Melissa Harris-Perry: Welcome to The Takeaway. I'm your host, Melissa Harris-Perry. All week we've been revisiting some really powerful Deep Dives, and today is an important one. We're revisiting the death penalty.
Nikolas Cruz: I hope you give me a chance to try to help others. I believe it's your decision to decide where I go, whether I live or die.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, let me set the scene here. We're taking it back to October of 2021, when Nikolas Cruz pled guilty to 17 counts of murder. Cruz shot and killed 14 students and three teachers during his 2018 rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Nikolas Cruz: I am very sorry for what I did and I have to live with it every day. If I were to get a second chance, I will do everything in my power to try to help others.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Because of the guilty plea, the case was moved directly to the sentencing phase. While the defense team hoped to earn a life sentence in exchange for the plea, the Broward prosecutors did not take the death penalty off the table. After nearly a three-month process, a jury of seven men and five women was chosen in late June and they will now decide if Cruz will be sentenced to die. It's a reminder of why this is a critical moment to dive deep into an issue where Americans have long held sharply divergent opinions, the death penalty.
Nikolas Cruz: I believe it's your decision to decide where I go, whether I live or die.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Here to help me dig into all of this is my Deep Dive co-host, Dorian Warren, who's co-president of Community Change and co-chair of the Economic Security Project.
Dorian Warren: Thanks, Melissa. It's always a pleasure to be with you here on The Takeaway. Melissa, this issue is so important because we are taking the entire hour today to talk with some incredible guests.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We are starting this Deep Dive, listeners, with you, because we asked under what circumstances do you support the death penalty. Here's what you had to say.
Melanie Hamer: Hi. I'm Melanie Hamer. I'm in the Bronx. If it's wrong to kill, then it's wrong for the state to kill, even under horrific circumstances.
Liz: Hi. This is Liz from Encinitas, California. I support the death penalty for serial killers, psychopaths who are just evil and would be better off maybe in the next life.
Lex: My name is Lex for Jamaica. I do not think that the death penalty is applicable in all circumstances, but yes, I do believe it should be an option. Just because we might get it wrong sometimes does not mean that we can't get it right more.
Geila: This is Geila in Washington, DC. No, I don't support the death penalty under any circumstances because it's been proven that mistakes have been made and the mistakes are most often men of color, especially Black men.
Speaker 7: Death penalty. We're all under death penalty, nobody gets out of here alive, so let's all be nice to one other. If we need to make someone pay for something terrible, put them to work for the public good.
Dorian Warren: Melissa, since 1936, Gallup has been asking Americans, "Do you support the death penalty for a person convicted of murder?" For most of those 85 years, a majority of Americans have expressed support for the death penalty, but for the past two decades, that support has steadily declined. Back in 1995, 80% of Americans were in favor of the death penalty. By 2020, support had declined to 55%, the lowest level of support since 1972.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's true, this divide. It reflects in part partisanship and Republicans are more likely to favor the death penalty, but I got to say it's also the case when it comes to this issue, the nation is deeply conflicted. I got to tell you, I'm conflicted. Now, in the abstract, I'm not. I clearly oppose the death penalty until I think about my own kids or my parents or my husband. Dorian, I got to tell you, I don't know if my opposition to the death penalty could hold in those circumstances if I was faced with the violent laws of someone I deeply love.
Dorian Warren: I'm in the exact same place, Melissa, feeling conflicted about the death penalty very often. I too strongly oppose the death penalty on principle, but like you, I'm not sure how I'd react if I lost an immediate loved one in my family to a violent crime of some sort. I think, Melissa, we should lean into this conflict and discomfort that I'm sure many listeners also experience when thinking and even talking about the death penalty.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Acknowledging and leaning into the conflict, to the challenge. Let's start by just trying to understand the basics of the death penalty system itself.
Samuel Spital: For many years, the states were the principal drivers of the death penalty in this country.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This is Samuel Spital. He is Director of Litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Samuel Spital: The federal system has long had a death penalty, and probably, unlike what a lot of people expect, the federal death penalty exists for all sorts of crimes. It's not about terrorism or very limited classes of crimes, it's pretty broad.
