she's wrong,"
District Atty. Burkett, dburkett(AT)

(c) Book Review: "Sister Prejean's Lack of Credibility: Review of "The Death of Innocents", by Thomas M. McKenna (New Oxford Review, 12/05).

"The book is moreover riddled with factual errors and misrepresentations."

"Williams had confessed to repeatedly stabbing his victim, Sonya Knippers."

"This DNA test was performed by an independent lab in Dallas, which concluded that there was a one in nearly four billion chance that the blood could have been someone's other than Williams's."

" . . . despite repeated claims that (Prejean) cares about crime victims, implies that the victim's husband was a more likely suspect but was overlooked because the authorities wanted to convict a black man."

" . . . a Federal District Court . . . stated that 'the evidence against Williams was overwhelming.' " "The same court also did "not find any evidence of racial bias specific to this case."

"(Prejean's) broad brush strokes paint individual jurors, prosecutors, and judges with the term "racist" with no facts, no evidence, and, in most cases, without so much as having spoken with the people she accuses."

"Sr. Prejean also claims that Dobie Williams was mentally retarded. But the same federal judge who thought he deserved a new sentencing hearing also upheld the finding of the state Sanity Commission report on Williams, which concluded that he had a "low-average I.Q.," and did not suffer from schizophrenia or other major affective disorders. Indeed, Williams's own expert at trial concluded that Williams's intelligence fell within the "normal" range. Prejean mentions none of these facts."

"In addition to lying to the police about how he came to have blood on his clothes, the best evidence of O'Dell's guilt was that Schartner's (the rape/murder vicitim's) blood was on his jacket. Testing showed that only three of every thousand people share the same blood characteristics as Schartner. Also, a cellmate of O'Dell's testified that O'Dell told him he killed Schartner because she would not have sex with him."

"After the trial, LifeCodes, a DNA lab that O'Dell himself praised as having "an impeccable reputation," tested the blood on O'Dell's jacket -- and found that it was a genetic match to Schartner. When the results were not to his liking, O'Dell, and of course Sr. Prejean, attacked the reliability of the lab O'Dell had earlier praised. Again, as with Williams's conviction, the federal court reviewing the case characterized the evidence against O'Dell as 'vast' and
'overwhelming.' "

Sr. Prejean again sees nefarious forces at work. Not racism this time, for O'Dell was white. Rather, she charges that the prosecutors were motivated to convict by desire for advancement and judgeships. Yet she never contacted the prosecutors to interview them or anyone who might substantiate such a charge.

"(Prejean) omits the most damning portion of (O'Dell's criminal) record: an abduction charge in Florida where O'Dell struck the victim on the head with a gun and told her that he was going to rape her. This very similar crime helped the jury conclude that O'Dell would be a future threat to society. It supports the other evidence of his guilt and thus undermines Prejean's claim of innocence."

"There is thus a moral equivalence for Prejean between the family of an innocent victim and the newfound girlfriend of a convicted rapist and murderer."

"This curious definition of "the victims" suggests that her concern for "victims" seems to be more window-dressing for her cause than true concern."

written by Dudley Sharp, January 23, 2008
(d) Hardly The Death Of Innocents: Sister Prejean tells it like it wasn't -- Joseph O'Dell
by Anonymous, at author's request

In lionizing convicted murderer Joseph O'Dell as being an innocent man railroaded to his 1997 execution by Virginia prosecutors, Sister Helen Prejean presents a skewed summary of the case to bolster her anti-death penalty agenda. While she is a gifted speaker, she is out of her element when it comes to "telling it as it was" in these cases.

Prejean got to walk with O'Dell into the death chamber at Greensville Correctional Center on July 22, 1997. However, she wasn't in Virginia Beach some 12 years earlier when he committed the crime for which he was arrested, convicted and sentenced to death. That is where the real demon was evident, not the sweet talking condemned con-man that she met behind bars. O'Dell was, in the words of then Virginia Beach Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Albert Alberi (case prosecutor), one of the most savage, dangerous criminals he had encountered in a two decade career.

