Sister Helen stalks the executioner: With prose and publicity, a nun aims to end the shame of Death Row, writes Peter Pringle in New Orleans

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IF THE present rate of executions in America's jails continues, this could be a record year, especially in the South where death has always been deemed the appropriate wage for the sin of murder. But now, out of the same steamy territory comes a Catholic nun determined to start a mass movement to end capital punishment.

A new book, Dead Man Walking, contains vivid accounts of Sister Helen Prejean's work with condemned prisoners on Death Row in Louisiana. It was launched last week in true New Orleans style, with a crawfish and crab reception on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter.

Everyone who had read the book said they couldn't put it down, including the local university basketball coach. This was an encouraging sign because most murder-plagued Americans appear unwilling to debate the issue, even though the United States and Turkey are the only Nato countries to retain the death penalty. Consistently, the US polls show 75 per cent favour state-sanctioned revenge killings for first-degree murderers. The tiny lobby against capital punishment rarely gets a hearing.

Sister Helen was on the radio and would have been on television had there not been a strike of local policemen, and the television crews were busy covering a city without cops. The atmosphere created by the strike was tense, because New Orleans crime is increasing, and people talked about the possibility of looting, mugging and murders and, of course, capital punishment. The death penalty has failed to deter such acts of violence in Louisiana where in 1987, after eight people were executed in eight weeks, the murder rate rose 16.39 per cent. So the book got a good launch.

The question now is whether it has the power to influence American public opinion on the death penalty in the way Rachel Carson's Silent Spring became the bible of the environmental movement.

Those who think the death penalty is a good idea could be taken by surprise. Sister Helen is no ordinary nun. Her blunt message takes on the world's leaders, their governments, the church, everyone. 'Kings and popes and military generals and heads of state have killed, claiming God's authority and God's blessing,' she says. 'I do not believe in such a God . . . If I were to be murdered I would not want my murderer executed. I would not want my death avenged. Especially by government - which can't be trusted to control its own bureaucrats or collect taxes equitably or fill a pothole, much less decide which of its citizens to kill.'

This is no soft-spoken Christian social worker helping the poor. This is a person who for the last 10 years has sought out and befriended the perpetrators of vicious and mindless crimes, and has become a source of compassion and hope for them as they live out their last days on Death Row. She has counselled them during their gruelling appeals, taught them the Scriptures and been with them during the final hours before they are strapped into the electric chair. And then she has watched them die. Her experience turned her from a rather jolly participant in a New Orleans housing project into a vigorous and persistent champion of prisoners' rights. She is determined to stamp out corruption, injustice and cruelty in the criminal justice system.

When she decided to write a book, her agent touted the manuscript round the publishing houses in New York. Random House took her on for dollars 10,000 ( pounds 6,000) and one of America's best book editors, Jason Epstein, turned her rough story into a gripping, unsentimental account of the entire process of capital punishment, from the courts to the prisons, to the death house, and even to the drawing rooms of the relatives of murder victims. Mr Epstein introduced Sister Helen to the 1957 essay by Camus, Reflections on the Guillotine, which boldly declares that no government is ever innocent enough or wise enough or just enough to lay claim to so absolute a power as death. His essay became her moral compass on the issue of the death penalty, she says, and it set her on a course that has produced a persuasive moral argument in favour of abolition of capital punishment.

Her church was no help. She is quite open about her differences with the American Catholic Bishops, who, while saying it is wrong to kill, still uphold the state's right to take a life. Sister Helen wrote of a prison chaplain who tried to bar her and other women from Death Row counselling, on the grounds that women are emotionally unfit to cope with such things.

