Sister Helen Prejean Describes an Execution
From the August, 2010 issue of The Sun Magazine:
Cook: You’ve said that if executions were made public, people would realize the brutality of this system and work to end it. Yet, in our past, crowds would show up for public executions, some with picnic lunches. In our age of violent media, what makes you so sure average citizens wouldn’t applaud the execution of a killer they were certain was guilty?
Prejean: There would be some, no doubt, who would pull out a beer and cheer that this terrible murderer had been killed. But for most people who see it up close, capital punishment is very unsettling. The head of the Department of Corrections in Louisiana has to arrange the protocol for executions, and part of that is gathering witnesses. At first he thought he’d have a line of people stretching across the Mississippi River waiting to get in, but soon he realized that no one who witnessed an execution asked to come back. When you’re in the death chamber, you see when they have to jab the needle eighteen times into the arm of the condemned. You hear the stumbling last words of those who are killed: “Mama, I love you,” or “I’m so sorry.” Imagine an ordinary American family having their evening meal, and the news comes on, and the kids ask their parents, “Isn’t that murder too?” and, “Why are they putting antiseptic on his arm if they’re going to kill him?” It would not take long for people to cry out against this, and that’s why it will never be public. You have to keep it from the eyes of the people.
Cook: You have served as spiritual advisor to six men who were executed. What were their last days, their last hours, like — for them and for you?
Prejean: Being with someone who is about to die is surreal. When you’re with someone in the hospital who is dying, it’s at least a natural process; you can see them leaving you. When someone is fully alive, and you’re talking to him in the way you and I are talking, you can not get your mind around the fact that in two hours, now one hour, now forty-five minutes, he’s going to be killed.
The death itself is almost scripted: Now they’re walking in. Now I’m telling him goodbye and kissing him on the back. I’m praying for him and asking him to remember me to God. Now the guards have me by my arms. They are sitting me down in a witness chair. There’s the big clock on the wall. There’s the exhaust fan, already turned on, that will suck from the room the stench of the human body burning. There’s the blank glass with the executioner on the other side. They’ve already tested the chair. It’s run on a seperate generator, so nobody can prevent the execution by throwing the main switch. The lights are bright floursecents. There are two red telephones on the wall: If one rings, it is the court issuing a stay of execution. If the other rings, it’s a pardon from the governor. Neither phone rings. The victim’s family is sitting in the front row to watch. The other witnesses and I are sitting behind them. There are two newspaper reporters writing vigorously on narrow spiral pads. And the condemned man is looking at me. And I put my hand out. And he can see my face. And they put the leather mask over his face, so tight I worry he can’t breathe. How quickly they strap him in the chair and step away. It’s an oak chair. They put a cloth soaked with saline solution on his shaved head and then the metal cap. A thick, curled wire runs from the cap to the generator. And then the strap goes across his chest.
I didn’t look the first time, because with the mask I knew he couldn’t see me anymore. With lethal injection he can see me, but not with the electric chair. I closed my eyes and heard the sound of it. The huge, rushing, powerful sound of the fire being shot through his body. Three times. They run 1,900 volts, then let the body cool, and then 500 volts, and then 1,900 volts again. What’s terrifying is that they’ve done autopsies of people who have been electrocuted, and the brain is mainly intact. We don’t know what they feel. We really don’t know, when we kill a human being, what’s going on inside, the pain of it.
Cook: You believe that the days leading up to an execution amount to torture.
Prejean: I don’t say this lightly. According to Amnesty International, torture is “an extreme mental or physical assault on someone who’s been rendered defenseless.” Just imagine if somebody took you hostage in a room and said that in twenty-four hours they were coming to kill you. And, when the time comes, they put the gun to your head and pull the trigger. It clicks. It is an empty chamber. They laugh and walk out and say, Not today. Maybe tomorrow. That’s torture.
Everybody I’ve known on death row has had the same nightmare: they dream it is their time, and the guards come and drag them out, and they are screaming and sweating, and then they wake up and realize they are still in their cell. Just think about when you have to go to the dentist for a root canal. If the appointment is for Friday, all week you are living in dread. That’s just for a root canal.
You can read a longer excerpt at the Sun’s web site.