News: Trying to Stop the Killing

Death penalty foes team up with organic farm

Jymi Bolden

Sister Helen Prejean (center)

Sister Helen Prejean has accompanied three human beings she believes to be innocent to their state-sanctioned killings.

For every Death Row inmate exonerated, eight are put to death, according to Prejean. Those odds illustrate the arbitrary nature of the death penalty, she said.

"Would you get on an airline with an 8 to 1 ratio?" she said.

Prejean, whose work was made famous in the film Dead Man Walking, was the featured speaker June 6 for a joint fundraiser for the Ohio Innocence Project and the Michaela Farm.

Cincinnati City Councilman John Cranley, active in the Innocence Project, spoke at the event, held at the Hyatt-Regency Hotel downtown.

"I believe government shouldn't be in the business of killing," he said.

The National Innocence Project is a non-profit legal clinic started in 1992 by attorney Barry Scheck. The Innocence Project handles cases in which post-conviction DNA tests show conclusive evidence of innocence. Most of its clients are poor and have run out of legal options for appeal.

Thanks to the Innocence Project, 128 people have been exonerated and freed from prison — or spared execution.

The Ohio Innocence Project, based in the University of Cincinnati's Law School, has 17 law students volunteering their time this summer. They're reviewing 25 to 35 cases. The Cincinnati Bar Foundation has pledged a grant to support the effort.

"We have already accepted three cases right now and my gut tells me we have two or three innocent people in jail right now," Cranley said.

Prejean has witnessed a total of five executions. Regardless of guilt or innocence, she believes capital punishment violates the inherent dignity of all human beings.

"It's about life," she said.

While the Innocence Project focuses solely on clearing wrongly convicted inmates, Prejean is working to abolish the death penalty. She is an honorary chair of the Moratorium Campaign, which seeks an immediate halt on all executions in the United States.

The death penalty reflects the racism of American society, more often used when a white victim is killed than in cases where a black victim is killed, according to Prejean.

She spoke briefly about the two most recent executions she witnessed. First was Dobie Williams, from her home state of Louisiana. Convicted of a 1984 stabbing death, Williams, who had an I.Q. of 59 to 63, hadn't listened when his mother warned him not to go out drinking.

Police spotted Williams walking home intoxicated and interrogated him from 2 to 5 a.m. without counsel, Prejean said. Apparently a confession was made, but evidence of its proof was lost afterwards.

Prejean quoted Dobie's final words: "I'm sorry I put my mama through this."

Prejean was also the spiritual advisor to Joseph O'Dell, convicted of a 1985 rape and murder. O'Dell tried for 11 years to get an evidentiary hearing on new DNA evidence. The state of Virginia denied the request, according to Prejean.

Before the execution, the Mayor of Palermo, Italy visited O'Dell, promising to take his body to Palermo for burial and to make him an honorary citizen of the city. The night of his execution, O'Dell married Lori Urs. Even though the newlyweds were not allowed to touch each other, O'Dell said his execution day "was the happiest day of my life because I got married to my wife," according to Prejean.

After killing O'Dell in 1997, the state destroyed all DNA evidence from the case.

Prejean said the Mayor of Palermo was true to his word and buried O'Dell in Palermo. His gravestone says, in Italian and English, "Joseph O'Dell III ... Honorary Citizen of Palermo, Killed by Virginia U.S.A. in a Merciless and Brutal Justice System."

Prejean applauded the other beneficiary of the fundraiser, Michaela Farm, a 300-acre organic farm in Oldenburg, Ind. Operated by the Sisters of St. Francis, the farm emphases agriculture, spirituality and education. The farm's goals include nurturing sustainable relationships among land, plants, animals and humans.

"You can participate and put hands in the soil and become part of the earth," Prejean said.

The joining of the Innocence Project and Michaela Farm for a single fundraiser makes good sense, according to Sister Ann Marie Quinn, who helps run Michaela Farm.

"I am excited about this marriage that connects the care of humans with the care of animals," she said. "(Prejean) is an inspiration to many of us because she lives her talk." ©

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