Dorian Warren: Melissa, let's slow this down a bit because, as Sam told us, the death penalty is actually multiple death penalties.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Currently, nearly half of American States have an active system of capital punishment. In addition to the active states, there's also a federal death penalty.
Dorian Warren: This is important because a defendant can receive a federal capital sentence even if they live in a state with no state system of capital punishment. For example, if a person is in New York and commits murder in the context of, say, an act of terrorism, that's a federal crime. The federal government could seek and sentence that person with death, even though New York does not have a state death penalty.
There are just over 2,500 people sentenced to be killed by one of the states that still allow capital punishment. Let's not forget, there are another 45 people on federal death row. Here again is Sam Spital of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
Samuel Spital: There was this rush of executions under the former Trump administration and a number of people were executed on federal death row under very, very difficult circumstances, where in many cases, they didn't have an opportunity to litigate or have evidence considered for meritorious or potentially meritorious claims because the Supreme Court in a series of five to four decisions stepped in and prevented the lower courts from considering that evidence.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In the final year of the Trump administration, 13 death row inmates were executed. That is more than the total number of federal executions in the past 50 years, and maybe most. Just stunning, during President Trump's final week in office, three inmates were executed in the same Indiana prison. This included Lisa Montgomery, who was the first woman executed on federal death row in 70 years.
Samuel Spital: The Biden administration has stopped that process, but the concern or the problem is that unless the Biden administration goes further and actually take steps to ensure that the people who are on federal death row right now are removed from federal death row, there's always the possibility that a change in administration could get us back to where we were under the previous administration.
Dorian Warren: Melissa, it's important to know this big picture, but the real story of the death penalty requires us to dive a little deeper.
Samuel Spital: You see the racial discrimination that infects the application to death penalty just like it infects the criminal justice system more broadly in this country at pretty much every stage in the process. One of the things that you see in the death penalty context, though, is that often prosecutors are most likely to seek the death penalty and juries are most likely to go for the death penalty and the case is most likely to actually proceed to execution in those more unusual circumstances where there is an interracial situation, and in particular, where there is a Black defendant and a white victim.
Essentially, everyone on death row is indigent, does not have the opportunities and resources to have excellent attorneys, relies on attorneys appointed by the state, often who don't have the resources to defend their cases. The application of the death penalty in this country is tremendously class-based as well as race-based.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's like always, for me, Dorian, when I see those numbers, that there is this clear relationship with the race of the defendant and the race of the assailant, I still want to know, what does it really look like? What does this mean in courtrooms and jury boxes? Because it is possible for a system to have disparate racial impact even without having explicitly racist practices.
Samuel Spital: The last time that LDF had a capital case with the US Supreme Court involved a man named Duane Buck, and this was 2017 when this case went to the Supreme Court. In Mr. Buck's case, at his trial, his own court-appointed defense counsel had presented so-called expert testimony that he was more likely to commit future acts of criminal violence and therefore more deserving of a death sentence because he's Black. This was testimony that his own court appointed lawyer had presented.
These are the kinds of cases that we're continuing to see with overt racial discrimination, anti-Black discrimination continuing to infect the death penalty process, not from the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, but really from today.
Dorian Warren: Melissa, that's a lot to process, and two things come to mind for me. One is, remember, in the case of Duane Buck, his own court-appointed defense counsel did not represent him. That's one of the themes we know in death penalty cases, the lack of adequate representation. The other is the role of juries and all-white juries. It's not lost to me that the long Black freedom struggle fought to make sure that Black people had, for lack of a better term, integrated juries, not all-white juries. It just reminds me of tyranny of the majority in this case of our judicial system and our court system.
In fact, these examples serve as a reminder that the contemporary death penalty is connected to a much longer and deeper history, Melissa. In September, 2020, the Death Penalty Information Center released a special report showing how the death penalty replicates the extra judicial practice of lynching. Yes, of lynching.
No case is a clear example than out of George Stinney Jr. From 1944. George was 14 years old, five foot one, weighed 95 pounds when he was arrested for the murder of two white girls. His trial took three hours. His attorney called no witnesses, made no arguments. The jury deliberated for 10 minutes. Two months later, George was strapped to South Carolina's electric chair. He was so small that the officials had trouble securing him to the death chair, and his body shook violently as state officials passed more than 2,400 volts of electricity through his body three times.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Sometimes the stories are almost too much to take.
