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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's reinstatement of the firing squad as a backup means to lethal injection to carry out executions may hasten the end of the death penalty, a renowned capital punishment opponent and author said Tuesday.
"I think the firing squad is more honest in a way and transparent, that you're actually killing a person," Sister Helen Prejean said following a luncheon at Westminster College with students from the college and two Catholic high schools.
"You're going to see the blood dripping from the chair. I think, in a way, it's more transparent. I think it's going to help end it quicker."
Prejean's appearance comes a day after Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed HB11 designating the firing squad as Utah's backup means of execution. Utah is the only state that will allow that form of execution. Oklahoma will permit it only if lethal injection and electrocution are found unconstitutional.
Prejean, author of "Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States," was in Salt Lake City as a guest of Westminster College's Tanner-McMurrin lecture series.
Prejean has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times. She is working on her autobiography, "River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey."
Support for the death penalty is plummeting nationwide, she said.
"People don't see the practical effect of it. They don't see it being a deterrent. It's enormously expensive. So I think people are beginning to work their way out of the death penalty," she said.
You're going to see the blood dripping from the chair. I think, in a way, it's more transparent. I think it's going to help end it quicker.
–Sister Helen Prejean
Most people don't think about the death penalty. Many people are insulated from the reality of capital punishment, much as Prejean was as a teenager growing up in Louisiana. Little did she know that the mobile electric chair used by the state for executions was stored near her suburban home.
"I was just aware of being a kid and getting through high school," she said.
Prejean, a member of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph, has accompanied six condemned men to their deaths. She wrote about two of them in her second book, "The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions."
There are common characteristics among men and women who are sentenced to the death penalty. Most grew up poor, in chaos and experienced abuse as children.
"It embodies all the deepest wounds we have in society," she said.
The death penalty is unfairly applied, she added, noting people of color are far more likely to be executed than white people, particularly if the victim is white.
While all Americans fundamentally have the same rights and protections, much depends on the skill and commitment of a defendant's attorneys.
"Those are just words of paper if someone's not there to actualize that for you," Prejean said.
When people learn about the injustice of capital punishment and brutality of executions and remain silent, they are accomplices in allowing it to continue.
"After the person is killed, who is responsible?" she asked the students.
That point resonated with Paul Oliver, a senior at Judge Memorial Catholic High School.
"I walk away with a desire to learn more about it, learn more about the issues behind it and figuring out ways I can help," he said.
Westminster College student Elizabeth Donnelly said Prejean's presentation reinforced a great deal of what she has learned about issues of race and poverty.
Donnelly, a public health major, said she has been involved in recent demonstrations about officer-involved shootings, which has given her an understanding of Prejean's call to action.
"When you start to protest, when you get out there and say what you think and try to make a positive impact on the world, it's life-changing and it's very addictive, too," Donnelly said.
The Most Rev. John C. Wester, bishop of the Diocese of Salt Lake City, said Herbert's decision to sign HB11 was disappointing.
"It seems as if our government leaders have substituted state legislation for the law of God. They argue that, because executions are lawful, they are then moral. This is not so. No human law can trump God's law. Taking a human life is wrong; a slap in the face of hope and a blasphemous attempt to assume divine attributes that we humble human beings do not have," Wester wrote in a statement issued Tuesday.
"The real issue here is the death penalty itself. Only God can give and take life. By taking a life, in whatever form the death penalty is carried out, the state is usurping the role of God. Execution does violence to God’s time, eliminating the opportunity for God’s redemptive and forgiving grace to work in the life of a prisoner."
Prejean said her experience working with men facing the death penalty has deepened her resolve to work to abolish it.
"I'm fighting like heck for their life. I don't just take my role as spiritual adviser to be able to accompany them to death and go quietly into their death. I get the legal team whatever is needed so they're not killed. I resist their death in every way I can. When they have been killed, it either paralyzes you or galvanizes you. It galvanizes me."