“Killing people to show that killing people is wrong—is wrong”

Originally Appeared in : 9710-5/11/17

Early in 2005, I was the editor of this newspaper and a priest in residence at the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist in Savannah. A year earlier I was asked by Benedictine Military School and Saint Vincent’s Academy to direct a play, which led to the creation of a joint theater program that continues to this day. 



The Diocese of Savannah received an invitation from Sister Helen Prejean to participate in a Dead Man Walking Theater Project and the invitation ended up on my desk. I immediately agreed to stage Tim Robbins’ revised script in Savannah as part of the BC/SVA theater program in the fall of 2005. I had seen the award-winning movie starring Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen and had heard Sister Helen speak at a Catholic Press Association convention in New Orleans about her efforts to galvanize opposition to capital punishment in the United States. 


My student actors outdid themselves in acquiring Cajun accents, inhabiting their roles and respecting the text of the play, with whose premise I did not require them to agree. We had various discussions on the topic, which I think bore fruit, as the students came to respect and understand Sister Helen’s position, “killing people to show that killing people is wrong—is wrong,” even if they did not agree with her 100 percent.


Thanks to wonderful coverage by Jan Skutch in the Savannah Morning News, we had splendid turnouts for all performances. Sister Helen met with the cast a few months later when she was in Savannah to speak at Blessed Sacrament Church and the two leads, Kelly Williams (“Sister Helen”) and Ryan Gregory (“Matthew Poncelet”), performed selected scenes at the Diocesan Education Institute early in 2006, with Sister Helen in attendance. As I reported last year, Sister Kelly Williams has entered the novitiate of the Sisters of Mercy. Dr. Ryan Gregory is now a veterinarian in Savannah, having lived in Statesboro last year, regularly attending Mass at Saint Matthew’s with his wife and infant son.


I have recalled all this because the State of Georgia is preparing to put convicted murderer J.W. Ledford to death on May 16. He will be the first person executed in Georgia in 2017. Last year the state set a record number of nine executions.


I have written many editorials in this newspaper in opposition to capital punishment, in keeping with the teachings expounded in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Now I would like to present for your consideration Sister Helen’s view (which is consonant with the Catechism), spoken in the Tim Robbins’ script by Matthew Poncelet’s defense attorney: “The death penalty. It’s nothing new. Been around for centuries. Used to nail people’s hands and feet to wood, then lash their sides and bleed them. Throughout the centuries we buried people alive, lopped their heads off with an axe, a guillotine, burned them in public squares, gruesome spectacles all.”


He continues: “In this century in the search for more humane ways to execute, we have hung people from the gallows, shot them in firing squads, suffocated them in the gas chamber and cooked them alive in the electric chair. We’ve got something even more humane now. Lethal injection. We strap the guy up, anaesthetize him with shot number one, then give him shot number two that implodes the lungs, then shot number three that stops the heart. We put him to death like an old horse. His face just goes to sleep while inside his organs are going through Armageddon. His muscles would seize up and twitch and contort and pull, but shot number one relaxes all those muscles. So, we don’t have to see any horror show. We don’t have to taste the blood of ruthlessness on our lips. While this human being’s organs writhe and twist and choke we just sit there and nod our heads and say, ‘Justice has been done’.”


In our production, we staged the execution of Matthew Poncelet by lethal injection, using a gurney, and IV stand and EKG machine lent to us by Saint Joseph’s Hospital. The nurse giving the lethal injection was played with brilliant coldness by Emily Pickels. 


Seven years later, over Labor Day weekend in 2012, Emily Pickels, 21, and a friend were shot and killed in Savannah. Four years later, Walter Terry Moon, 35, was convicted on both malice and felony murder and was sentenced to two life imprisonment terms plus 45 years. Recalling the defense attorney’s speech in Dead Man Walking helped me to accept this sentence, and even to be thankful that this wanton murderer of a promising young woman and her friend was not sentenced to death.


“Killing people to show that killing people is wrong—is wrong.”


Father Douglas K. Clark STL is pastor of Saint Matthew Church, Statesboro. 

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