Dorian Warren: Now we want to turn to a troubling feature of the death penalty, and that's the issue of wrongful convictions.
Melissa Harris-Perry: According to the Death Penalty Information Center, since 1973, at least 189 people who were wrongly convicted and sentenced to death have been exonerated. In 2020, even as the Trump administration executed a record number of federal prisoners, there were six people across the country who were exonerated. In each of the six cases, prosecutorial misconduct contributed to the wrongful conviction. Here on The Takeaway, we have followed the case of Julius Jones. Jones was convicted and sentenced to death in 1999 for the death of Oklahoma businessmen, Paul Howell.
Attorneys and advocates reviewing Jones' conviction found multiple prosecutorial inconsistencies and inadequate defense counsel. A group of advocates joined the Jones family in leading a national campaign to pressure Oklahoma decision-makers to vacate Jones' conviction and send him home instead of to the death chamber. In November of last year, Oklahoma governor, Kevin Stitt, granted Jones clemency commuting his death sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Advocates continue to fight for his release.
Dorian Warren: According to a pure research report from June 2021, nearly 8 and 10 respondents say there is some risk that an innocent person will be put to death, but many continue to support capital punishment. Once again, let's dive deeper than the surface statistics and hear from someone who has lived through the trauma of being wrongfully convicted to die.
Sabrina Butler Smith: My name is Sabrina Butler Smith.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In 1990, when Sabrina was only 18 years old, she was wrongfully convicted of murdering her nine-month-old son, Walter Dean Butler. After predominantly white Mississippi jury convicted her, Sabrina became the only woman on death row in the State of Mississippi at the time. She served six years in prison, including three years on death row.
Sabrina Butler Smith: I've been on my own since I was 14, living in this small town called Columbus, Mississippi, and I was basically trying to raise two boys, being a kid myself. At the time, my oldest son was not at home with me, but my youngest son was, that was little Walter. I went in this room and I noticed something was wrong right there and I panicked because I've never had that happen to me before. I saw that he wasn't breathing, so I grabbed him and I ran and started yelling and screaming, trying to get somebody over there to help me to get him to the hospital.
I applied adult CPR to him all the way to the hospital, but I was scared. I didn't know what to do. I just did what I thought was trying to help it. When they finally came out, they told me that they had did everything but they couldn't save it. That's when it all started, police officers and everybody asking me questions and I ended up having to go to the police station for questioning. That's when it all started.
Dorian Warren: Even though Sabrina was a minor and had no parent, guardian, or attorney present, police aggressively questioned her at length.
Sabrina Butler Smith: It was two guys in the room and they kept getting in my face and they was yelling and they were screaming. I just was scared. A lot of people say, "Well, why would you sign a confession if you didn't commit a crime," but you have to be interrogated to understand what happens to you, especially if you're young and you've never been in this type of situation. I just did the first thing. I didn't know what to do.
That turned out to be the worst thing that ever could have happened to me because they charged me with capital murder, they charged me with a child abuse law. I didn't know anything. They took advantage of that because I was young, poor, a Black girl, and I didn't know anything, and I had mostly an all-white jury. Once I saw that jury, I knew that my life was over. I knew it. When I saw them, because nobody looked like me, nobody.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Eventually, Sabrina was moved to death row. She did not know about her rights to an appeal process and fully expected to be put to death within a few weeks.
Sabrina Butler Smith: When I made it to death row, I was 19 years old. I don't wish that on anyone. Whew, that was an experience and that was one of the scariest days for me. I paced the floors, I listened for every sound, every chain, everything, because I actually really thought that was the day that I was going to die. I just cried. I didn't know what to do. What can you do when you're in a cell no bigger than your bathroom, a six by nine cell no bigger than your bathroom? There was nothing that I could do, but hope and pray and call out and ask God, "Please don't let them kill me because I didn't kill my son." Nobody believed me. That's torture on a person.
Dorian Warren: As part of the appeals process, Sabrina was awarded a more experienced attorney who took her case to the state supreme court.
Sabrina Butler Smith: My second attorney's argued through the state supreme court. My sentence was overturned in '92. My attorneys found out, which was already in his record, he had heart problems, he had kidney disease and chronic bowel syndrome. It was nothing, nothing that I did to cause his death. Nothing. For all this to happen to you and nobody believes you, that's one of the hardest things.