Being turned away simply strengthened her resolve. Sister Helen worked her way into meetings at the Louisiana governor's mansion where pardons for condemned prisoners are discussed, and she followed the often corrupt dealings of the state Pardon Board, which has a history of taking bribes for reducing or commuting sentences. She remorselessly quizzed reluctant prison authorities on their methods and motives for killing people: they hang them, electrocute them, gas them or inject them with a lethal poison. In some states a condemned man can request a firing squad. She also examined the economics of confinement and death. One of her most powerful arguments with potential widespread appeal to the economically depressed US is that it costs the taxpayer anything between dollars 2m and dollars 3m ( pounds 1.4m- pounds 2m) to carry out a sentence on a condemned man - most of that going in legal fees to the lawyers processing the mandatory appeals. In one encounter with the director of Louisiana's prison department, Paul Phelps, she asked what he thought had been accomplished by the execution she had just witnessed of a man who had endured several agonising legal appeals. 'Zero, absolutely nothing,' he answered, adding that he did not believe that executions prevented crime because, in his view, punishment to be effective must be 'swift, sure and fair'. The process was often none of these things, and sometimes for reasons of cost. He said prosecutors faced with seeking the death penalty would sometimes offer a plea- bargain and a life sentence if the costs of the case were going to be too high.

Sister Helen never lets officials off lightly. She asked Mr Phelps if he considered prisoners put to death in the electric chair were tortured. 'I'm not sure what he felt physically when the nineteen hundred volts hit him,' she said about a man she had just seen die, 'but certainly he agonised emotionally and psychologically - preparing to die, anticipating it, dreaming about it.' Mr Phelps nodded. 'People these days want revenge, and that's what revenge is - eye for an eye, pain for pain, torture for torture.' So she asked him, 'How can we end the death penalty?' 'Simple,' he said. 'Do it in the Superdome (the New Orleans sports stadium).'

Thus far, Sister Helen's crusade has not brought in as many converts as she needs. Some people have seen her as a public nuisance, an interfering do-gooder showing compassion where none is warranted. Her motives are constantly questioned. A man whose daughter had been raped and murdered by one of Sister Helen's prisoner's asked her: 'Are you a Communist?' Others heard that condemned men would look at her as they were being strapped into the chair and mouth 'I love you' through the transparent barrier separating the chair from the witnesses to the execution. These people assumed she simply fell in love with her prisoners, otherwise why would she bother with them?

But Sister Helen does not try to excuse or apologise for the condemned men she writes about; she gives them some basic humanity. 'When you're meeting with a man an hour before he dies,' she says '. . . and he's packing up his clothes and asking for a Sprite, there's another dimension of a human being that you're seeing . . . the redeemable feature in us all is that human beings are transcendant of an action, however terrible.'

She has experienced many dimensions of the human condition working in a state with some of the highest misery statistics in the US. Half the adult population in Louisiana has not completed high school; one in six are on welfare; one in three babies is born to an unwed mother and between 1975-91 the state prison population increased by 249 per cent. Louisiana reflected a national trend. In 1980 about half a million Americans were behind bars; by 1990 the figure was 1.1 million - the highest prison rate in the world.

There are 2,729 prisoners on Death Row, and many of their cases have been backlogged for years in the appeals courts. For four years between 1972-6 the death penalty was suspended after the Supreme Court found it constitutionally unacceptable, not because it was cruel but because it was deemed 'arbitrary and capricious'. Without specific guidance, juries were handing out death sentences randomly, and often on the basis of race. The death penalty was restored once guidelines were set, but blacks who kill whites are still far more likely to get the death penalty than whites who kill blacks.

At the time the death penalty was suspended, the late Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first black American to sit on the Supreme Court, addressed the cruelty factor his colleagues had declined to pronounce on. He said that if the American people were only better informed about the process of the death penalty, they would find it 'shocking, unjust and unacceptable'. Sister Helen is convinced people will reject it if they read her book, but she needs more allies inside the system if she is to change it.

An important convert appeared last week. At the book launch a former school principal named Howard Marcellus volunteered an account of his time as chairman of the Louisiana Pardon Board. As one of five board members, he said he took bribes, as was the custom, to recommend prisoners for clemency. After being warned that as a political appointee he was supposed to be a 'loyal team player', he accepted an envelope containing dollars 5,000 for a clemency case. It turned out to be a police sting operation and he spent 18 months in jail, but not before he failed to get clemency for a condemned man he thought was innocent. At that point in his speech last week, Mr Marcellus was overcome with emotion. Others at the launch pushed back tears, just as they had done, they said, when they read Dead Man Walking. For Sister Helen this is just the beginning.

(Photograph omitted)