Sr. Helen Prejean discusses wrongful convictions, death penalty

On Friday, Sr. Helen Prejean participated in a fireside chat hosted by the Notre Dame Law School Exoneration Justice Clinic and the Klau Institute for Civil and Human Rights. The fireside chat was moderated by dean and professor of law G. Marcus Cole in the Eck Visitors’ Center. 

Prejean said she believes that all humans, even those who have committed terrible crimes, have an inviolable dignity. She also discussed justice for people who were wrongfully convicted, the presence of racism and socioeconomic disparities within our criminal justice system and how Catholics are called to be activists for the most ostracized in society: convicts.

“Where is the dignity in taking a human being, rendering [him] completely defenseless and deliberately killing him when we have other means to keep society safe?” Prejean asked. 

Prejean has been recognized as one of the nation’s leading anti-death penalty advocates. She is a recipient of the Laetare Medal, the highest honor that can be bestowed upon a Catholic. 

Prejean rose to prominence for her 1993 book “Dead Man Walking,” in which she told the story of accompanying Patrick Sonnier to his execution on death row. Her book was later turned into a 1996 Academy Award-winning film. 

In recent years, Prejean has accompanied Manuel Ortiz, a resident at a Louisiana prison who has been on death row for over 25 years. 

“I came alive by going to death row,” Prejean said.

She encourages all young people to choose “soul-sized work” that truly stimulates them and fills them with energy. She said she has found her true calling in befriending those on death row, a task which she said “keeps her soul awake.” 

When asked how she remains joyful and good-natured despite encountering those nearing death, Prejean said that being in the presence of those who society has turned its back on can be extremely taxing. But, she said the horror of the situation and these inmates’ impending execution dates left her with one of two options.

“I could either be paralyzed with grief and fear or galvanized to work harder,” she said.

Prejean noted she chose the latter.

She has published two books, met with the Pope and has spoken out against the death penalty in communities across the globe.

Her work with death-row inmates is also an acknowledgment of her own privilege, both in her whiteness and in her socioeconomic status.

She presented data on racial disparities within prisons and the fact that eight in every 10 people placed on death row were put there for committing a crime against a white person.

“For those of us who have white privilege, we’ve got a special responsibility with God to help those who don’t,” Prejean said.

But perhaps the most gratifying part of Prejean’s work and the reason why her soul feels so “alive” in counseling death row inmates, is that she has found true connections with the men she has accompanied. She said they have taught her, most notably, to be both “courageous” and “repentant.” 

“I haven’t met with anyone guilty who isn’t sorry,” Prejean said.

In her current accompaniment with Ortiz, she hopes to help prove his innocence. 

“After being in the presence of Manuel, I leave more of a human being than when I first arrived,” Prejean said.

She hopes to emphasize the humanity of all those that she has accompanied, innocent or not.

Prejean called all of us to be more empathetic, both to the families of the victims and to those who the state will strip of their lives. 

“Is he innocent? No,” Prejean said of a hypothetical death-row inmate. “Is he human? Yes.”

To Prejean, Catholicism and activism go hand in hand. Because theology is so often linked and used to support the death penalty, she said the first step to abolishing it is to begin dialogue. 

Prejean said Jesus always chooses life, and as Catholics, we must, as well. She noted that the one chance Jesus had to condone the death penalty was the woman at the well. He instead chose life and encouraged the woman to reflect on her own life.

To Prejean, the death penalty isn’t a political issue.

“Are you liberal or conservative? Are you this or that? It’s not the point,” she said. “Stick with the issues, and explore them together. Listen to each other.” 

Through education and empathy, Prejean is hopeful that both the Catholic church and the legal system are moving in the right direction, one in which life is preserved, innocent or not. As humans, Prejean said everyone has an indisputable dignity that should never be stripped away. 

Contact Gracie Eppler at


Director of national intelligence discusses career, national security risks

On Friday, director of national intelligence (DNI) Avril Haines appeared at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center to discuss her career, the role of the intelligence community and global threats to the United States.

Haines appeared alongside Amy McAuliffe ‘90, assistant director of the CIA’s Weapons and Counterproliferation Mission Center, in a discussion titled “The U.S. Intelligence Community: Assessing Global Threats in Service to Country.”

