Dead Nation Walking

Yesterday's 90-day stay of execution for 38-year-old Troy Anthony Davis has once again focused our nation's attention on the issue of capital punishment.

Davis, an African American from Savannah, Georgia, has been on death row for more than 15 years for a 1991 murder of white police officer Mark Allen McPhail. Despite his claim that he did not commit the murder, Davis was convicted through witness testimony because authorities could find neither physical evidence nor a murder weapon. Seven of the nine witnesses against him have renounced their testimonies, which they said had been coerced by police. Meanwhile, nine other witnesses have pointed to another man who committed the murder.

If his sentence is commuted, Davis will be the 230th person granted clemency from death row for humanitarian reasons since 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center statistics ( ). Humanitarian reasons include doubts about the defendant's guilt or conclusions of the governor regarding the death penalty process.

The issue of the death penalty gained particular notice through the work of Sister Helen Prejean, the New Orleans nun made famous by her book, Dead Man Walking, which was later made into a film (1995) and an opera (2000). The former teacher of 25 years serendipitously began her new ministry by agreeing to be a pen pal for Patrick Sonnier, a prisoner on death row. Later, as his spiritual director, Sister Helen discovered that even convicted murderers need not die alone or without dignity. Her witness of Sonnier's death deeply moved her:

"I was stunned and traumatized," said Sister Helen. "I kept asking myself, 'Did I see that? Did they really kill him?' It was done in the middle of the night, and I felt as though everyone else was asleep and I was the only one awake. That's what motivated me to be a witness about this process and speak out against it."

Sister Helen has become a crusader against the death penalty in the United States and throughout the world. She joined the Moratorium Campaign ( to stimulate U.S. citizens' discussion on the death penalty and to advocate for its elimination.

Together with Amnesty International and the Sant'Egidio Community (, a lay group of Catholics who work to follow the Gospels, Sister Helen became part of an international effort to ban the death penalty. These groups conducted a petition campaign, obtained over 3.2 million signatures and presented them to then-U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. Sister Helen also won over Pope John Paul II to condemn the death penalty.

Currently, there are over 100 countries that have eliminated capital punishment. Of the 26 nations that make up NATO, the United States remains the only one with a death penalty. Thirty-eight states have the death penalty, although not all of them actively use it. Several states are contemplating eliminating the death penalty and the Moratorium Campaign made a significant breakthrough when former Illinois Governor George Ryan got behind it and admitted that the system is "fraught with errors."

These "errors" have led Sister Helen to write a second book, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions, where she points out that many people on Death Row are either wrongly accused of committing murder, they do not have an adequate legal defense, or they have mental illness and cannot defend themselves.

Sister Helen's website ( provides some interesting statistics ( )
about what we're doing as a nation on this issue and how we compare to the rest of the world.

  • Texas carries out more death sentences than any other state in the U.S. There are currently 409 people on death row in Texas and the state has averaged 23 executions per year over the last five years.
  • Texas, Florida, Georgia and Louisiana now hold 991 people on death row, and since 1976, have administered 448 executions. In 2005, 23 people were executed in these four southern states, over a third of all executions in the U.S.
  • The United States ranked fourth in the world for the number of executions, behind only China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia and well above fifth-ranked Pakistan which executed only eight more people than the four states listed above.
  • In 2005 it was ruled that children would no longer be executed in the United States. In 2002 the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to execute people who were mentally retarded. There are still a few countries that continue to execute children including China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iran, Pakistan, Yemen, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia. Sixteen children in these countries were reported executed since 1990, mostly in Iran. Nineteen juveniles were executed in the United States during that same time.
  • As the number of death sentences and executions in the United States per year declines, so too does the murder rate. The highest crime rate in the U.S. is in the southern region, which also boasts the highest number of executions-nearly 80% of all executions in the U.S. In 2004, of the states that did not use the death penalty, only Alaska and Michigan had average murder rates, the rest had significantly lower rates. The highest murder rates were in Louisiana, Maryland and New Mexico, all of them use the death penalty.

It would seem that a nation that prides itself on freedom and human rights-and that claims to be Christian-needs to take a serious look at this practice of state-sponsored executions. After all, like charity, peace begins at home!

Olga Bonfiglio is a professor at KalamazooCollege in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq. She has written for several national magazines on the subjects of social justice and religion. Her website is Contact her at

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