Sister Helen Prejean, the famed author of “Dead Man Walking,” joined prominent local death penalty opponents in a Feb. 15 forum to highlight a new book on the subject published by the Buckhead-based Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta.

Prejean told a big audience gathered at Sandy Springs’ Holy Innocents’ Episcopal Church said the death penalty violates the Christian Gospel by saying “we’re going to imitate the worst kind of violence.”

Bishop Robert Wright, who conceived the idea of the essay book, “A Case for Life,” led the discussion, which included Rev. Wilton Gregory, the Roman Catholic archbishop for Atlanta; former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Norman Fletcher; and Susan Casey, a defense attorney for Kelly Gissendaner, a murderer controversially executed by the state of Georgia in 2015.

Joining in the death penalty opposition forum Feb. 15 at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal Church in Sandy Springs were, from left, Bishop Robert Wright of the Atlanta Episcopal Diocese; former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Norman Fletcher; defense attorney Susan Casey; “Dead Man Walking” author Sister Helen Prejean; and Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta’s Roman Catholic Archdiocese. (John Ruch)

Audience members added some dramatic points to the discussion, including a woman who had known Gissendaner in prison and a man who challenged the panel by saying he is a Christian who supports the death penalty.

A theme of the discussion was abolishing Georgia’s death penalty and pushing for system of “restorative justice,” a kind of mediation involving criminals and victims rather than a system of pure punishment.

Prejean also shared some Atlanta stories and information, including that the Atlanta Opera next year will perform an adaptation of “Dead Man Walking.”

‘A Case for Life’

Wright said the intent of the forum was to spur advocacy to “kill the death penalty.” The book he conceived is part of that effort.

“A Case for Life” is a slim volume of five essays he said is intended “to create five doorways into the issue so we might wake up.” He, Casey and Fletcher are among the contributors, along with Bishop C. Andrew Doyle of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas and Stephen Bright, former director of Atlanta’s Southern Center for Human Rights and an attorney who has argued many death penalty cases, including before the U.S. Supreme Court. The book is available on the Atlanta Diocese’s website here.

“A Case for Life,” the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta’s new anti-death-penalty essay book, on sale at the event. (John Ruch)

Wright said he, like many people, did not give the death penalty serious thought for years. Then he realized that the state’s death row, located in a Butts County prison, is within his diocese, making everyone there technically his religious “neighbor.” Among the information that convinced him of the death penalty injustice is the number of exonerated former death row convicts – 161 in the U.S. since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit organization that gathers data largely critical of the death penalty.

The discussion took place during Lent, the Christian observance of the approach of Easter, a celebration of Jesus’s execution and resurrection.  Wright noted the Bible’s story about execution of Jesus, who “an indifferent governor, in collusion with religious people, put to death. There’s something about that collusion … And they did it in a hurry so they could all get to church on time … We can’t trust the government to make this decision.”

Wright noted a frequent criticism that death penalty opponents focus on the suffering of the perpetrator rather than that of victims and their loved ones.

“We can do both. Vengeance and justice are two different ideas,” said Wright. He suggested it is death penalty supporters whose view is lopsided: “We want the grace of Jesus for ourselves. But we want an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth to others.”

Prejean: End Georgia’s death penalty

Prejean, a Catholic nun from Louisiana, earned fame and sparked international conversation with her 1993 book “Dead Man Walking” and its Oscar-winning film adaptation. The book is about her counseling of two rapists and murderers who were executed and her argument that they deserved dignity and redemption.

Prejean recalled that in 1990, she joined  a two-week protest march from a death row prison in Florida to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta. The day after returning, she got a request from a publisher to write a book, which became “Dead Man Walking.”

A “prequel” book is now in the works, she said, called “River of Fire.” It is about how seeing her first execution awoke her to injustice. “What I saw set my soul on fire, a fire that burns in me still,” she said.

Atlanta Catholic Archbishop Wilton Gregory and Sister Helen Prejean sit among the audience for a portion of the event, listening to a discussion of the Gissendaner execution. (John Ruch)

She connected that experience to her background of growing up in the Jim Crow era South with unquestioned privilege. “That’s what privilege does,” she said “…And it is such a grace to wake up.”