Melissa Harris-Perry: On December 17th, 1995, Sabrina was exonerated after spending six and a half years in prison and two years and nine months on death row. I asked if she's received therapy or assistance in all the years since her release.
Sabrina Butler Smith: No, I have not. That's sad because exonerees all over the world who get out and they go through this type of trauma are not being afforded that because, I guess, we are the state's dirty little secret. You know what I mean? That's the way I feel.
Dorian Warren: As a terrified teenager wrongfully facing capital punishment, Sabrina felt no one listened to her or believed her. Today, Sabrina Butler Smith travels the country as part of the Witness to Innocence project and she speaks about her experience and advocates for abolition of the death penalty.
Sabrina Butler Smith: I think that we need to get rid of the death penalty. It is not correct. I think that if you do cease to exist the death penalty, if you make a mistake, you can change that. If someone is convicted of a crime, if they have life sentence, at least you can go back and fix that. You know what I'm saying? You can fix when things are wrong, but you can't fix the death sentence when you give somebody the death penalty and you kill it. You cannot fix that.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We're grateful to Sabrina Butler Smith for sharing her story with us. Not everyone on death row is wrongly convicted. There's no question that on June 17th, 2015 white supremacist Dylann Roof entered the sanctuary of Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina during Wednesday night Bible study, where he murdered nine people, including Senior Pastor and South Carolina State Senator Reverend Clementa Pinckney.
Jennifer Pickney: He was a man of God. He was a loving, kind, caring, honest, humble. The list can go on. He was truly a good man.
Dorian Warren: This is Jennifer Pinckney. She is the widow of Reverend Pinckney, and she told us what a special person her husband was.
Jennifer Pinckney: He was just the kind of person that you can talk to and he would listen to you. No problem was too small, but he always gave that attentive air and listened to what you had to say. He was just an all-round good man, good friend, good husband, good father. He was a blessing to so many people.
Dorian Warren: Mrs. Jennifer Pinckney was there in the church the night her husband and eight others were killed. She and her then eight-year-old daughter were in the church office when the shooting began.
Jennifer Pinckney: My youngest Malana and I were both there. It started out just like any other regular day. He was in a business meeting, and after the business meeting they went into the the Bible study. He told me, when he walked back through his office before he walked out, "I love you," and that was it. Did not think that would be the last time that I would see him, that the girls would have a father and so forth. It was a a horrific night that you're numb after it happens. You're numb for a while, months, years later. It's just hard to really sink in.
I reminisce, I think, and it's still hard to believe that he's not here with us physically. Just thinking back that night with the police, the sirens, it all just seemed like a movie. He and I loved action-packed movies. We'd go to the movies all the time. That was date night and so forth. We were down with the action-packed movies and so forth and so on. I sit back and I think about some of these movies and so forth and you see the police and all of this action going on, that's what it was like. It just didn't seem real. Even after I walked out of the church and and so forth, I was just dazed.
I saw the lights, I saw the people, you hear it, but you don't hear it and so forth. It will be something that will stay with me for the rest of my life, but it just seemed like I was in a movie, that I'm going to wake up or I'm in a dream and I'm going to wake up and all's well, everything's going to be fine. Clementa is going to be here and we're going to go about our lives like we did before that day.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Stick with us. We'll be back in just a moment with more on The Takeaway.
Dorian Warren: I'm Dorian Warren in with Melissa Harris-Perry for The Takeaway's deep dive into the death penalty. Now, since the death penalty resumed in 1977, 295 Black defendants have been executed for killing a white victim, but only 21 white defendants have been executed for the killing of a Black person. One of the most infamous murderers currently on federal death row is Dylann Roof. On June 26th, 2015, President Obama delivered the eulogy for the victims.
President Obama: If we can find that grace, anything is possible. If we can tap that grace, everything can change. Amazing grace, amazing grace. [singing the song amazing grace]
Melissa Harris-Perry: Dylann Roof is the first person to have faced both a state and federal death penalty at the same time. In January 2017, he was convicted of 33 federal charges and sentenced to death. When we spoke to Reverend Pinckney's widow, Jennifer Pinckney, I asked if she'd wanted to see Roof receive a death sentence.
