In 1993, “Dead Man Walking” spent thirty-one weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. The book was translated into ten languages, became a feature film starring Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen (a role for which she won the Academy Award for Best Actress), and, more importantly, ignited a national debate about capital punishment. Since then, public opinion about the death penalty has shifted. A Gallup poll conducted in 1991, two years before the book’s release, showed that seventy-six per cent of respondents approved of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder; in 2017, the most recent assessment, that number had dropped to fifty-five percent. Since 1993, seven states—New Jersey, New York, New Mexico, Illinois, Connecticut, Maryland, and Delaware—have overturned the death penalty, and the governors of four more—Oregon, Colorado, Washington, and Pennsylvania—have placed moratoria on executions.
But elsewhere, in places like Texas, where I live, we have made somewhat less progress. On July 17th of this year, the state executed Chris Young for his part in a failed robbery of a gas station and the shooting death of its attendant, Hasmukh Patel. At the time of the shooting, Young was twenty-one years old, and had become involved in drugs and gang violence. Before his death, he expressed deep remorse for killing Patel and, ironically, found that he was able to turn his life around on Death Row, where he stopped a fellow-inmate’s assault on a guard, prevented a suicide, and mentored troubled youth outside the prison walls. In a testimonial video recorded before his execution, he notes that coming to death row might have saved him from gang violence: “I’m actually happy I came here first, because the person I am today, I’m really, really satisfied with,” he said. Moments later, he became the eighth person Texas has put to death this year by lethal injection, and the five-hundred-and-fifty-third it has executed since Gregg v. Georgia.
And still the state continues. This past Wednesday, Texas executed Troy Clark; the next day, Daniel Acker. Both had consistently insisted that they were innocent of the murders for which they’d been sentenced to death. Clark’s case, in particular, has drawn the attention of Sister Helen, who recently noted on Twitter that Clark’s girlfriend confessed in detail to her part in the crime but recanted during the trial in exchange for a reduced sentence. Prejean has also described the tragedy of Clark’s upbringing, the poverty that frayed both his future and his chance at a fair trial—a theme that echoes in her book. “Capital punishment, as practiced in the United States, is a poor man’s punishment,” she writes in “Dead Man Walking.” “It is overwhelmingly poor people, who kill whites, who are sentenced to die.”
In this sense, America has not much changed. Now, as before, there are no rich men on death row. Moreover, in the past twenty-five years, it has become increasingly apparent that, while much of the country has evolved beyond the death penalty, the states that remain most committed to it are those that once practiced slavery. Both traditions flow from a fundamental lie: that some people are not human enough to make a legal claim on their own lives. There is no other logic to the death penalty as we administer it. The prosecution seeks the death penalty when it serves them, and agrees to a plea deal when the accused can afford a lawyer who can make the trial sufficiently complex. Justice barely factors into the equation.