Sister Helen Prejean will be speaking tonight in Walnut Creek Monday. She will talk about her work against the death penalty and about witnessing the executions of six men for whom she served as spiritual advisor.
Her talk, at the Mt. Diablo Unitarian Universalist Church, comes at a difficult time for the East Bay community. That’s because she opposes the kind of punishment that probably would have been imposed on Lovelle Mixon, the 26-year-old parolee who just killed four Oakland police officers ... had Mixon been captured alive.
On March 21, Mixon, wanted on a no-bail arrest warrant for a parole violation, opened fire on two Oakland police officers during a traffic stop in East Oakland. News reports say he wounded both officers, then stood over them and pumped more bullets into their heads.
Two hours later, he shot at three officers trying to arrest him in a nearby apartment building. The traffic stop and the second apartment gun battle ended with four Oakland police officers dead. It was one of the deadliest days in California law enforcement history. More than 20,000 people turned out for the officers’ funeral at the Oakland stadium complex, and many more of us watched or listened to live TV and radio broadcasts. All four of those officers grew up or currently lived in East Bay towns, from Piedmont to Pleasanton, from Concord to Castro Valley to Danville.
In the days following the officers’ deaths, we learned more about Mixon. He had served five years in prison for assault with a firearm, was a suspect in a 2007 murder, and, the day before he opened fire on the officers, was linked through DNA evidence to the rape of a 12-year-old East Oakland girl.
By killing the four officers, and because of his other alleged crimes, particularly the rape of a child, he definitely qualifies as the “worst of the worst.” The death penalty is supposed to be designed for just these kinds of criminals.
Sister Helen Prejean is no stranger to such criminals, as she chronicles in her book, Dead Man Walking, the basis of the 1996 Academy Award-winning film. One of the inmates she counseled inspired the unrepentant racist murderer and rapist in the film, chillingly portrayed by Sean Penn.
As it happens, I admire Sister Helen Prejean. I saw the film back when it was first released. Susan Sarandon won her Academy Award for playing Prejean. And just two years ago, I finally got around to reading the book, which was on the New York Times best seller list for dozens of weeks and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. It’s a thoughtful, well-researched and well-written meditation on the criminal justice system, horrific crimes and their consequences, their perpetrators, and the death penalty.
Both the film and the book show that Prejean does not dwell much on making excuses for “the worst of the worst.” Read her interview with PBS's Frontline, where she describes the "animalistic" behavior of one murder and rapist she counseled.
But she does believe even these "worst of the worst" still deserve basic human rights. Some would say her compassion is woefully misplaced, but as the film’s Sister Helen Prejean says: “We are all more than the worst thing we have ever done.”
In addition to her anti-death penalty work, Prejean also founded “Survive,” a victim’s advocacy group. She counsels both inmates on death row and families of murder victims. She would definitely want to offer compassion to the families and friends of the officers killed—Sgt. Mike Dunakin, Sgt. Erv Romans, Officer John Hege, and Sgt. Dan Sakai.
Her ultimate goal is to help people on both sides of any death penalty case—or any violent crime—to heal.
In fact, in a speech she made last August, she refers to Lloyd LeBlanc, the father of 17-year-old David LeBlanc, the victim of Elmo Patrick Sonnier, Prejean’s first death row client. Lloyd LeBlanc was horrifically grief stricken and angry for many years over the brutal 1977 slaying of his son and his 18-year-old girlfriend. But LeBlanc, even after attending Sonnier's 1984 execution, came to realize that witnessing eye-for-an-eye revenge on his son’s killer did not lessen his grief. In fact, LeBlanc realized another path to peace and reconciliation. Says Prejean: “Lloyd was the first to teach me what forgiveness really means. He told me, ‘I’m not going to let hatred and bitterness take over my life because I would be dead too.’”
In my journalism career, I’ve interviewed a fair number of family members of homicide victims. Years after the killings, many are still emotionally wrenched, which makes me wonder whether the promise of a state-sanctioned execution truly eases their grief or provides them with that sense of “closure.”
