Sister Helen Prejean Says Federal Executions Speak To Trump's Violent Approach To Power

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Sister Helen Prejean, a leading American advocate for the abolition of the death penalty. (Andrew Lichtenstein/Sygma via Getty Images)
Sister Helen Prejean, a leading American advocate for the abolition of the death penalty. (Andrew Lichtenstein/Sygma via Getty Images)

The federal government is planning to execute three more people before President Trump leaves office next week, despite the political fallout his administration faces in its final days.

These final executions will bring the total number carried out during Trump’s term to 13. No president has rushed to execute this many people in a year since the 1880s.

Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun and anti-death-penalty activist, says the Trump administration’s decision to end a 17-year hiatus on federal executions is just one facet of the president’s violent agenda.

“President Trump's overall approach to the way he tries to hold power is to use violence,” she says. “He upholds white supremacy groups, people who use violence. He encouraged the group to storm the Capitol. And executions are just part of his whole way of doing things.”

After studying the death penalty and witnessing six executions, Prejean says the legal process for sentencing capital punishment is inherently flawed. Prosecutors decide whether to seek capital punishment based on “impossible criteria,” she says.

“[Capital punishment is] supposed to be only for the worst of the worst,” she says. “But overwhelmingly, its practice has been if you kill white people.”

Sister Helen Prejean at the Angola State Penitentiary in 1996. (Brooks Kraft LLC/Sygma via Getty Images)
Sister Helen Prejean at the Angola State Penitentiary in 1996. (Brooks Kraft LLC/Sygma via Getty Images)

The Case Of Lisa Mongomery 

The Trump administration’s three final executions include Lisa Montgomery, who murdered a pregnant woman in Kansas in 2004 in a nightmarish effort to steal the unborn fetus.

Montgomery was scheduled to be put to death on Tuesday, but hours before a federal judge granted her a stay of execution pending a competency hearing. Montgomery died by lethal injection early Wednesday morning, making her the first woman to be executed by the federal government since 1953.

Montgomery was traumatized and tortured in her life, Prejean says, but didn’t have experts to show her history of trauma as part of her defense. The prosecutor in her case called her story the “abuse excuse.”

Prejean says she’s worked closely with Montgomery’s lawyers and other people trying to plead the 52-year-old’s case but questioned if Trump would even hear out the plea.

“That's why you cannot put in the hands of individuals this discretion of life or death that they carry. You don't have an execution if prosecutors do not deliberately seek it,” Prejean says. “And her clemency petition is sitting in the midst of that chaos in the White House. Will [Trump] even look at it? I doubt it.”

Montgomery committed a “horrendous” crime, but the notion that executions help victims’ families is disingenuous, Prejean says. Families even read a script at federal executions that guide them to express gratitude and say they feel closure, she says.

“How can — [families] witnessing violence against this woman and have her be killed in front of their eyes — possibly heal their hearts of their loss?” she says. “It's just a big lie.”

The end of Trump’s term is coming, whether it’s through impeachment, forced removal or Joe Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20. Biden, a Catholic, has said that he would end federal executions.

Prejean expects the president-elect to keep his word. If Biden’s term began eight days earlier, Montgomery would live, Prejean says, which speaks to the “arbitrariness and capriciousness” of the death penalty.

‘God Is An Active Verb’

During the pandemic, Prejean’s younger brother, Louis Prejean Jr., recently died due to complications related to COVID-19. She says she’s grateful her brother faced a “merciful death” in his sleep while in a medically induced coma.

Trump’s lack of national strategy on the coronavirus is killing an unfathomable number of Americans, she says.

“The act of taking the life of Lisa Montgomery is one thing,” she says. “And the passive, or through neglect, allowing [of] the death of so many citizens is another aspect of the violence of this administration and Trump.”

The current moment might lead some people to question their faith, but Prejean’s devotion to doing God’s work is unwavering.

In her book “River of Fire,” she talks about her own awakening: how she went from praying for people and asking God to help them to rolling up her own sleeves and getting involved. Now, the “divine spark” in her heart inspires her to serve as a witness to executions and wake the American people up to the cruel reality of capital punishment.

“God's work in the world is compassion, not vengeance. God's work in the world is justice,” she says. “God is an active verb. But God is not this supreme being out there removed from everything. God sparks us to life and to work for justice.”

 Julia Corcoran produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku RayAllison Hagan adapted it for the web. 

This segment aired on January 11, 2021.


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Peter O'Dowd Senior Editor, Here & Now
Peter O’Dowd has a hand in most parts of Here & Now — producing and overseeing segments, reporting stories and occasionally filling in as host. He came to Boston from KJZZ in Phoenix.


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Allison Hagan Digital Producer, Here & Now
Allison Hagan is a digital producer for Here & Now.



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