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Activist decries executions

Vienna Wagner | Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Sr. Helen Prejean said she is “not a brave person.”

Yet she stood by the side of a convicted murderer — her friend — as he received the death penalty in the electric chair and prayed for him.

Prejean, a Catholic nun and a mentor for inmates on death row, called for the Notre Dame community to speak out against the death penalty during her lecture in Geddes Hall on Monday evening.

“A big part of education is awakening to the gifts that God has given us and learning to develop them for service to the community,” Prejean said.

This “awakening” led Prejean to her outspoken activism against the death penalty.

“The best definition of ‘justice’ is ‘just us,'” Sr. Prejean said, “When we wake up, it’s a dangerous point because if we don’t act we become paralyzed, sink down into the whirlpool and don’t do anything. It doesn’t matter where you start because grace is going to lead you.”

Each human being deserves the basic right to life, Prejean said.

“Even those among us who have done terrible crimes have a dignity that must not be taken from them,” she said. “Do we only uphold the dignity of innocent lives? There is no dignity in death row deaths.”

In her bestselling book “Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States,” Prejean wrote about her experience as a spiritual advisor to a man awaiting the death penalty in Louisiana.

Prejean said words from a fellow nun prompted her to serve others more often.

“[She said,] ‘Integral to the news that Jesus taught the poor was that they would be poor no longer,'” Prejean said.

After she became an advisor for a death row inmate in the 1980s, Prejean said “God’s sneakiness” took her on a journey she never expected.

“I had no way of knowing that two years ago from then he would be electrocuted at midnight, that I would be with him in the last hours to the electric chair and [that] he would look at my face and try to protect me,” Prejean said.

A judge sentenced the man to death row after he participated in the cold-blooded murder of two teenagers on their way to a football game. However, Prejean said she saw goodness in him.

“We want to make the person [who commits a crime] evil,” Prejean said. “Acts are unspeakably evil. It’s ethical to be outraged over an act that’s evil. However, people have faces.”

Prejean continues to mentor death row inmates today. During her talk, she emphasized the way she has seen culture blur facts in the justice system.

She cited the case of an African-American boy with an IQ of 65 who was tried and unfairly convicted of murdering a white woman by an all-white jury.

“Culture blinds us,” Prejean said. “Culture is like the air we breathe. One of the problems of society is that we’re so separated. Our racism, assault of poor, and penchant for trying to solve our problems with violence are all found in the death penalty.”

Prejean campaigned successfully for Pope John Paul II to add execution to his pro-life agenda along with abortion and euthanasia.

Prejean described the way the families of murder victims in New Jersey campaigned for the abolition of the death penalty.

She encouraged Notre Dame students and the local community to forgive those on death row as these families did and to work against execution.

“The reason I stand before you today is that I became a witness,” Sr. Prejean said. “When we see suffering, we’ve got to stand up.

“Forgiveness is the grace of God that keeps us from being consumed by hatred.”