Dear Governor Brown,
As I see it, the question of whether or not you will use your power as governor to commute death sentences is soul terrain, moral ground, conscience ground, not simply political or legal ground. That’s because the practice of condemning conscious, imaginative human beings to death, which entails confining them in a restricted space for years on end and then killing them or holding them in death cells indefinitely, is always and inherently the practice of torture. It is the most fundamental violation of people’s dignity and human rights.
Waiting until the citizens of California end the death penalty through a ballot initiative may, indeed, be a legal solution, but, as you are well aware, legal solutions are not always moral solutions. As Thomas Merton put it:
“In the end when we destroy the world, it will be legal.
This is what leads me to write you once again to urge you to transcend politics and legalities and to make the bold moral decision that is within your power as governor to make: end the torture of the 700 plus human beings on California’s death row by commuting their sentences of death to life imprisonment.. Make no mistake, Governor Brown, human beings, endowed with consciousness and imagination, who are condemned to death and spend long years on death row, are victims of torture. ”Subjected to extreme mental or physical assault while rendered defenseless” is the definition of torture by the U.N Universal Declaration of Human Rights and by Amnesty International. And for over thirty years by accompanying people on death row as their spiritual advisor, I’ve seen this torture close-up, including the suffering of men and women on California’s death row.
You are governor in a state that practices torture, Governor Brown. I believe this is the deepest moral question facing you: will you allow the torture of human beings on death row to continue after you leave office if you refuse to commute the death sentences?
How many years will it take before the citizens of California finally end the death penalty through a ballot initiative? Will your conscience permit you to take refuge in a legal or political justification for refusing to use your power to stop the torture of the women and men on your state’s death row, knowing full well that you had the power to stop it?
As yet, neither the U.S. Supreme Court nor Congress can bring itself to acknowledge the torture inherent in the death penalty, but I am sure that in your Christ- conscience you recognize it. Just as, well in advance of the Court and Congress, you have had the keen moral sense to recognize our national failure to deal with climate change and the human rights of immigrants at our borders- and had the moral courage to take bold steps to deal squarely with these blatant moral failures.
I pray to see you go down in history as the person who used his authority to empty death row and stop the torture of the human beings confined there.
Be bold, Governor Brown. Be Christ. Be Gandhi. Be your deepest, truest self, which, like Bethlehem’s star, you so clearly manifested in your words to Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition in 1992:
“There is a moral dimension to politics where the line of tactics, and compromise, and mere pragmatism has to stop. And the commitment to integrity, and life, and the values we know hold a civilized country together – that has to be maintained.”
As your sister in Christ I am praying mightily for you.
From the heart,
Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ.