Death Penalty Opponent Will Lecture in Wheeling

Sister Helen Prejean, a leading death penalty opponent, understands convicted killer Donald Palmer’s desire to die, but she still thinks capital punishment is cruel and inhumane.

Prejean, author of “Dead Man Walking,” also sympathizes with victims’ families who want justice, but she worries that witnessing an execution could have a traumatic effect on their recovery.

By coincidence, Prejean is returning to Wheeling to speak four days after Palmer, a Martins Ferry native, is scheduled to be executed in Ohio for the 1989 murders of Charles Sponhaltz and Steven Vargo in Belmont County. Palmer, who has admitted to killing both men, is set to die by lethal injection at 10 a.m. Thursday at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville.

Prejean, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph order of nuns, is set to deliver a public lecture, “Dead Man Walking – The Story Continues,” in Wheeling Jesuit University’s Troy Theater at 7 p.m. Monday and repeated at the Mount St. Joseph chapel at 7 p.m. Tuesday. In advance of her appearance, a multidisciplinary panel will consider capital punishment at 7 p.m. Thursday in WJU’s National Technology Transfer Center auditorium.

Interviewed by telephone Monday from New Orleans, Prejean was unaware of the Palmer case, but cited the state’s execution rate.

“Last year, Ohio was second only to Texas for executions,” she said.

In an interview published in the Sunday News-Register, Palmer said, “I deserve to die” and “I’m just ready.” In response, Prejean said, “I’ve known people like that,” death-row inmates who willingly face what she called “consensual execution.”

The nun said she doesn’t know how an inmate, guilty or innocent, copes with 20 or more years on death row. Referring to a case she follows – that of Louisiana death-row inmate Manuel Ortiz, who maintains his innocence in a 1992 double murder – she said, “He’s going into his 19th year. He has to struggle so much against depression, sensory deprivation, not having the stimulation of social contacts. He struggles mightily. His faith is sustaining him … It’s really something to keep your spirits up, even if you’re guilty.

“We don’t have a Supreme Court that will even acknowledge this is the practice of torture,” she charged.

She said the United Nations convention against torture defines it as “an extreme mental or physical assault against someone who has been rendered defenseless.”

Regarding victims’ families, Prejean said, “I say to them, ‘If I had been through what you had been through, I might be saying what you’re saying. How can you not help feeling outrage?’ Families are given sort of a promise by the prosecution that what they’re going to do for the family is seek death.”

But she said that “victims’ families can get split down the middle over the death penalty … If they don’t go through with this, it might look like they’re not honoring the victim.” However, she said 62 murder victims’ relatives have testified in New Jersey that “they are just revictimized by the death penalty itself” because of multiple court hearings and long waiting periods.

When Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was executed, she said, “Half of the victims’ families had realized they didn’t want to witness his dying. What they had to do was deal with the empty chair, the loss of their loved one. They still had to deal with that loss. That’s the spiritual healing that has to take place in their lives to move on.”