The last face on earth that condemned men see as they are strapped on to the gurney for their execution by lethal injection in the death chambers of the prisons in US southern states is often that of a diminutive, grey-haired Catholic nun. She gazes into their eyes for as long as she can, trying to give them strength and show human compassion for their last few minutes.
It is a vocation that has made Sister Helen Prejean famous, especially since her story was dramatized 10 years ago in the film Dead Man Walking, in which she was played by Susan Sarandon, who has become her friend. It has also made her one of the doughtiest, most outspoken and maybe most formidable opponents of the death penalty in the US.
She has attended the execution of men she knows to be guilty of horrific crimes, but also of men she believes to be innocent, and prays with and counsels their families and those of victims. She believes that executions are morally wrong but the killing of the innocent, subjected often to a callous and stubborn judicial refusal over years properly to reinvestigate their cases after conviction, fills her with revulsion.
Prejean, 66, who could have opted for a quieter life as a teacher, makes herself attend and to be with men she has often befriended over several years. As their spiritual adviser, she can stay after their relatives have been escorted away, acting as the last friend they have:
"I go there to be there for them," she said. "When they look in my face they see someone who cares about them and believes in their dignity. They know that I will tell their story. You have to steel yourself to be utterly thinking of them. It is afterwards that you vomit."
In London to publicize her book The Death of Innocents, which details the cases of two men she believes were wrongfully executed, the Louisiana-based nun insisted that politicians' rhetoric is moderating and that the number of death penalty convictions is in decline. Public uneasiness about wrongful convictions and the manifest inequity with which the death penalty is implemented is growing.
Prejean said: "John Kerry was the first presidential candidate in 30 years to say he was against the death penalty and George Bush never made anything of it politically. In New Jersey they have just agreed a moratorium on the death penalty which the governor has said he will sign, and since 2001 across the country the number of death sentences has halved."
Prejean is scathing about politicians and judges who use the Bible to justify executions: "I call it Christianity-lite. It's not real Christianity. Truly, it is blasphemy. Jesus Christ is being held hostage by these people: his whole message is being perverted."
The cases in the book are those of Dobie Williams, a black man with learning difficulties, executed in 1999 for the murder of a white woman in Louisiana in 1985, and Joseph O'Dell, a white man killed in 1997 in Virginia for murdering and raping a white woman whose body was found near a bar he had visited one night 12 years earlier. It sets out cogent reasons for their innocence, or at least grounds on which the state and court authorities should have reconsidered their convictions.
O'Dell was executed despite an appeal by the pope for clemency, and despite the refusal of the state's governor to let the execution be delayed to allow DNA testing of some of the evidence.