In that speech last August, Sister Helen said: “The death penalty, far from being a peripheral moral issue concerned about how we should punish a few terrible criminals reveals the soul of America. It lays bare our deepest wounds as a nation: our racism, our assault on poor people, and our ready instinct to use violence to solve social problems.”
The most insightful moments in Prejean’s book, and in the film, reveal what Prejean calls the “darkest most hidden corner of American life.” That is, our death rows, our execution chambers, and our so-called civilized, humane process of putting people to death.
It fascinates me how we keep our executions hidden from public view. To me, the desire of authorities—and the public—to keep executions cloaked behind thick prison walls reveals the public’s truly deeply convicted views about the death penalty. Sure, a select group of witnesses is allowed to reveal every execution--and this includes reporters who describe what they saw, heard, sensed, and smelled.
I suspect the reason we don’t want to make our executions more public is that we want to convince ourselves that we are civilized, humane people. If we’re going to put people to death—even miserable individuals like Mixon—we want to believe we’re doing it in the most civilized, humane way possible.
Actually, what is especially striking about Prejean’s descriptions of the executions she witnessed is the absurd juxtaposition of the “humane and civilized” gestures involved in preparing someone to die against the act of committing a homicide, even if it's state sanctioned. On the “humane and civilized” side, there is the last meal, the last-minute legal jockeying, and the medicalization of the killing, including the doctor pronouncing the inmate dead. These gestures come off as bizarre against the act of someone pulling the switch that sends a lethal bolt of electricity through the inmate’s body (Sonnier was electrocuted; California's mode of execution is lethal injection).
If Lovelle Mixon were captured alive, we in the community—and the loved ones of his victims—would be facing years of agony and waiting. We would relive his crimes during the trial. We'd hear again the details of how exactly these officers died. Very probably facing the death penalty, and in a high-profile case, Mixon would receive a top-notch defense—and at public expense.
He would also be given the chance to present evidence for why jurors and a judge should offer him some sympathy and not impose the death penalty. Maybe, he had a tortured childhood. Maybe he would say--as his fans in the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement would say--he is a victim of poverty and society's oppression. Maybe he has a mental illness or other condition that made it impossible for him to control his actions on March 21. Whatever Mixon’s story is, we’d be hearing it. That would be his right.
His story probably wouldn't sell and he would be sentenced to death. Still, Mixon wouldn’t be put to death for years, decades even. That’s the way it works. Death row inmates have the right to appeal. They should have that right, given that our criminal justice system is flawed, and once in a while innocent people do get wrongfully convicted. The appeals of death penalty cases take an especially long time to sort out. I know of a guy, who was convicted of the mid-1980s murder of a woman in Livermore. I interviewed him in 1987, soon after he had been arrested for the killing and before he went to trial. He’s still alive and on death row.
It seems like there should be a better way to deal with someone like Lovelle Mixon, the worst of the worst. You could say that the officers, killing Mixon while firing in self-defense during their attempt to capture him, took care of the problem. But that's not how the fate of most of these killers is decided.
Perhaps someone like Sister Helen Prejean has some ideas. I'm sure it involves something having to do with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. That solution is not perfect, either. Inmates still get to appeal, but statistics show these inmates don't win many of their appeals, and recent governors have shown little inclination to grant convicted killers clemency. And in the end, life in prison is truly more humane and civilized that putting someone to death.
Anyway, if you want to hear Sister Helen Prejean talk, her presentation is at 7 p.m. at the Mt. Diablo Unitarian Universalist Church, 55 Eckley Lane, Walnut Creek.
The event is co-sponsored by the Mt. Diablo Peace & Justice Center, the Social Action Committee of the Mt. Diablo Unitarian Universalist Church, the Interfaith Council of Contra Costa County, and the Social Justice Alliance of the Interfaith Council.
For information and tickets, call (925) 933-7850 or visit brownpapertickets.com. You can also visit Prejean’s website.