Sister Helen Prejean

Dead Man Walking: The Journey Continues

Sr. Helen Prejean poster
Thursday, October 4, 2007
7:00 p.m. – Anita Tuvin Schlechter Auditorium

Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking and Death of Innocents: Wrongful Executions. Sister Helen is a Southern storyteller who brings you on a journey and shares her experiences involved with her death penalty ministry while working with the poor. She is the author of Dead Man Walking and Death of Innocents: Wrongful Executions. Book signing to follow. Co-sponsored by The Legislative Initiative Against the Death Penalty, Unitarian Universalists of the Cumberland Valley, community service and religious life, and the religion, philosophy, and English departments.

Join us for a student-led discussion “Continuing the Conversation” to be held on Friday, October 5, 12:30 p.m. at The Clarke Forum. Bring a bag lunch.

Issue in Context
Since 1976, there have been 1,095 executions in the United States. The death penalty has been used as a form of punishment in America since the founding of the colonies as Europeans brought the practice with them to the New World. The methods of execution have evolved over the years from hanging, to the firing squad, the electric chair in 1890, the gas chamber in 1924, and finally to lethal injection in 1982. Although execution by lethal injection is now the most common means of execution in most states, all other methods are authorized in at least two states. For example, New Hampshire and Washington still authorize hanging as a means of execution if lethal injection cannot be administered or if the prisoner requests it. All methods of execution, including death by lethal injection, can cause severe pain to the condemned.

There are questions about the cruelty of the execution itself and the fairness and accuracy of the process that determines who receives the death penalty. Scholars have pointed out that the application of the death penalty is frequently arbitrary and is made on the basis of race, class, gender, and geography. For example, if a non-white person murders a white person, there is a far greater statistical chance that he or she will receive the death penalty than if a white person murders a non-white person. Also, poor people are unable to afford adequate representation and therefore often receive the death penalty due to mistakes or lack of effort on the part of their attorneys. Juries are also less likely to sentence a woman to death than a man who committed the same crime. Finally, a person convicted of murder is more likely to be sentenced to death in a southern state than in a northern state due to differences in regional attitudes.

There is currently a movement to abolish the death penalty in the United States as it has been done in Europe and many other parts of the world. The movement presents two main arguments. First, due to the physical and emotional pain experienced by prisoners and the fact that the state is taking lives, the death penalty is “cruel and unusual punishment” and was therefore outlawed by the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Second, since the death penalty cannot be administered fairly and equally across the United States, it should be abolished in every state. Others calling for a moratorium on the death penalty raise a moral question: Is it ever right to take the life of another human being?

About the SpeakerSr. Helen Prejean
In 1981, Sister Helen Prejean moved to a housing project in St. Thomas, Louisiana with the purpose of helping the poor living in the area. A year later, Sister Helen was asked to become a pen pal of Elmo Patrick Sonnier, a death row inmate at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. She became more than a pen pal to Mr. Sonnier as she signed on as his spiritual advisor and made personal visits to the prison. This first contact awakened her to the fallibilities and the immoral nature of the death penalty system in the United States.
Sister Helen then began her death penalty ministry, becoming spiritual advisor to other death row inmates and actively working to obtain a moratorium on the death penalty in the U.S. She has written two books, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States (1993) and Death of Innocents: Wrongful Executions (2004), which highlight the problems with the death penalty system. Dead Man Walking has received numerous honors including a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 and a number one spot on the New York Times Bestseller List for 31 weeks.
Along with her writings and lectures, Sister Helen works to achieve a moratorium on the death penalty through activist organizations. From 1985-1995, Sister Helen served on the board of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and chaired the board from 1993-1995. She currently works with Amnesty International and the Moratorium Campaign of which she is Honorary Chairperson.

Sister Helen also works to ease the suffering of the victim’s families through counseling. She founded the victim’s advocacy group “Survive” in New Orleans to serve this purpose.

Sister Helen joined the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille in 1957. She earned a BA in English and education from St. Mary’s Dominican College in New Orleans in 1962 and an MA in religious education from St. Paul’s University in Ottawa, Canada in 1973.

Related Links
Official Website of Sister Helen Prejean
Legislative Initiative Against the Death Penalty
Death Penalty Information Center
Website and personal blog of Sister Helen Prejean
University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center: The Death Penalty Debate