Jennifer Pinckney: I really didn't think about it either way. Like I said, at that time, even though it was a year later, it was almost like, "Well, I hope that he's sentenced." That's the first thing I'm thinking, like, "Is he going to get off?" Even though you look at the amount of evidence that they had and the confession and all of that, that still played in the back of my mind like, "Okay, is something just going to happen and he gets off and then no one is charged?" and so forth.
That was the first thing, just trying to-- It was the first time I'd ever been in court and so forth. It was just like, "Am I really here? Am I really going through this?" and so forth. I just said, "Let justice be served however it may," and I left it at that. I went with the law and the law gave him the death penalty, and so I accept that and I move forward from that. I move on from that. I've only been back to the church maybe twice. I don't even frequent the church. It used to be that after it happened, the girls and I would at least go there on the anniversary. I don't even go that way. I have the memories, I knew what Clementa was about, and so I don't even have to look that way.
I was recently in Charleston about a week or so ago and I didn't pass in front of the church, but I could see the church from where I was at and I just glanced it and I kept moving. My daughter who was with me in the church at the time, we did not have a desire to stop, did not have a desire to-- No, we keep moving.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Keeping it moving has been essential to Mrs. Pinckney as she rears her two daughters now 12 and 17 years old. She told us about her strategies for surviving.
Jennifer Pinckney: You can't help but to get upset or to be mad and so forth, but I do several different things. I pray, I remove myself and I just pray and I cry. I want the quiet time. I want to just be by myself and just think, reminisce, and breathe, and just remember and reflect on the good times, the good days, and just when he was here, and don't dwell on the negative and then keep moving forward.
Dorian Warren: In 2017, Dylann Roof became the first person sentenced to death for a federal hate crime. In August of this year, a federal appeals court unanimously upheld his conviction. Roof has one final step in his appeals process, he can request a hearing before the US Supreme court. Now, Melissa, we turn our attention to the how of the death penalty.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Yes, and this part really matters. Maybe the first thing we need to understand, it's just that the capital punishment process is long and complicated. Everyone who's sentenced to death is given a direct appeal. Now, in some states, but not all that appeal is mandatory. Basically, this direct appeal is limited and can only address the issues that came up during the trial. Alongside this limited direct appeal, there is an appellate process.
This starts at the level of the trial court, then it goes to the state court of appeals, and ultimately, it can make its way to the supreme court, but the justices on the court, well, they get to choose whether or not they hear and actually rule on any given appeal in any given case. Then there is a third and final route of appeal that operates separately from the courts, and that's executive clemency. The president can grant clemency to anyone on federal death row, and each governor has the to stay the execution of someone in their state system.
Dorian Warren: We spoke with Lynden Harris. She is the editor of the book Right Here, Right Now: Life Stories from Death Row.
Lynden Harris: I really want people to know that these are life stories and those stories are about lived experiences, even as people are living in a place where they are potentially anticipating execution. We get to know these people, we get to know these men and we get to look at their lives. They give us a pathway into this larger system that we've created.
Dorian Warren: Let's listen to a few of the stories from the book, which are read by the men serving time on death row. Now, the first is about a man wrongly convicted, sent to death row, and ultimately gaining his freedom.
Speaker 1 from Lynden's book: Death row ain't no place for no one. It's pain, loneliness, and heartache, but what I never thought would exist is, there was brothers on death row, there was good peoples who wanted to help us. It's hell inside, but at least we have each other for a while. They took my first friend in '86. That man was a brother to me. It's innocent people on death row. Other cases that don't have innocence, but are still good men. People do change. I spend 30 years on death row as an innocent man, but tomorrow I walk out free.
Dorian Warren: Melissa, another man's story gives us a sense of what it's like for those left behind on death row after an execution.
Speaker 2 from Lynden's book: I was playing dominos when I saw them around the corner. The warden, his assistant, and a handful of white shirts up across the prison and they will pull an empty [unintelligible 00:30:45] bad sign. They entered my neighbor's cell and clustered around him speaking quietly. His face remained blank as he put the last of his worldly belongings on the cart. That's when the rest of us started making our way toward him. It was time for last words, final daps and hugs. When he saw us, his mask started to crack and his eyes filled with tears.
He tried to turn away as the first person bear-hugged him, but there was nothing he could do or say to stop this onslaught, a brotherly love. I gave him a hug. If you thought you could extend a friend life for even a moment, what would you do?
Melissa Harris-Perry: For most, eventually the time comes when execution is imminent. Dorian, I know there is no way for us to fully dive into that experience because, obviously, every person who takes that final walk is now gone, but we did talk with someone who's accompanied men in these final moments.
Sister Helen Prejean: My name is Sister Helen Prejean.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Sister Helen Prejean is an anti-death penalty activist and spiritual advisor to men and women on death row. She's authored several books, including Dead Man Walking and the River of Fire.
Helen Prejean: We are in situations that a hidden from public view, in which we have state officials that take live human beings out of their cells, and systematically, in the coldest protocol of death you can imagine and killing them. First you take the prisoner, then if there's a last meal, when it is, how the media can come in, when they have to leave, who can talk, who can't, what are the rules for the witnesses. They have worked out everything so there is no glitch. Not that they care about their suffering, that's why they even put two IVs in people's arms. In case one gets clogged, you want to make sure the killing can still take place.
Adobe Gillis Williams, who's in my second book, The Death of Innocence, an African American man with an IQ of 65, who was innocent, who was killed in Louisiana, they found the vein in one arm. He was scared to death of needles and [unintelligible 00:33:03]. Then they finally tried in his neck, in his leg to get the second one in. Why did they even have to put the second one in? Because they don't want their execution to have a glitch in it.
Dorian Warren: Since 1977, nearly 90% of all executions have used lethal injections. For years, lethal injections have been presented as, in some ways, a more humane alternative to previous methods of execution. Sam Spital of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund told us otherwise.
Samuel Spital: There's really, though, a fundamental misconception that lethal injection in general is somehow humane and painless. There's powerful evidence that lethal injection in many case risks essentially torturing someone to death, but because of the paralytic effects of one of the drugs, it appears to others that this is somehow an anesthetic, almost medical event and it looks peaceful when in fact the person who is being executed is being tortured to death.
Then you have very serious risks about maladministration of drugs. Oftentimes the people involved in executions do not have proper training. The protocols in place are not proper. We've seen a number of indisputably botched executions, where it's clear that the person who was executed was tortured to death.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Dorian, the reality of how brutal the lethal injection process truly is has been readily apparent in many of the botched executions in recent years, including what The Atlantic describes as, "The cruel and unusual execution of Clayton Lockett by the State of Oklahoma in 2014." Now, there's no doubt that Lockett was guilty of a truly heinous murder of a 19-year-old girl. The details are so appalling, we're not going to repeat them here.
Two [unintelligible 00:35:01] details of Clayton Lockett demise. The State of Oklahoma executed Lockett with the combination of drugs that is banned, even in the euthanasia of animals. It took nearly 45 minutes for Lockett to die. Apparently, in excruciating pain. Oklahoma had a moratorium on executions since the death of Clayton Lockett, but back in October 2021, that ended when they executed John Marion Grant, who vomited and convulsed as he was put to death.
Dorian Warren: Thinking about the death penalty as a system in the US that, if you think about the composition of those executed, predominantly Black, predominantly poor, this is our system of systematic killing by the state. I was listening to Sabrina Butler Smith and made a connection. I realized she's from Columbus, Mississippi, and that fact hit me really hard because my father's side of the family is from Columbus, Mississippi, and my family fled Mississippi during the first great migration north to Chicago. They fled for some of the very reasons that we know, racial terror in the Jim Crow South and the convicting of innocent people and the execution of innocent people.
I was just thinking about my one-year-old, and what if I was sitting on death row for a crime I didn't commit? Just being from the same place, literally in this country, it just allowed for me a really deep moment of empathy. It's just a reminder of how absolutely difficult the labor is that Sister Helen Prejean does, that she takes on in her advocacy and her spiritual work with people who have been sentenced to die. Melissa, she talked to us about why this work is so deeply important to her.
