'Dead Man Walking' Author Says Opinion About Death Penalty Is Mostly Unreflected

It’s no secret: The death penalty still enjoys wide support among Americans. According to an October 2011 Gallup poll, 60 percent favor capital punishment while 30 percent oppose it.

Sister Helen Prejean, since first counseling a death row inmate in 1984, has been on a mission to convince people that executions are wrong.

She says if more people were educated about the implications of capital punishment, support would be much lower.

“The first one to say this was Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American on the Supreme Court of the United States. He said the American people say they support the death penalty, but it’s an unreflected opinion. Educate people on what the death penalty really is and they will reject the death penalty, and we found that to be true.”

She points to the high cost of death penalty trials and the fact that states that have the death penalty have higher murder rates than those that don’t are examples of reasons to oppose capital punishment. And, she says, working with murder victims’ families has taught her that the death of their loved one’s killer doesn’t give them closure.

Harris County has sometimes been called “the capital of capital punishment,” because more people are sentenced to death here than anywhere else in the United States.

However, Prejean says, the introduction in Texas of life without parole as an alternative to the death penalty has changed the number of death sentences in Harris County dramatically.

According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, since 2005, when life without parole was first introduced, only 11 offenders have been sent to death row in Harris County — none so far this year. Compare that to 45 in the eight years before that.

“I think by being told the alternative is we can keep society safe – safety is a whole other question; vengeance, legalized vengeance, is something else — but to know you can keep society safe and you don’t have to take the responsibility in your hands for killing a fellow human being, I think that’s why you give juries half a chance, they are going to vote for life.”

In fact, when people are asked to choose between the death penalty and a life sentence without the chance of parole, surveys show support evenly split between the two punishments.

While public support remains high, more and more states are rethinking the death penalty for different reasons. Prejean hopes that the United States will join other Western nations by abolishing the death penalty altogether.

“We’re beginning to make the turn and I do believe the day will come.”

Many Texans may disagree. According to a recent poll by the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune, a majority of Texans still favor the death penalty even if life without parole is offered.

From the KUHF Newslab, I’m Florian Martin.

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