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By bringing back the firing squad, Utah officials are being "really honest," famed anti-death-penalty nun Sister Helen Prejean said Tuesday. "They are not just executing people but actually killing them."
By that, the Catholic activist meant that the five shooters on a firing squad have no distance from the act as some might feel with lethal injections. They cannot disengage and pretend they are not participating in the death of an individual.
No matter what method is used, she emphasized, capital punishment remains unjust, immoral and wrong.
The practice "is sanctioned by law and has the support of the people," Prejean told about 50 students at Westminster College some from Judge Memorial and Juan Diego Catholic high schools as well as from the east Salt Lake City liberal-arts college during a midday lecture-discussion. "But it is listed as 'homicide' on the deceased's death certificate so everyone is partially responsible."
Prejean, of the Congregation of St. Joseph in New Orleans, became involved with prisoners in 1981 after she committed to serving the poor and realized how many in that population were incarcerated. In that role, she corresponded with Patrick Sonnier, the convicted killer of two teens who was on death row in Louisiana's Angola State Prison.
The first time the nun visited Sonnier in prison, she was amazed at how normal, how human he looked, Prejean told the students.
"I thought a murderer would look different," she said, pacing back and forth in front of a white board, gesturing dramatically.
Prejean spent months meeting with Sonnier, eventually witnessing his execution, and writing about the experience in the 1994 best-seller, "Dead Man Walking: The Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty That Sparked a National Debate."
Her book later was turned into a major motion picture, with Susan Sarandon playing Prejean in an Oscar-winning performance.
Since then, Prejean has witnessed five other executions, ministering to prisoners as well as victims' families. She also wrote a second book, "The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions."
The two men she wrote about for that volume were black, convicted by all-white juries.
Attitudes about the death penalty have evolved since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated it. At that time, two-thirds of Americans believed capital punishment would deter potential killers. Now the same percentage does not see the death penalty as "deterrence."
In fact, states that impose the death penalty the most often, she said, have seen their crime rates double.
According to the Pew Research Center, 78 percent of Americans favored the death penalty in 1996. That support fell to 55 percent in 2013.
Just last week, Pope Francis reissued the Catholic call for the abolition of the death penalty.
"Today the death penalty is inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed," Francis wrote in a detailed argument to the president of the International Commission against the Death Penalty, according to Religion News Service.
The pontiff said capital punishment "contradicts God's plan for man and society," RNS reported, and "does not render justice to the victims, but rather fosters vengeance."
Bishop John C. Wester, who shepherds Utah's 300,000 Catholics, echoed the pope's concerns and lamented Gov. Gary Herbert's decision to approve reinstatement of the firing squad as a backup method in executions.
"It seems as if our government leaders have substituted state legislation for the law of God," Wester wrote in a Tuesday letter to Herbert. "They argue that, because executions are lawful, they are then moral. This is not so. No human law can trump God's law. Taking a human life is wrong; a slap in the face of hope and a blasphemous attempt to assume divine attributes that we humble human beings do not have."
Wester went on to say that "only God can give and take life. By taking a life, in whatever form the death penalty is carried out, the state is usurping the role of God. Execution does violence to God's time, eliminating the opportunity for God's redemptive and forgiving grace to work in the life of a prisoner."
Citing the fact that Utah's next execution likely is years away, the Catholic bishop called on Herbert and state lawmakers to "place a moratorium" on further death sentences and, ultimately, abolish capital punishment.
In recent years, "botched executions," and the increasing numbers of convicted criminals being released due to judicial errors or exoneration mean that the system for imposing the death penalty, Prejean said, "is seriously flawed."
More than 140 prisoners on death row, the nun said, have been released for "wrongful convictions."
Capital punishment is not a "peripheral moral issue," she said. "It embodies the deepest wounds in our society racism, poverty and the notion of using violence to teach against violence."
Such violence, she said, "is not the answer."
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