Sister Helen Prejean: I began, as I told in Dead Man Walking, with a man, Pat Sonnier in Louisiana. All I knew was, as they were killing him, I was the one face there. I kept saying to him, "Look at my face, I'll be the face of love for you, the face of Christ for you. This is not God's will for us. This is what we are doing." Melissa, it's all about dignity. It was all about--
The man I was actually in the chamber with was Joseph Odel in Virginia in July, 1997. They let me in and I held him by the shoulder and prayed with him. They had strapped him in too tight. He said, "Sister, I can't breathe." I just said to the warden, "Can you loosen the straps a little bit?" "No, you're in your protocol, a killing, and boy, they don't want any glitch in it." I said, "Joseph, just try to take shallow breaths. It'll all be over soon," and prayed with him. It's dignity.
People on death row and those who have been convicted as being so irredeemable and evil that we have to kill them, they get a thousand signals a day that they are worth nothing more than disposable human waste. I'm there for their dignity. I look at their face and I say, "Look at me because this is not supposed to be happening. You have a dignity no one can take from you." That's what I'm all about.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Dying with dignity while looking into the face of someone who sees your humanity and reflects back universal love, that is extraordinary, and it's rare. As I listen to Sister Prejean, I keep thinking of how many people will die without this. We're living in a pandemic. More than a million Americans have died. Many were alone gasping for breath separated from family. Why should we care if a couple dozen people die in death chambers, especially those who we know took the lives of others in the most brutal way, who gave their victims no dignity? Why should I weep for Dylann Roof who prayed with his victims before he murdered them?
Sister Helen Prejean: That's a surface soul response. "Oh, look what they did to their victim, so they deserve what we do to them," but that's not a deep human response. That's not conscience, that's not even looking at the whole story of what are the implications for society to imitate the worst behavior in the world. "You killed, so we're going to kill you." That's what I call a surface soul response.
When you can talk to people, and that's what I've been about the last 30 years, bringing them deeply into this issue, and just saying, "Okay, that's outrageous what they did. They killed an innocent human being and moral outrage, it's ethical. Now we got to look at us what we're doing, not to mention this legal system we have set up has already produced 185 wrongful death penalties because the bloody thing's so broken." It happens at trial.
First of all, nobody dies unless a prosecutor seeks death, and that's why it's broken from the beginning, prosecutors do not have to seek death. Every person you find on death row is a poor person who had to take the court-appointed lawyer. Good people, but overwhelmed, underfunded, overworked. It tends to make our souls callous. Just take these good people who just say, "Well, look, they killed, they deserve to die." What a callous thing to say.
Where we really see it, Melissa, is those closest in the process, the guards and the people on these execution squads that have to do the killing, they're really getting it, they get it first. They've been the ones standing up saying, "I'm not doing it anymore." Wardens. This warden in Florida, Ron McAndrews, he said, "I became the warden. I was going to run an honorable prison. He was very professional. Then there he is in the killing chamber.
Then the second person he was with who was executed in Florida, it went very, very wrong. The flame shot out of the body of the person being electrocuted. To this day, I don't know if he still gives public talks, but when he does, he just says, "I'll be in therapy the rest of my life." Human beings should not be engaged in the deliberate action of rendering a human being completely defenseless and taking them out and killing them.
Dorian Warren: Melissa, that reflection from Sister Helen, and particularly her story of the warden resisting his role to execute human beings and saying he'll be in therapy the rest of his life, it takes me back to our very first deep dive on political cruelty and the toll it takes on human beings who have to execute other human beings, who have to enact a form of civic and political cruelty. A lot to digest here. I'm still as conflicted, I think, as we were in the beginning, but I just appreciate being able to take this deep dive with you because it's given me, and I hope, listeners a lot to think about.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I feel the same way, Dorian. It's definitely given us lots to think about and to feel. Dorian, thank you so much for joining me on this journey.
Dorian Warren: Thanks so much, Melissa, for this, today emotional roller coaster, but for the opportunity to join you.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Glad you all were here with us to revisit our death penalty deep dive. If you want to hear more deep dives or just other shows that you've missed, check out our podcast. You can find it wherever you find your audio. Before I go, I want to say thank you to my co-host, Dorian Warren, and a special thank you to all of our guests; Samuel Spital, Sabrina Butler Smith, Jennifer Pinckney, Lynden Harris, and Sister Helen Prejean. Thanks so much for being with us. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry and this is The Takeaway.
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