Indeed,O'Dell had spent most of his adult life incarcerated for various crimes since the age of 13 in the mid-1950's. At the time of the Schartner murder in Virginia, O'Dell had been recently paroled from Florida where he had been serving a 99 year sentence for a 1976 Jacksonville abduction that almost ended in a murder of the female victim (had not police arrived) in the back of his car.

The circumstances of that crime were almost identical to those surrounding Schartner's murder. The victim of the Florida case even showed up in Virginia to testify at the trial. Scarcely a mention of this case is made in the Prejean book.

Briefly, let me outline some of the facts about the case: Victim Helen Schartner's blood was found on the passenger seat of Joseph O'Dell's vehicle. Tire tracks matching those on O'Dell's vehicle were found at the scene where Miss Schartner's body was found. The tire tread design on O'Dell's vehicle wheels were so unique, an expert in tire design couldn't match them in a manual of thousands of other tire treads. The seminal fluids found on the victim's body matched those of Mr. O'Dell and pubic hairs of the victim were found on the floor of his car.

The claims that O'Dell was "denied" his opportunity to present new DNA evidence on appeals were frivolous. In fact, he had every opportunity to come forward with this evidence, but his lawyers refused to reveal to the court the full findings of the tests which they had arranged to be done on a shirt with blood stains, which O'Dell's counsel claimed might show did not have the blood marks from the defendant or the victim.

Manipulative defense lawyer tactics were overlooked by Prejean in her narrative. O'Dell was far from a victim of poor counsel. As matter of fact, the city of Virginia Beach and state government gave O'Dell an estimated $100,000 for his defense team at trial. This unprecedented amount nearly bankrupted the entire indigent defense fund for the state. He had great lawyers, expert forensic investigators and every point at the trial was contested two to five times.

There was no "rush to justice" in this case.

O'Dell's alibi for the night of Schartner's murder was that he had gotten thrown out of the bar where he encountered Schartner following a brawl. However, none of the several dozen individuals supported his contention - there weren't any fights that night. Rather, several saw Miss Schartner getting into O'Dell's car on what would be her last ride.

But Prejean would want us to believe the claims of felon Joseph O'Dell.He had three trips to the United States Supreme Court and the "procedural error" which Prejean claims ultimately doomed him was the result of simple ignorance of basic appeals rules by his lawyers.

Nothing in the record ever suggested that Joseph O'Dell, two time killer and rapist, was anything but guilty of the murder of Helen Schartner.

Justice was properly served.

written by Dudley Sharp, January 23, 2008
Sister Helen Prejean ; her death penalty disinformation
Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters

I. Dead Family Walking : The Bourque Family Story of Dead Man Walking , by D. D. deVinci, Goldlamp Publishing, 2006

" . . .makes you realize the Dead Man Walking truly belongs on the shelf in the library in the Fiction category."

"Being devout Catholics, 'the norm' would be to look to the church for support and healing. Again, this need for spiritual stability was stolen by Sister Prejean."

The book alleges whole cloth fabrications by Sister Prejean within her book "Dead Man Walking".

"On November 5, 1977, the Bourque's teenage daughter, Loretta, was found murdered in a trash pile near the city of New Iberia, Louisiana lying side by side near her boyfriend–with three well-placed bullet holes behind each head. "


contact T.J. Edler, 337-967-0840, infogoldlamp(at)

II. The Victims of Dead Man Walking
by Michael L. Varnado, Daniel P. Smith

comment -- A very different story than that written by Sister Helen Prejean. Detective Varnado was the investigating officer in the murder of Faith Hathaway. 2003

III. above

IV. Sister Helen Prejean on the death penalty

"It is abundantly clear that the Bible depicts murder as a capital crime for which death is considered the appropriate punishment, and one is hard pressed to find a biblical ‘proof text’ in either the Hebrew Testament or the New Testament which unequivocally refutes this. Even Jesus’ admonition ‘Let him without sin cast the first stone,’ when He was asked the appropriate punishment for an adulteress (John 8:7) - the Mosaic Law prescribed death - should be read in its proper context. This passage is an ‘entrapment’ story, which sought to show Jesus’ wisdom in besting His adversaries. It is not an ethical pronouncement about capital punishment .” Sister Helen Prejean, Dead Man Walking.

The sister’s analysis is consistent with much theological scholarship. Also, much scholarship questions the authenticity of John 8:7.

From here, the sister states that “ . . . more and more I find myself steering away from such futile discussions (of Biblical text). Instead, I try to articulate what I personally believe . . . ” The sister has never shied away from any argument, futile or otherwise, which opposed the death penalty. She has abandoned biblical text for only one reason: the text conflicts with her personal beliefs.

Sister Prejean rightly cautions: "Many people sift through the Scriptures and select truth according to their own templates." (Progressive, 1/96). Sadly, Sister Prejean appears to do much worse. The sister now uses that very same biblical text “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone” as proof of Jesus’ “unequivocal” rejection of capital punishment as “revenge and unholy retribution”! (see Sister Prejean’s 12/12/96 fundraising letter on behalf of the Saga Of Shame book project for Quixote Center/Equal Justice USA).

written by Dudley Sharp, January 23, 2008
V. On God and the death penalty

It is not uncommon for persons of faith to create a god in their own image, to give to that god their values, instead of accepting those values which are inherent to the deity. For example, death penalty opponent Sister Helen Prejean (Dead Man Walking) states, in reference to the death penalty, that "I couldn’t worship a god who is less compassionate than I am."(Progressive, 1/96). She has, thereby, established her standard of compassion as the basis for God’s being deserving of her devotion. If God’s level of compassion does not rise to the level of her own, God couldn’t receive her worship. Director Tim Robbins (Death Man Walking) follows that same path: "(I) don’t believe in that kind of (g)od (that would support capital punishment and, therefore, would be the kind of god who tortures people into their redemption)." ("Opposing The Death Penalty", AMERICA, 11/9/96, p 12). Robbins, hereby, establishes his standard for his God’s deserving of his belief. God’s standards do not seem to be relevant. His sophomoric comparison of capital punishment and torture is typical of the ignorance in this debate and such comments reflect no biblical relevancy. Perhaps they should review Matthew 5:17-22 and 15:1-9. Be cautious, for as the ancient rabbis warned, "Do not seek to be more righteous than your creator." (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7.33)

VI. Redemption and the death penalty

The movie Dead Man Walking reveals a perfect example of how just punishment and redemption can work together. Had rapist/murderer Matthew Poncelet not been properly sentenced to death by the civil authority, he would not have met Sister Prejean, he would not have received spiritual instruction, he would not have taken responsibility for his crimes and he would not have reconciled with God. Had Poncelet never been caught or had he only been given a prison sentence, his character makes it VERY clear that those elements would not have come together. Indeed, for the entire film and up until those last moments, prior to his execution, Poncelet was not truthful with Sister Prejean. His lying and manipulative nature was fully exposed at that crucial time. It was not at all surprising, then, that it was just prior to his execution that all of the spiritual elements may have come together for his salvation. It was now, or never. Truly, just as St. Aquinas stated, it was Poncelet's pending execution which may have led to his repentance. For Christians, the most crucial concerns of Dead Man Walking must be and are redemption and eternal salvation. And, for that reason, it may well be, for Christians, the most important pro-death penalty movie ever made.

A real life example of this may be the case of Dennis Gentry, executed April 16, 1997, for the premeditated murder of his friend Jimmy Don Ham. During his final statement, Gentry said, "I’d like to thank the Lord for the past 14 years (on death row) to grow as a man and mature enough to accept what’s happening here tonight. To my family, I’m happy. I’m going home to Jesus." As the lethal drugs began to flow, Gentry cried out, "Sweet Jesus, here I come. Take me home. I’m going that way to see the Lord." (Michael Gracyk, Associated Press, Houston Chronicle, 4/17/97). We cannot know if Gentry or the fictitious Poncelet or the two real murderers from the DMW book really did repent and receive salvation.

