Sister Helen Prejean Presents: Dead Man Walking
BY REBECCA HILLARY, Staff Writer
When I first heard that Sister Helen Prejean would be speaking at UM-Dearborn this past Friday, I was less than excited. Though she had written the best-selling book Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States and is well revered as a public speaker, I was positive that her presentation on the death penalty would not interest me.
Within moments of seeing and hearing her, I accepted that I had been proven wrong. Her attire, a stylish blazer and slacks, caught my attention, as it wasn’t how I would imagine a nun would dress. She also seemed less serious than nuns I had encountered before, cracking witty jokes and even making fun of herself at times. Her candor engaged me and I found myself immersed in the presentation, moved by her words.
Her presentation was enlightening, consisting of the perfect combination of facts, personal experience, humor, and emotion. She began by describing her early years and what shaped her current beliefs: “I moved into housing projects in New Orleans and that’s where I got my education.”
She witnessed, firsthand, the inequality and underlying racism within the United States justice system when she began advising Patrick Sonnier, the convicted killer of two teenagers (which inspired Dead Man Walking). She explained that eight out of ten people on death row are there because they killed white people and that the death penalty has always been “disproportionately applied to races and poor people.”
The heart of her presentation, though, was making clear that the death penalty is not something that all Catholics support. She claims that the belief that God is pleased by suffering is completely irrational, and that it is futile to believe that redemption is granted to murderers through the death penalty. In 2005, US Catholic bishops declared that the death penalty was not right. So, why, she asks, do people of Catholic faith continue to support it?
Her speaking so eloquently on the subject made it difficult to not be moved in some way by what she was saying, regardless of your race or religious affiliation. This issue is still one that is politically debated, and is something that, as U.S. citizens, we are very much affected by. Hearing Sister Helen Prejean speak was definitely an opportunity to stay informed on the history and technicalities of the death penalty and consider its reality.
If you are interested in reading about her experiences, you should check out her books, Dead Man Walking: an Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States and The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions. She is also currently working on a new book, called River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey.