Sister Helen Prejean

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Sister Helen Prejean

Post  Yoke on Wed May 13, 2009 10:31 am

Crusade vs. executions, book bring nun to area

Hurricane Katrina forced Sister Helen Prejean and about 60 other nuns to flee their New Orleans Mother House last week and relocate indefinitely to Baton Rouge.

But the catastrophe had an effect on something else to which the woman who has come to be known as "the Death-Penalty Nun" has devoted her life.

"Katrina put a moratorium on the death penalty in Louisiana for at least three years," Prejean, 66, said before her talk Wednesday night at Holy Faith Catholic Church in Gainesville.

She said court buildings in New Orleans were so badly damaged that judges, among other things, won't be reviewing death-penalty cases anytime soon. In effect, Katrina partly did in a day what Prejean has been working more than 20 years to accomplish - abolish the death penalty in the United States.

That effort was given a boost by her 1993 book, "Dead Man Walking," and director Tim Robbins' 1996 movie based on it that earned Susan Sarandon an Academy Award for best-actress for her portrayal of Prejean. The book explores Prejean's spiritual journey that took her from being pen pals with a death row inmate to accompanying him to his execution, and how that experience crystallized her belief that the death penalty goes against true Christian teachings.

She talked about that journey - from a privileged upbringing in Baton Rouge to spiritual adviser to death row inmates - before about 200 people at Holy Faith. Her Gainesville visit was the first stop on a nationwide tour to promote her second book on the death penalty, "The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions," which details her experience with two executed men whom she said clearly were innocent.

After her hourlong talk, she signed copies of both books - and accepted donations to the rebuilding of the convent in New Orleans.

Prejean (pronounced PRAY-zheen) emphasized that her mission is as much to the families of victims as it is to their killers.

"My new book is dedicated to Murder Victim Families for Human Rights," she said. "I wrote 'Dead Man Walking' as a journey to both sides - the victims' families and the condemned."

But she said to say taking the life of the person who killed your child or other loved one will help you heal, or give you justice, is "dishonest." Executing a human being, she said, "is the exact opposite of baptism."

The death penalty, she said, is "legalized vengeance" and a policy that is "morally bankrupt" and unequally applied.

"Why is it the district attorney of New Orleans seldom seeks the death penalty when it's black people who are killed?" she said.

Prejean said that in the Catholic Church, the death penalty has been an issue "in development." Historically the church's pro-life stance had been centered around the issues of abortion, euthanasia and assisted suicide, she said. The death penalty wasn't afforded the same level of importance in the pro-life debate, she said.

In 1997, Pope John Paul II - following letters from Prejean - initiated a change in the Catholic catechism to state that the death penalty is equally as important as other life issues.

"It's all about waking up, about reflecting more deeply," Prejean said. "The beauty of being Catholic is that we can be pro-life across the board. The death penalty is one of the arenas of development in the church - to see dignity in all life, even someone who has killed innocent people."

She said Catholic bishops are just now beginning to move the death penalty issue from the back burner to the front. "Or at least to the middle burner," Prejean said.

She said her mission is to help create a dialogue about the death penalty, to get people to start thinking more deeply about it. She has been helped in that effort, she said, by the movie "Dead Man Walking" and an opera that also was based on the book.

Now Robbins has written a "Dead Man Walking" play specifically for universities and colleges, which Prejean said are free to produce on their campuses in order to broaden awareness of the death penalty issue to young people.

"The death penalty is an issue where we have to do more awakening," she said.

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