But, we do know that St. Aquinas advises us that murderers should not be given the benefit of the doubt. We should err on the side of caution and not give murderers the opportunity to harm again.

"The fact that the evil, as long as they live, can be corrected from their errors does not prohibit the fact that they may be justly executed, for the danger which threatens from their way of life is greater and more certain than the good which may be expected from their improvement. They also have at that critical point of death the opportunity to be converted to God through repentance. And if they are so stubborn that even at the point of death their heart does not draw back from evil, it is possible to make a highly probable judgement that they would never come away from evil to the right use of their powers." St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, Book III, 146.


Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters
e-mail sharpjfa(AT), 713-622-5491,
Houston, Texas

Mr. Sharp has appeared on ABC, BBC, CBS, CNN, C-Span, Court TV, FOX, NBC, NPR, PBS and many other TV and radio networks, on such programs as Nightline, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, The O'Reilly Factor, etc., has been quoted in newspapers throughout the world and is a published author.

A former opponent of capital punishment, he has written and granted interviews about, testified on and debated the subject of the death penalty, extensively and internationally.
written by Dudley Sharp, January 23, 2008
" . . (Prejean) wants people to first see the injustices in the way capital punishment is currently applied - from racism to innocent people being convicted and killed."

Yeah, right:

Racial issues
White murderers are twice as likely to be executed in the US as are black murderers and are executed, on average, 12 months more quickly than are black death row inmates.
It is often stated that it is the race of the victim which decides who is prosecuted in death penalty cases.  Although blacks and whites make up about an equal number of murder victims, capital cases are 6 times more likely to involve white victim murders than black victim murders.  This, so the logic goes, is proof that the US only cares about white victims.
Hardly.  Only capital murders, not all murders, are subject to a capital indictment.  Generally, a capital murder is limited to murders plus secondary aggravating factors, such as murders involving burglary, carjacking, rape, and additional murders, such as police murders, serial and multiple murders.  White victims are, overwhelmingly, the victims under those circumstances, in ratios nearly identical to the cases found on death row.
Any other racial combinations of defendants and/or their victims in death penalty cases, is a reflection of the crimes committed and not any racial bias within the system, as confirmed by studies from the Rand Corporation (1991), Smith College (1994), U of Maryland (2002), New Jersey Supreme Court (2003) and by a view of criminal justice statistics, within a framework of the secondary aggravating factors necessary for capital indictments.

Innocence Issues

Innocents are more at risk without the death penalty

Possibly we have sentenced 20-25 actually innocent people to death since 1973, or 0.3% of those so sentenced. Those have been released upon post conviction review. There is no proof of an innocent executed in the US, at least since 1900.

Of all the government programs in the world, that put innocents at risk, is there one with a safer record and with greater protections than the US death penalty?

Those who say the death penalty puts innocents at risk of execution forget to look at both sides of the equation.
What is the risk to innocents within a life sentence and absent the death penalty? The evidence is that innocents are more at risk without the death penalty.
Living murderers, in prison, after escape or after our failures to incarcerate them, are much more likely to harm and murder, again, than are executed murderers.
This is a truism.
No knowledgeable and honest party questions that the death penalty has the most extensive due process protections in US criminal law.

Therefore, actual innocents are more likely to be sentenced to life imprisonment and more likely to die in prison serving under that sentence, that it is that an actual innocent will be executed.
That is. logically, conclusive.
written by Dudley Sharp, January 23, 2008
Prejean says that "support for capital punishment is soft."

Not really,

Specific Case Support is much higher

81% of the American people supported the execution of Timothy McVeigh, with only 16% opposed. "(T)his view appears to be the consensus of all major groups in society, including men, women, whites, nonwhites, "liberals" and "conservatives."  (Gallup 5/2/01).

85% of pf the primarily liberal Connecticut respondents voiced support for serial/rapist murderer Michael Ross' "voluntary" execution. (Quinnipiac University Poll, January 12, 2005).
79% support the death penalty for terrorists (Survey USA News Poll #12074, Sponsor: WABC-TV   New York, 4/26/2007 New York State poll)
73% of Connecticut voters support the death penalty for the two parolees accused of the Cheshire (Ct) home invasion rape/murders of a mother and her two daughters. While 63% of Connecticut voters support the death penalty for murderers, in general, AT THE SAME TIME.  ("Connecticut Voters Support Death Penalty 2-1", Quinnipiac University Poll, 11/7/07). NOTE: Support is more than 3 to 1. The poll showed 73% for execution, 23% opposed, for those parolees.  It was 63-27% for the general question.
This, from the French daily Le Monde, December 2006 (1):

Percentage of respondents in favor of executing Saddam Hussein:  
Great Britain: 69%
France: 58%
Germany: 53%
Spain: 51%
Italy: 46%
USA: 82%

We are led to believe there isn't death penalty support in England or Europe. European governments won't allow executions when their populations support it: they're anti democratic. (2)

Why the large "error rate" between general and specific case support?
That very  wide "error rates", between general support and specific case support, is likely due to the differences in (1) the widespread media coverage of anti death penalty claims, without the balance of contradicting those false claims, producing lower general support,  (2) the absence of that influence when looking at individual cases when the public knows the crimes, the guilt of the murderer, and absent the anti death penalty bias factor, thus producing much higher specific case  support and/or (3) reluctance of some respondents to voice stronger support for the death penalty, unless  specific examples of murderers and their crimes are provided, as evidenced within (1) and (2).

Death Penalty Opposition? Look Again.

Significant percentages of those who say the oppose the death penalty do, in fact, support that sanction under specific circumstances. This provides firm evidence that death penalty support is much wider and deeper than expressed with the answer to the general death penalty polling questions.

57% of those who say they oppose the death penalty, generally, actually do support  it for McVeigh's execution (81% supported the execution of McVeigh, 16% opposed (Gallup 5/02/01), while  65% offer general support for executions, with 28% opposed (Gallup, 6/10/01).  The polls were conducted at nearly the same time.

40% who say they oppose the death penalty, generally, actually do support it for terrorists. (79% support and 18% oppose the death penalty for terrorists.  67% support and 29% oppose the death penalty for murder.) (SAME POLL - Survey USA News Poll #12074, Sponsor: WABC-TV   New York, 4/26/2007 New York State poll)

84% of those who, generally, say they oppose the death penalty, actual did support it for Michael Ross. (SAME POLL - 85% say Connecticut serial rapist/murderer Michael Ross should be allowed to waive appeals and be executed. When asked whether they favor or oppose the death penalty,  59% favor -  31% oppose (Quinnipiac University Poll, January 12, 2005).

ERROR NOTE:  The percentages will likely have a range of change, instead of a specific percentage, because there would be a transfer of points, not just from those opposing, under the general question, but from the undecided" or "did not answer" group, as well,  into the supportive group for specific murders.
written by Dudley Sharp, January 23, 2008
The whole concept of closure is either misapplied or downright insulting.

How could someone have closure because the guilty party who murdered their innocent loved one was executed?

They don't.

The only closure it represents is that of the criminal justice proceedings. Period.

Just sanction cannot bring closure and I doubt, in a violent crime case, it even equals justice.

Closure, for capital murder? What would that be?

What I most often find is death penalty opponents who claim that pro death penalty folks say that it is closure, just so that those same opponents can decry such claims.

Of course, the execution of the murderer closes the possibility that that murderer can ever harm, again.
written by Paul Ames, January 26, 2008
Trust Dudley Sharp to attempt to decry the inspiring words of Sister Helen with a withering barrage of meaningless stats and tired old pro-deathpenalty propaganda.