The death penalty violates international precepts of human rights to life and against torture, she said, as “Torture’s inherent to the death penalty.” She complained that many Catholics proclaim the right to life against abortion and the protection of “innocent life,” but support the death penalty. “What about the dignity of guilty life?” she asked.

She acknowledged that such famous Catholic theologians as Thomas Aquinas supported the death penalty in certain cases, likening it to killing a rabid dog or cutting off a gangrenous limb. But, Prejean argued, today such extremes are unnecessary.

“The people of Georgia don’t need to do that anymore,” she said of the death penalty.

Gregory, the Catholic archbishop, agreed. “Once you begin to justify the taking of a human life, you really are on a slippery slope” that leads to loss of the “dignity of human life,” he said.

Prejean urged outreach and activism. Among the direct efforts suggested by people in attendance was support for Georgia House Bill 768, which would strengthen intellectual disability as a defense in capital cases. The bill’s sponsors include Rep. Scott Holcomb, a Democrat whose district includes part of Brookhaven.

The Gissendaner case

Casey and Fletcher played two very different roles in the Gissendaner case. Casey was her defense attorney, while Fletcher was on the state Supreme Court when it unanimously upheld her conviction and death sentence.

Gissendaner’s execution was especially controversial for two reasons. She commissioned the brutal stabbing murder of her husband Douglas and was sentenced to death, while the man who actually did the killing cut a deal and got only prison time with the possibility of parole. In prison, she converted to Christianity, earned a theology degree and was praised by family members and fellow prisoners for her attempts to redeem herself.

Casey said there is something wrong with a system when Gissendaner’s own children could eventually forgive her for her crime, but the state would not.

“We have a justice system focused on thing and one thing only—what are we doing to do to the person who did these horrible things?” Casey said.

Fletcher said that while serving on the court, he was “quite shocked” at the poor legal representation many death penalty convicts had and at the “arbitrary” nature of how prosecutors chose to pursue the ultimate punishment, “like a roulette wheel.”

He said the death penalty should be for the “worst of the worst,” but Gissendaner was not the worst criminal involved in her own crime, with the direct killer remaining alive. Her execution brought him to his first public opposition to the death penalty.

Page Dukes becomes emotional while telling the panel about knowing executed murderer Kelly Gissendaner in prison. (John Ruch)

A dramatic moment came when audience member Page Dukes tearfully told the panel that she knew Gissendaner in prison. She described the pain of seeing someone achieve rehabilitation, “and then to see that person killed – it’s so hard to find compassion is a weakness.”

Dukes was in prison for robbing her own workplace in the desperation of a heroin addiction. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution profiled her from behind bars in 2013, where she was serving a minimum 10-year, no-parole sentence – the sort of harsh, mandatory minimum that the state is in the process of reforming.

Dukes is the daughter of the popular Atlanta singer-songwriter Caroline Aiken, and as a student at Buckhead’s North Atlanta High School, had a band of her own. She continued her musicianship in prison programs, including with Gissendaner.

“I got to put music to a song she wrote,” she later told the Reporter. But such personal changes, she told the panel, are hard for the general public to see. “It’s so out of sight, out of mind,” she said.

Dukes now works in advocacy for the type of sentencing reform and restorative justice that the panelists said should be applied to the death penalty.

Debating the views

Another audience member told the panel that he was once a firm supporter of the death penalty, but changed his mind after hearing the story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. A boxer whose murder conviction was tossed out of court, but whose actual guilt is still debated, Carter was memorialized in a Bob Dylan song and a Denzel Washington movie.

“That’s what spoke to me, was the possibility that we get it wrong,” the man said of his change to an anti-death-penalty position.

Another man in the audience politely protested the claim that the death penalty is anti-Christian.

“With all due respect, I have to object to the notion … that I am not a Christian, that my faith is challenged,” he said, adding that is a fallible person and “I must confess I do not possess limitless divine forgiveness in my heart.”

Gregory responded that everyone is fallible, but that in the Gospel, “Jesus says you have to strive to be perfect as our heavenly father is perfect.” Wright responded more bluntly, noting the large number of death row exonerations.

“I don’t know how much more answer we need,” Wright said, and the audience member said that’s the most convincing counterargument to him.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.

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