'Death penalty denies human dignity'

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'Death penalty denies human dignity'

Calling executions an assault on the dignity of human beings that almost always involves torture, Sister Helen Prejean, 64, an anti-death penalty activist, urged Koreans to reflect on the death penalty.

"Article 10 of Korea's constitution says, 'All citizens shall be assured of human worth and dignity and have the right to pursue happiness.' How is the death penalty any respect for human dignity?" said Sister Helen during a news conference Friday in Seoul.

The Roman Catholic nun whose best-selling book "Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States," was made into a stirring 1996 film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, was in Korea for three days at the invitation of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Korea. The conference is campaigning for the abolition of the death penalty.

Noting that 157 members of the National Assembly have endorsed a bill for the abolition of the death penalty, Sister Helen said she hoped to see Korea become the first country in Asia to do away with the system. "One hundred five countries around the world have either abolished or put a permanent moratorium on executions," she said.

"There was an unofficial moratorium on executions in the United States in the 1960s and the first-half of the 1970s. Since 1976 when executions were resumed, about 800 people have been put to death," said Sister Helen. "Since 1976, we have also released from death row 102 people who were wrongfully convicted," she said.

The chief reason governments maintain the death penalty is that it is an easy political answer to a very complex problem, according to Sister Helen. "Politicians say that the people want it, but that is because people have not reflected on it. Public outrage over what happens to the innocent people fire and fuel execution."

The political argument that the public wants the death penalty is an over simplification of the issue, Sister Helen said. She cited the example of Illinois Governor George Ryan, a conservative Republican, who halted executions two years ago, after the 13th innocent person was released from death row in Illinois.

"He said that we can't have innocents executed along with the guilty, and 66 percent of the people of Illinois supported him," Sister Helen said.

In fact, one of her biggest surprises in working with the victims' families is that many did not want executions. "I thought they would all want revenge," she said.

Life term imprisonment without the possibility of commutation is an alternative that should be examined. "Modern societies have prisons where they can incapacitate criminals without imitating violence," said Sister Helen.

When asked if life imprisonment was not crueler than a death sentence, she said, "People condemned to death almost always want to live. Life imprisonment can change the convicts because they can have a change of heart, get education and feel cared for." Instead of spending money on executions, Sister Helen called for the development of programs to provide help that the victims' families need, "not just watching the perpetrator's execution.

"Ninety-eight percent of the victims' families are not given this sort of justice," she said.

Sister Helen has accompanied five people to executions since witnessing the execution of Patrick Sonnier, a convicted killer of two teenagers, in the electric chair of Angola State Prison in Louisiana April 5, 1984. She had become pen pals with Mr. Sonnier (Sean Penn's character in the movie "Dead Man Walking"), and visited him for 2 1/2 years.

"It is the most surreal experience. You can be with a person drinking coffee, and then he is taken away," she said. Unprepared for what she had to go through, she vomited watching Mr. Sonnier's execution. "On the following executions, I summoned all my energy to be present for them. I thought their dignity as a human being deserved that."

What about a death sentence for someone who has committed a heinous crimes? Sister Helen said: "An eye-for-an-eye is not reflective. It is a first impulse, but what good does it do to us as a society to imitate the criminals?"

Another problem with the death penalty is that it is discriminatory. "In the U.S., when a white person or a person with money is killed, eight of ten, a death sentence is sought. The victims' status in society is a determining factor," she said. "On the other hand, 90 percent of all death row inmates are the poor."

"Putting a moratorium on executions is a graceful way for a country to come out of execution," she suggested. That would allow time to study the death penalty and the way it is applied. "Getting into the public culture is one way to get the people to reflect on it."

by Kim Hoo-ran

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