The only statistic Dudley Sharp or anyone questioning the merit of the death penalty in 2008, is why the number of death sentences across the US has halved in two years to just 110 in 2007. The errors with death sentences, both actual and perceived, have prompted jurors to feel very uncomfortable about issuing death sentences that may prove erroneous.
Their discomfort is well founded.
written by Dudfley Sharp, February 23, 2008
Paul, look at some reality.

Why the reduction in death sentences?
Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters, updated
The evidence supports that the reduction is caused by:
--- the dramatic reduction in murders/capital murders
--- prosecutorial frustration
----SCOTUS decisions

1. Murders are down nearly 40%. While death sentences are down around 60%, from their all time high, There very well may have been around a 60% reduction in capital murders, since the all time high of death sentences.  I have heard from a number of prosecutors that they have seen a dramatic reduction in the type of crimes that they would consider death eligible. 
This is the obvious reason for the large reduction in death sentences.
Career criminals, including career juvenile criminals, are being incarcerated much longer, and earlier, thereby curtailing their activities, including committing capital murders.
All categories of crime have been reduced. Because capital murders are a special type of crime, primarily murders accompanied by secondary crimes, such as robbery and rape, it is even more likely that capital murders have been reduced even more than murders.
2. a) SCOTUS decisions.  Ring required a re writing of statutes in many death penalty states, causing a substantial reduction. the Atkins and Simmons decisions, exempting the mentally retarded and those under 18 when they committed the murder, respectively, have both had a reduction effect, as well.
This is an additional factual reason for a reduction in death sentences.
NOTE: There can be anywhere from a 1-3 year lag time between the murders and the death sentences given.  Because of various SCOTUS cases.
        b) Executions go up and down, a bit every year. Executions are dependent on court rulings, some of which effect more cases than others, such as those in 2a, as well as the national challenges to lethal injection, which have been quite active for some time, now.
3.  Many prosecutors now know that appellate judges in their jurisdictions won't allow executions. Some of those prosecutors have become much more reluctant to seek death. I would call that realistic frustration with agenda driven judges  -- such as Federal Judge Rakoff -- - not prosecutors deciding to be more selective on their own.
This, likely, has caused some small reduction in death sentences sought.
Of course, most prosecutors have always been very selective in pursuing death penalty cases.

Some false or speculative reasons for the reduction in death sentences.
--  Anti death penalty folks state that all those "innocents freed" from death row have caused prosecutors to be more wary in pursuing the death penalty.  This is a false claim.
To the contrary, virtually all death penalty prosecutors now know that 70-83% of those anti death penalty  "innocence" claims are false and that prosecutors are 99.7% accurate in convicting the actually guilty in death penalty cases and that the 0.3% actually innocent  are released because of post conviction review.
That will give prosecutors more confidence in prosecuting these cases, not less.

--  Some prosecutors believe the "CSI effect" is responsible for a reduction in death sentences, because jurors are now demanding  more scientific support for death sentences.
There is no evidence for this, that I know of. 
 --    Some speculate that the crime lab disasters have caused jurors to be more distrustful of lab results and prosecutors and that may explain some of the reduction. I can't say that hasn't happened, but I can't find evidentiary support for it either.
During this period of alleged distrust, a May, 2005 Gallup polling shows an increase in support for the death penalty  -- to 74% -- and a majority believe that we don't impose the death penalty often enough.  This 74% support is within the margin of error of the all time high for support.
An October 2005 Gallup poll showed 64% support - a 10% drop -  even though there had been no major death penalty news to warrant the drop. A January 2005 poll found 81% of Connecticut citizens supported the execution of serial rapist murderer Michael Ross.
Historically, I am told, jurors give less than death in 2/3rds of death penalty trials. Is there any evidence that jurors are now even less likely to find for a death sentence? Not that I know of. 

What of the reduction in executions? It is 1) the normal ebb and flow of cases, plus 2) SCOTUS cases, plus 3) crime lab problems 4) the lethal injection challenges.
Blind speculation is unnecessary. There are logical, factual reasons for the reduction in death sentences.

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