When you've spent close to three decades as one of America's leading opponents of capital punishment, you develop an understanding of what states truly have the will to execute their condemned.
And Sister Helen Prejean, the Dead Man Walking author who's in Aurora tonight for a public talk on vengeance, forgiveness and reconciliation, has reason to believe that the death penalty may be on its last legs in Colorado.
The Catholic nun's bestselling account of her encounters with an inmate on Louisiana's death row has since been transformed into a play and an opera, as well as a hit film that won an Oscar for Susan Sarandon. It's been followed by a second book, The Death of Innocents, examining two dubious executions in Texas. And Prejean has gone on to work with death penalty activists across the country; her appearance tonight is cosponsored by Coloradans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church.
Prejean sees many similiarities between Colorado, where legislation to abolish the death penalty was defeated by just one vote in 2009, and Oregon, where Governor John Kitzhaber recently ordered a moratorium on executions.
"Colorado's not a serious killing state, like my home state of Louisiana, or Texas, or other states in the Deep South," she says. "You have an expensive death machine, but mostly it's just kept in the garage. The state doesn't use it. The only ones who go to the garage are the ones who want to be killed anyway."
Although Colorado currently has three inmates on its puny death row, the state's had only one execution in more than forty years: the 1997 lethal injection of Gary Davis, one of the so-called "consensual executions" because Davis preferred death to life imprisonment and pushed to speed up the appeals process.
Prejean credits the aggressive defense provided by Colorado's public defender system, which she discusses in her second book, for the state's low execution rate. She suggests that the reeling economy and severe cutbacks in state budgets will ultimately prompt more states to follow Oregon's lead -- and, perhaps, abolish the practice entirely.
"Colorado's in a little holding pattern right now," she says. "But I don't see any momentum to expand the death penalty. The time is going to come when people are ready, and the money will drive it."
Advocates of the death penalty often argue that society "owes it" to the victims of horrendous crimes to impose the ultimate punishment, but Prejean says she's encountered an increasing stream of victims' groups in support of abolition -- people who find the constant media attention and the drawn-out, uncertain execution process more of an orderal than a consolation.
"When states are cutting education and still spending money on the machine, it's a practical consideration," she says. "But how you use public money is a very moral question, too. Do you use it for life or for death?"
Prejean will be speaking at 7:00 p.m. tonight, November 30, at St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church, 19099 East Floyd Avenue in Aurora, and signing books afterwards. Admission is free.
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