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Sister Helen Prejean: Alabama Just Showed Why We Must Kill the Death Penalty

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty

A few nights ago convicted murderer Kenneth Smith was suffocated to death by the state of Alabama. His killing with nitrogen gas was a first. And it was fully approved by the U.S. Supreme Court, which allows death penalty states to experiment at will with different methods of execution. This is a court that steadfastly refuses to recognize that the long, dragged-out confinement and killing of conscious human beings counts as “cruel punishment.”

I’ve read that Mr. Smith convulsed and writhed as his muscles spasmed, deprived of their life source—oxygen. His last agony continued as he heaved against the straps of the gurney gasping for breath. The lethal nitrogen in his body did its job, blocking his lungs from being able to take in oxygen, for which every cell in his body screamed. All witnesses could see from the outside was a man, strapped down on a gurney, writhing and breathing heavily.

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I have a question. This question has haunted me from the first time I witnessed the electrocution of Patrick Sonnier in Louisiana in 1984, which inspired my book (later made into a movie) Dead Man Walking. Will we ever morally evolve as a people enough to recognize that government killings of conscious, imaginative human beings are in fact, CRUEL punishment? Even more, that they are the practice of TORTURE.

Are we so fixated on the horror of the crimes of the convicted prisoners as moral justification of our actions that it blinds us to the moral horror of our own policies and actions? Since we put government killings back into operation in 1976, legalized government killings have taken the lives of 1,582 of our citizens, whom we have gassed, electrocuted, lethally injected, or shot to death by firing squads.

What makes torture, torture? How do we come to recognize that a punishment is CRUEL?

The degree of pain the condemned suffers surely has to figure somewhere in the moral accounting. But pain the executed suffered didn’t seem to count for much for the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who stated that dying hurts, that pain is simply part of dying, which he almost always followed with attention to the horrible pain the murder victim endured. In fact, there in a nutshell is the argument raised by most supporters of the death penalty. These criminals deserve pain. We want them to suffer. Look at the pain they imposed on their victims. In shorthand: “an eye for an eye.”

The United Nations Convention Against Torture (which the U.S. signed onto in 1988) defines torture as “an extreme mental or physical assault against someone who has been rendered defenseless.”

‘Dead Man Walking’ Icon Sister Helen Prejean: ‘I Came Alive on Death Row’

Extreme mental assault? How about this? A sadistic killer kidnaps his victim, locks him away in an isolated place, and hangs a calendar on the wall, telling him to start counting his days because in one week’s time he is going to be shot dead. A week later the killer appears and puts a gun to his victim’s temple… Would we call the victim’s agonizing wait as he counted his last days on Earth “extreme mental assault”?

I have accompanied six human beings through years of waiting to their executions. Every single one of them told me of a similar nightmare: the guards have come for me, it’s time for me to die, they are dragging me to the chamber, I’m fighting and screaming, NO, NO, NO… I wake up and look around my cell. It was just a dream. Not tonight. But I know it’s coming.

Extreme physical assault on one rendered defenseless? Look at what happened to Kenneth Smith a couple of months ago when the state of Alabama tried to kill him by inserting needles into every available extremity in an attempt to insert an I-V for the lethal drugs. He looks up at all the faces around him, he cries out for help, he screams with pain. Every face he looks into shows no sign of compassion. We are here to kill you.

Vehicles are inspected by law enforcement at the Holman Correctional Facility gate before the scheduled execution by asphyxiation using pure nitrogen, of Kenneth Smith. Jan. 25, 2024.

Vehicles are inspected by law enforcement at the Holman Correctional Facility gate before the scheduled execution by asphyxiation using pure nitrogen, of Kenneth Smith, Jan. 25, 2024.

Micah Green/Reuters

Is anyone surprised to know that after this harrowing ordeal Mr. Smith experienced extreme bouts of PTSD? Is this part of the expected pain that comes with dying that Justice Scalia referred to? Who cares? Focus instead, some say, on the pain and suffering of Kenneth Smith’s murdered victim as well as on her family’s enduring pain of grief and loss. What Ken Smith did to his victim morally justifies what he is now suffering.

Mr. Smith does not deserve this. The correctional officers clustered around him trying to kill him do not deserve this. (I know many of them; they will be going through their own ordeal of conscience as they ponder their participation in these executions.) And finally, the murder victims’ families do not deserve this. Any claim that witnessing these government-ordained killings will heal anyone is a hoax; as if a grieving family, awaiting such a killing—the average wait from trial to execution is 17 years—and then to sit in a front-row seat to watch the killing of the felon who killed their loved one, will ever achieve permanent peace. Does witnessing intentional acts of violence, legal or not, ever heal anyone? Can it? Or does its memory add to their trauma? Or maybe even, down the road of time, a feeling of guilt?

It’s time for us to end these futile, costly, deeply flawed government killings.

Such cruel acts, done in our names, are beneath our dignity.

I invite you to dig deeper into this issue by reading my books and engaging in conversation with me at sisterhelen.org. And if you are interested in a short course on the things that I believe can go wrong with a man’s death penalty trial, go to ivancantu.org. Ivan is scheduled to be executed in Texas on Feb. 28, 2024. I will be there with him if Texas kills him.

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