[Deathpenalty]death penalty news-----worldwide
rhalperi at mail.smu.edu
Sat Jun 18 11:52:36 CDT 2005
Nun offers solace to death-row inmates
Sister Helen Prejean looks into convicted killers' eyes without judgment,
trying to reach their souls, when others simply regard them as monsters
The Roman Catholic nun has rested her hand on the shoulders of 6 death-row
inmates as they walked their last steps to the execution chamber. She
listened to their last words as they waited to die. She is currently
counseling her seventh convicted killer.
The author of the 1996 book, "Dead Man Walking," which spawned a movie of
the same name, Prejean made her 4th visit here to support a nationwide
campaign to establish a moratorium on the death penalty.
During her 2-week visit to 9 cities including Tokyo, the 66-year-old
spiritual adviser to death-row inmates in her home state of Louisiana
first visited Fukuoka.
There she offered support to an effort begun by her friend and Buddhist
priest, the late Tairyu Furukawa, to force a retrial in an infamous 1947
Fukuoka case. In this case 2 men were arrested for shooting 2 people to
death. Both were convicted but later claimed they had been tortured to
Furukawa took up the controversial case and over the years acted as their
spiritual adviser. After many years, one of the inmates was executed and
the other's sentence was reduced to life in prison.
Prejean's 1st death-row inmate was Patrick Sonnier. Despite her belief in
his innocence, Sonnier was executed in 1984.
Prejean met Furukawa at a peace conference in Romania in 1998. The nun
encouraged Furukawa and his family to begin a pilgrimage across Japan,
calling for support for a retrial.
"She is like a ball that bounces back at you full of energy," says Tairyu
Furukawa's son, Ryuji, of the Seimeizan Schweitzer Temple in Kumamoto
Ryuji Furukawa and his family took up his father's cause after his death.
"She devotes so much of her life to the abolishment of the death penalty
that she says it only takes onsen and karaoke to bring her back to Japan."
Prejean is critical of Japan's use of the death penalty.
Japan hangs criminals sentenced to death. In the United States, most
states have adopted lethal injection as the method of choice.
As of April there were about 72 inmates awaiting execution in Japan.
Between 1993 and 2004, 46 criminals were executed, according to the
Although Japan conducts fewer executions than the United States-59
prisoners convicted of capital crimes were executed in 38 states last
year-Prejean believes Japan's system is more cruel.
After the sentence is finalized, convicted killers are put in solitary
confinement until their execution date-a date unknown to them until a few
hours before they are hanged.
The government is extraordinarily secretive about executions, she says.
When the execution announcement is delivered to the inmates' families, it
reads "the separation" has occurred.
The nun says it is hard for her to imagine how inmates maintain their
sanity for years and sometimes decades knowing every day could be their
During her latest visit, Prejean met with Yasuaki Uwabe, 41, on death row
in Hiroshima. Uwabe is currently awaiting a verdict on an appeal that is
expected to be handed down later this month by the Hiroshima High Court.
Uwabe was convicted of ramming his car into a crowd at JR Shimonoseki
Station in Yamaguchi Prefecture in 1999. After mowing down several
pedestrians, he leaped from his vehicle, ran to the station platform, and
stabbed more people with a kitchen knife. 5 people died and 10 were
At trial, his lawyers claimed Uwabe was mentally incapacitated.
While Uwabe's actions appear inexcusable, Prejean sees him as a sufferer
in need of salvation.
"It was a visit to give him joy and to show him dignity as a human being.
I told him stories and made him laugh," she says. Sharing with him stories
of her trip, Prejean told him she is working to end the death penalty. "He
was just smiling."
Through an interpreter, they talked about his interests in architecture,
the earthquake-proofing of buildings, and the twists and turns his life
had taken that led him to becoming a truck driver and killer. He told the
nun he longed to see the ocean.
In turn, Prejean gave him a postcard with a lake on it and told him to use
his imagination to picture the ocean.
She says she treated Uwabe as a friend hoping to help him with his
"He was totally surprised to receive a spontaneous Southern woman coming
to see him," Prejean says, tickled by his reaction.
Prejean says, that while crime should never be tolerated, execution is no
more than state-sanctioned murder. This, she says, does not mean she is
indifferent to the pain and loss of the victims' families. The nun writes
to the victims' families and asks if she can help them. She also works
with a victims' advocacy group, Survive.
Upon returning to the United States, the nun was to resume her death-row
visits. She was to visit Manuel Ortiz, a death-row inmate she believes to
She planned to tell him of her travels in Japan-of the unusual people she
met, of bathing in an onsen and seeing Mount Fuji.
During her visits to these incarcerated men, Prejean does her best to
leave them with a picture of the world outside their cells.
Whenever she travels, she sends postcards to death-row and other prison
"I tell them stories because they are in a cell every day, they're looking
at the same thing every day," she says, with a Southern accent unaffected
by her world travels.
"That's what friends do. They feed your soul with experiences and things
that happen. This is the core, the center of their life. It's easy to kill
a monster, but it becomes more difficult when you look a person in the
Many people think murderers deserve to die, but Prejean calls the death
Both the United States and Japan have signed the U.N. convention against
torture, which defines torture as an extreme mental or physical assault
against someone rendered defenseless.
According to Prejean, a stint on death row fits this definition.
Prejean says death-row inmates in the United States have told her of
nightmares about being dragged out of their cells when their time was up.
"They wake up screaming and sweating. They look around and realize, 'I'm
still in my cell. It's not my time to go,'" she says.
Speaking of prisons in the United States, she calls it a surreal
experience to visit an execution facility. She describes the guards going
through their execution protocol, the electric chair, a coffee pot
percolating benignly in a corner.
"Everything seemed normal. Only your mind and your watch told you he was
going to die," she says of the day she accompanied Sonnier to the death
chamber in 1984.
Sonnier, convicted of killing 2 people, was the 1st death-row inmate
Her work as a death-penalty abolitionist began in New Orleans when she was
asked if she would write letters to inmates on death row. It was in 1982,
and Louisiana had not conducted an execution for 20 years.
"I had no idea that two and a half years later that Louisiana was going to
kill him (Sonnier) in an electric chair and I was going to be with him,"
she recalls. "If I'd known what I had to do along the road, I don't think
I would've had the strength to do it."
She says she believed Sonnier when he told her he didn't shoot the 2
victims. He said he took the blame at the trial to protect his brother.
His brother is currently doing life for his role in the murders.
Since then, she has spent an average of 3 or 4 years with each of the six
death-row prisoners who were executed. "The whole reason for your being
there is to show him dignity," she says. "So you step outside yourself.
You are not even allowed the luxury of asking yourself 'Can I do this?'
'Am I going to fall apart?' You are there for him. You are out of self
completely at a time like that."
Witnesses must recount the scene, she says. Educating the public is one
way to abolish capital punishment. With the assistance of Hollywood movie
director and actor Tim Robbins, Prejean is promoting theatrical
performances of "Dead Man Walking," which Robbins rewrote for the stage.
Robbins has offered the play to colleges, universities and high schools.
Participating students and faculty are required to take at least 2 classes
to discuss the death penalty from various perspectives, including law,
sociology, history, philosophy and ethics.
Prejean has also inspired celebrity-activists involved in the movie. Susan
Sarandon, who won an Oscar for playing Prejean in the movie, corresponded
for eight years with a death-row inmate. At one point, the man asked
Sarandon to visit him.
Prejean recalls a telephone call from the shaken actress asking her what
she should do. "She has a great sense of humor, Susan," Prejean says,
"She says, 'All right, you saw the film, this is your thing. You should do
it, not me.'"
But in the end, Sarandon did visit the prisoner and Prejean witnessed the
TRINIDAD & TOBAGO:
Row over hanging suits
Controversy and dissent have plagued the lawsuit which a team of human
rights attorneys have filed on behalf of condemned prisoners to prevent
Within one week of the constitutional motion being filed, the prisoners on
death row are divided on whether they want to take part in the case and on
which attorneys they want to represent them.
The Daily Express learnt that at least 17 of the almost 85 condemned
prisoners have already jumped ship. Some have opted for different
attorneys to represent them while others have decided to take their
chances with their appeals.
Those prisoners who have chosen not to be part of any motion are banking
on the success of their appeals against their convictions. They hope that,
on appeal to the Court of Appeal, the Privy Council, or by petition to the
President, their convictions would be quashed and they would be released.
The dissent among the prisoners prompted Justice Ian Benjamin to meet
privately with lawyers representing the State and the human rights
attorneys when the case came up before him yesterday in the Port of Spain
Sixth Civil Court.
On Monday, Benjamin granted an order preventing the State from taking any
steps to execute the death sentence on any prisoner who had been sentence
on or before July 7, 2004-when the Privy Council, ruling on the appeal of
murderer Charles Matthew, stated that the sentences of Death Row prisoners
should be commuted to life imprisonment.
Senior Counsel Reginald Armour and Douglas Mendes had headed the team
which represented four killers whom the State had told that the Mercy
Committee would meet to consider their cases.
Fearing that steps would be taken to execute them, the attorneys filed the
motion and also sought the interests of other death row prisoners.
Benjamin's stay expired yesterday, and the State's attorney, Gilbert
Peterson SC, said he would not resist the stay continuing until the
determination of the motion.
But before the hearing was adjourned, Peterson took issue with an
affidavit filed by attorney Ravi Heffes-Doon, who is appearing with
Armour, that 51 condemned prisoners said they wanted to be a party to the
Peterson questioned whether the order could continue to apply to prisoners
who were not named in the list.
Armour said the list of 51-in addition to the four prisoners he was
already representing-was "not an exhaustive list and we have not had time
to get instructions from everyone on death row who is interested in this
The parties then met with the judge in private, and when they emerged
Armour said they had agreed that the order would continue to protect all
prisoners sentenced before the Matthew judgment, until the motion is
The motion was then adjourned to June 29.
The Daily Express obtained a copy of a letter sent to Armour, dated June
17, from attorney Gerald Ramdeen stating that 17 prisoners wished to
disassociate themselves from the motion.
It is understood that the letter was also sent to the Attorney General.
When contacted, Ramdeen confirmed that he and another attorney in his
chambers, Mark Seepersad, had been retained to represent 7 of those 17
prisoners, and that they would be filing separate constitutional motions
to challenge the State on its failure to commute their sentences in light
of the Matthew judgment.
Among those prisoners who chose to take their chances on their own are the
ten men convicted in 2001 of the 1997 kidnapping and murder of Thackoor
Boodram, the brother of executed kingpin Dole Chadee. Boodram was shot and
beheaded after Chadee failed up pay a $5 million ransom.
The ten are Michael Maharaj, his brother Samuel; brothers Bobby and Damian
Ramiah; Seenath Ramiah; Daniel Gopaul; brothers Leslie and Richard
Huggins; Mark Jaikaran and Junior Phillips.
Leslie Huggins, his cousin, Arnold Huggins and Phillip are also under
another death sentence for the murder of State witness Clint Huggins in
(source: Trinidad Express)
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