Liz cCurtain/The Hoya Sister Helen Prejean speaks about her opposition to the death penalty to an overflowing crowd in ICC Auditorium Wednesday evening.

Sr. Helen Prejean, C.S.J. relayed her personal experiences as a spiritual advisor to death row inmates in ICC Auditorium Wednesday. Prejean, a long-time advocate for the movement to abolish the death penalty, is the author of Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the U.S., an autobiographical account and the basis for the movie Dead Man Walking, directed by Tim Robbins, and starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn.

Prejean addressed the complex and divisive nature of the death penalty debate, focusing especially on the difficulty of feeling sympathy for those convicted of horrible crimes. “Society polarizes us,” she said. “[It] tells us either you can be for the victim or you can be for the perpetrator on death row, but you cannot be for both.”

A man who spent 11 years on death row before being exonerated was present in the audience, as well as the sister of an inmate who is currently on death row in Md.

Prejean argued against the death penalty on religious grounds, making several references to the execution of Jesus. Calling the death penalty the “opposite of baptism,” she said that the former is a ritualized way of removing someone from society while the latter is a way of bringing a person into society. Prejean acknowledged that the Hebrew scriptures prescribe the death penalty for those guilty of murder but reminded the audience that the Hebrew Scriptures also prescribe death for 37 other crimes, including adultery.

Prejean’s visit to Georgetown came at a crucial time for the death penalty abolition movement, especially in the District. d. Republican Governor-elect Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr. has said he would rescind the moratorium on the death penalty in Md. when he takes office in January, according to the Nov. 16 issue of The Washington Post. Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) declared the moratorium last May in response to allegations of racial prejudice toward blacks convicted of killing white victims. If Maryland rescinds the moratorium, the state could execute as many as seven people next year, six of whom are black men convicted of killing white victims.

Prejean said the death penalty in the U.S. is racially inequitable and more likely to be applied when the victim is white. Over 80 percent of those on death row were convicted of killing a white person, while minorities represent more than 50 percent of homicide victims, according to the Death Penalty Information Organization. Prejean also said that most people on death row are indigent, referring to a study by the American Bar Association that revealed that over 90 percent of death row inmates were represented by court-appointed counsels.

“You look at the death penalty; it’s held together with cellophane tape, epoxy glue and bailing wire,” she said.

Prejean said she is against the death penalty in principle as well, arguing it is not a just punishment even for the guilty. “Every human being is worth more than the worst thing they’ve done,” she said. “All life has dignity – guilty life too.”

Prejean said she came to feel sympathy for both the victim and the murderer by drawing on the image of Christ on the cross.

Although deeply religious, Prejean’s lecture was also highly anecdotal. The first inmate she counseled, Elmo Patrick Sonnier, served as one of the inspirations for Sean Penn’s character in the movie.

“I was shocked at how human his face was,” Prejean said, recalling the first time she saw Sonnier. “I couldn’t believe how human he was.” Prejean continued to serve as a spiritual advisor to Sonnier until he was executed by electrocution in 1984.

Prejean expressed deep sympathy for the victims of murder and their respective families. “Outrage [at murder] is legitimate because we recognize that a unique and individual life has been taken,” she said.

Prejean came to know Lloyd LeBlanc, the father of one of Sonnier’s victims, and eventually became his spiritual advisor. As LeBlanc “took [her] down the trail of tears of a victim’s family,” Prejean showed him, through prayer, that forgiveness was a positive way of addressing his grief. Prejean said LeBlanc was the “real hero of the story.”

In fact, Prejean met with several families of murder victims who ultimately opposed the death penalty. Bud Welch, for instance, whose daughter was killed in the Oklahoma City Bombing, is another outspoken opponent of the death penalty.

Organizers of the event considered Prejean’s visit a success, expressing hope that her speech will raise awareness and motivate more students to get involved. “It’s very exciting that so many people came and got to hear what she said,” Chair of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty Ginny Simmons (COL ’03) said.

Lecture Fund Secretary Gerard Alolod (SFS ’05), who introduced Prejean, agreed. “It was a great event with a great speaker and a great message,” he said.

Prejean, who was born and raised in Louisiana and joined the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille in 1957, served as a spiritual advisor to five death row inmates who were later executed. She has also worked with the families of murder victims and founded an organization in New Orleans called Survive. She has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize several times, and her book was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

The speech was sponsored by the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, the Lecture Fund, Campus Ministry, the Justice and Peace Studies Department, The Center for Social Justice Research, Teaching and Service, the Kennedy Institute of Ethics and the English Department.

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