The discussion was part of the Notre Dame International Security Center’s (NDISC) Jack Kelly and Gail Weiss Lecture Series. Kelly, a Notre Dame alum with 28 years of active and reserve duty as a U.S. Army officer, introduced Haines. 

Haines and McAuliffe on stage at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center on Friday. / Credit: Isa Sheikh | The Observer

“Years ago, there was a movie. Liam Neeson played a retired intelligence officer. When asked who he was, he said, ‘I have a particular set of skills, skills I’ve acquired for a long career, skills that make people like me very scary for people like you.’ Well, I don’t know how scary the director makes people, but she does have a special set of skills,” Kelly said.

He recounted Haines’s biography, from being raised on the Upper West Side to moving to Japan to study judo at a dojo before studying physics at the University of Chicago. Haines also spent her teenage years caring for her mother, who died when she was 15 years old.

Kelly recounted the story of how Haines built a plane with her husband, attempting a flight across the Atlantic and succeeding. Haines then opened a neighborhood bookstore in Baltimore, which “became a forum where people came and taught and shared ideas,” Kelly said.

Haines next began a career as a lawyer, going to Georgetown Law and ultimately becoming an attorney advisor at the State Department. She was then appointed to national security positions in the Obama administration, including as deputy director of the CIA and deputy national security advisor.

Haines, who was appointed by President Biden as the seventh DNI and the first woman in that position, serves a key role in the administration.

“Every morning, a car pulls down West Executive Drive at the White House. And this woman gets out and goes into the West Wing and every day, she and her briefers go to the first customer, the most important customer of national intelligence in the world, the president, and present to him the daily presidential brief. And that is how the president starts his day because this is the person who holds the secrets, the nightmares that you and I fear,” Kelly said.

Haines began by discussing the intelligence community, inviting students to consider careers in the field. 

“As somebody who has been in different parts of [the intelligence community], it is truly one of the most extraordinary places to work and yet, it’s also one of the most challenging places to figure out,” she said. “I think as a student, as somebody who’s thinking about a career at some point, this gives us an opportunity to frankly talk to you a little bit about it, but also answer some of your questions. So my hope is as you think things through, you will do so.”

Haines discussed how the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) was born out of 9/11 and the government’s response to the perceived heightened security risk. She summarized the office’s role in four priorities.

Firstly, serving as the principal intelligence advisor to the president, as well as senior national security officials. 

“What my organization tries to do is really to pull together what the elements are doing and to facilitate their work so that we can get intelligence before [the president] and key folks who are having to make decisions, right intelligence that they can use in a form that allows them to use it to make a decision at a moment when they need it,” Haines said.

Next, Haines discussed the imperative to coordinate across the intelligence agencies and integrate findings.

Thirdly, Haines discussed setting priorities by managing the budget for the intelligence community. Finally, she said she works to facilitate strategic discussions about the direction of American intelligence.

Discussing the challenge of briefing officials and the press without allowing personal proclivities to bias the intelligence, Haines said that, in her experience as a lawyer in the State Department, credibility was key. She said that was achieved by leaving conclusions about policy to those responsible.

“I had to stick to my brief right. In other words, you sort of provide the legal views without providing the policy. What I’ve learned in that position over the years was that my credibility was attached to my ability to do that,” she said. “And it is equally true in my experience in the intelligence community, that you really do have to be, in my view, quite careful about providing our analysis.”

Haines discussed the war in Ukraine, including handling skepticism towards intelligence in the leadup to Putin’s invasion.

“I remember being in the office with the boss, the president, and he said, ‘Okay, you know, [national security adviser] Jake [Sullivan], [secretary of state] Tony [Blinken], you guys gotta get out there and start talking to our allies.’ Because if this was gonna happen, we’ve got to actually figure out with them what we’re going to do in response and whether or not there’s any opportunity to deter … and then they come back and they said, ‘Folks are really skeptical,’” Haines said. “And so [the president] turned to us and said ‘You know, you got to start sharing, you have to help them understand what you’re seeing and why.’”

Haines discussed the role of intelligence and national security, particularly in formulating the annual threat assessment. 

“I think one of the most interesting things over the last few decades in my view is that we are expanding the definition of what national security is in all kinds of ways. When you look, for example, at our annual threat assessment, you will see global health safety, food technology, environmental degradation and climate change. All of these things are represented,” she said. “Climate change has been identified as an urgent national security priority by the president of the United States.”

Haines and McAuliffe took questions from NDISC students, ranging from the challenges of potential politicization of intelligence to tensions with China and intelligence reform. 

One question concerned the ODNI’s ongoing review of documents seized at former president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort and whether the office might become mired in political controversy like the FBI.

“In every scenario in which we are doing our job in association with issues that are at the center of politics and partisan debate, there is obviously the risk of getting caught out in the stands,” Haines said. “What I have found is that the best antidote to it in a sense is truly to just be as focused as one can be on exactly what your job is and not paying attention to some of the craziness around it … Whether or not I’m worried that it’ll happen, I can’t let that affect the decisions that we make, right?”

Contact Isa Sheikh at


State Senator Monique Limón discusses elevating voices, women in politics

On Friday morning in the Hesburgh Center Auditorium, California State Senator Monique Limón spoke about the intersection between her experience working in public office and her Latina identity. The lecture is part of Hispanic Heritage Month and was hosted by the Hesburgh Program in Public Service and the Institute for Latino Studies. 

Limón is a first-generation college student and was born and raised in Santa Barbara, California. She graduated from the University of California, Berkeley and received her master’s degree from Columbia University.

In 2016, Limón won the State Assembly seat and in 2020, she won the State Senate seat. She serves the nineteenth Senate District, which includes Santa Barbara County and part of Ventura County. 

Limón is the first woman of color to be elected from the district to the State Assembly and the first person of color from the district to be elected to the State Senate. 

Although she represents a mostly white voter base, demographics are changing, and “as issues become more complicated and include many different communities, we are starting to branch out to think about who reflects the values that are important for the voters,” Limón said. “With my background, I have felt not just an honor to represent my community, but also a way to bridge stereotypes.”

Women make up just over 30 percent of the California State Legislature, but over 50 percent of California’s population.

Limón said there needs to be “an individual and collective commitment to ensure there are more marginalized communities represented in public office,” and women need to see others they identify with and support in these positions. 

Another problem Limón identified in her community is that, when people think of Santa Barbara, they only think of the pockets of wealth.

“This makes other people in my community invisible,” she said. 

It’s been important as a representative to ensure the voices of the community who aren’t always at the table are elevated and do so in a way that creates more allies, Limón said.

Before she became involved in politics, Limón was a member of the Santa Barbara Unified School District Board of Education, and her educational background taught her about the issues she cares about from a policy perspective. She worked with many students who were the first in their families to go to college and qualified for financial aid. 

“I very quickly understood that the issues that our community cares about weren’t limited to the classroom, because it turns out that whatever’s happening in the community is going to show up in the classroom,” Limón said. 

She became involved with non-profit community organizations to help students, and this motivated her to make the switch from implementing policy to creating it.

Limón said her connection to her community and her large network of students and their families made her a successful candidate for public office. 

She was able to build this network because she grew up in a big household with a large extended family.

“Family has taught me a lot about politics,” Limón said. “There are times when you have to break bread with individuals and not always agree with them.”

Her family also taught her important skills that helped her persevere when running for office.

“My parents always taught me the skills that it takes to work hard to overcome barriers and move forward,” she said. 

Although Limón’s commitment to higher-level education has influenced her policies, she said people assumed that when she got to the legislature she was only going to focus on education, since that was her strength.

“I did go in really focused on education, and I had this history being on the school board, and I cared a lot about it. But what happens when you’re in office is that, sometimes, you don’t get to pick what you work on,” Limón said. 

A year into her term was the beginning of the Thomas Fire. The fire affected Ventura and Santa Barbara counties and was the largest fire in California for six months. Over 100,000 people were evacuated from her district.

“And at that moment, no matter how much I cared about education, I had to turn immediately to become a policy expert in natural disasters,” Limón said.

She explained that she had to use her skill set to tackle different issues.

“I’ve always been a big believer that no matter what you do in life, you have to know how to transfer your professional, academic, intellectual and interpersonal communication skill sets to every environment,” she said. 

Some of Limón’s most important policies have been in different areas not related to her educational background.

“Most of the policy that I’m known for is actually not education,” Limón said. “I’m known for environmental policy, consumer protections, women’s issues and natural disasters.” 

Limón said she hopes to act in the best interest of the communities she serves, and her main goal is to elevate the needs of the individuals in these communities.

“I have adapted to being a leader that the community needs of me, and the community will decide when they no longer need the skill sets and the values that I move forward,” she said.

Contact Caroline Collins at


Former Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos delivers annual Hesburgh Lecture

Juan Manuel Santos, the former president of Colombia and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, delivered the annual Hesburgh Lecture in Ethics and Public Policy on Tuesday evening, discussing unconventional methods of peacebuilding in the world today. Santos is a distinguished policy fellow with the Keough School of Global Affairs, where he is co-teaching a master level course.

Santos was the sole recipient of the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize for his key participation in ending the oldest ongoing armed conflict of the Western Hemisphere with the Colombian Peace Agreement on November 24, 2016. He has additionally received the Lamp of Peace from the Sacred Convent of Assisi in Italy and the Tipperary International Peace Award in Ireland for his work in promoting harmony in his country and region.

“Building peace is much harder than making war,” Santos proclaimed in his acceptance speech in Oslo, only a few weeks after signing the agreement. “It takes a great deal of patience, the stamina to suffer multiple setbacks along the way and the readiness to settle in for the long haul.”

In his lecture, Santos spoke on the importance of changing his methods and opinions to bring forth a more peaceful world. He reflected on the evolution of his stances on the war on drugs and the environment: from violence and indifference into peace building and advocacy. 

“You will always find unexpected obstacles and you must be willing to change your course,” Santos remarked. “Change your views without sacrificing your values or your principles.”

He also emphasized that this is no easy feat. Santos commented that every peacemaker is called a traitor when push comes to shove. The peacemaker loses political capital and must nevertheless keep on going, for the peacemaker’s role is not one of conflict but one of persuasion, he said.

 “Instead of giving orders, you have to persuade. You have to convince the people who have suffered to forgive the perpetrators and that is much more difficult,” he told the audience.

Regardless of the issue at hand, he insisted that every problem has a reachable solution.

“But don’t get discouraged. History has taught us again and again that even in the midst of darkness […], there is always a light,” he said. “A light that allows us to see a better future.”

Santos closed the 29th Annual Hesburgh Lecture with a challenge for every Notre Dame student while reinforcing the idea that anyone can make the impossible possible.

“I challenge you to lead with hope, not fear; to build bridges instead of walls; to foster solidarity and respect for diversity,” Santos said.

He followed by insisting to always place humanity first, not one’s country, religion or race. He encouraged leading with empathy, seeking opportunities in every difficulty and embracing change. Above all, he told students and future leaders to be optimistic in a world flooded with pessimism.

“If you lead with a positive mind and with the truth, you will make the world a better place,” Santos said. “And let it be said about you that one life has breathed easier because you have lived.”

Contact Carlos Basurto at


UK Diplomat Catherine Arnold visits University

The University of Notre Dame welcomed Catherine Arnold as a guest speaker at the Eck Visitor Center on Sept. 12.

Arnold is a British academic administrator and former UK diplomat. Since Oct. 2019, she has been the Master of St Edmund’s College at the University of Cambridge. Arnold is the fifteenth person to hold that post and the first woman.

After being introduced by vice president and associate provost for internationalization, Michael Pippenger, Arnold gave a speech reflecting on the roles of academic institutions and religion in shaping ethical, global leaders.

Arnold used the example of the recently late Queen Elizabeth II of England to reflect on change and constancy.

“’I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong,’” she quoted from the British monarch. “Even before taking the reins of power, she proved to be an exemplary leader.”

Arnold said she believed human nature was the primary obstacle to leadership and unity.

“As technology changes all around us, humans remain stubbornly constant,” she told the audience.

She specifically provided one of her alma maters, Cambridge, as an example of how allowing a Catholic influence through its St. Edmund’s college would strangle free thought.

“Both [the church and the college] had a fear of change,” Arnold commented. “It is not enough to hold a world-class degree… indeed, there is more room in educational establishments other than just academic fundamentals.”

She followed by saying that Notre Dame is a leading example of how the combination of mind and heart can be accomplished.

Pippenger said he sees this theme at work in his duties overseeing Notre Dame international gateways and their goal to attract parts of the world not traditionally attracted. He said he calls Notre Dame an “experiment of globalization.”

Through discussion, Arnold and Pippenger said they agreed that by going out into the world and training to be a global citizen, students can recognize how religion plays into education, free speech, public policy, ethical business practice and other areas.

Arnold said she hopes Notre Dame will foster more “conscious leaders.” She said she believes that it is crucial to train leaders who understand their impact on others and that a conscious leader must be comfortable and resolved in making decisions that exclude others.

“The more power you have, the more you realize that there is often no right or wrong answer; you almost always exclude someone,” she explained.

Arnold also was able to provide the Observer with some guidance for Notre Dame students, connecting her lecture themes with real-world advice.

“Don’t ever listen to just one person’s piece of advice,” she said. “Seek out different people’s perspectives, and then continue to press both them and yourself with existential ‘why’ and ‘so what’ questions.”


‘Building an Anti-Racist Vocabulary’ lecture discusses history of the ‘white power’ movement

Kicking off year four of the “Building an Anti-Racist Vocabulary” lecture series on Sept. 2 was Dr. Kathleen Belew, an associate professor in the department of history at Northwestern University.

In her lecture, which took place via Zoom, Belew discussed the “white power movement,” which is the focus of much of her research as well as her book, “Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement.”

Belew began her lecture by introducing modern instances in which the white power movement was evident, specifically focusing on the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

She emphasized that the attack was carried out by several groups of people, one of which was a small but highly-organized group of white power activists who seem to be part of a more complex movement than previously thought.

“What we thought about for a very long time as simply the Ku Klux Klan, an anti-Black movement, or the neo-Nazis, an anti-Jewish movement, or skinheads, who seemed to be attacking all kinds of people of color in the 1980s, actually appear to be part of the same thing,” Belew said.

She went on to highlight the Oklahoma City bombing, which she explained is often thought of as the work of “only a few bad apples.”

“The Oklahoma City bombing was actually the work of a social movement. It was perpetrated by not just one or a few people, but by a broad network of people who had set their sights on the same building in 1983 — so more than a decade before the bombing — and had worked together to bring about this major act of domestic terrorism,” Belew said.

In considering these groups’ cause for unity, Belew cited the Vietnam War.

“The white power movement comes together immediately on the aftermath of the Vietnam War,” Belew said.

She added that 1983 and 1984 were two extremely relevant years for the white power movement. Firstly, the movement adopted a strategy she called “leaderless resistance.”

“Leaderless resistance is what we now understand as simply cell-style terrorism,” Belew said.

The leaderless resistance strategy, Belew said, was implemented during the Civil Rights Era to prevent federal informants, such as the ATF and FBI, from infiltrating the movements’ groups. This led to difficulty in linking various related events with one another.

“For instance, we might get a story about the Tree of Life shooting or about the Christchurch shooting as isolated events, instead of stories about those events as all being perpetrated by the same movement,” Belew explained.

Belew went on to state that the Buffalo shooting manifesto was nearly identical to that of the Christchurch shooting, indicating an interconnectedness between the two.

“The other major event that happened in the years 1983 and 1984 was the introduction of networked computers,” Belew said.

For example, The Order, a white supremacist group, stole millions of dollars to buy computers that could be networked together in order to allow various other groups to communicate without being seen by law enforcement and the FBI, Belew said.

“These groups were early adopters and were using social network activism to network and create the infrastructure for violent action all the way back in 1984,” Belew said.

With their new technology, Belew said the movement grew larger over the next few years. However, in 1987 and 1988, the U.S. Department of Justice attempted a seditious conspiracy trial, meaning it tried to prove that the various activists conspired in a group in an attempt to violently overthrow the government.

“However, for many reasons, this trial did not go as the Department of Justice had hoped,” Belew said. “The movement was acquitted. And what happened afterward is that it shifted directly into the militia movement.”

Belew continued by stressing the importance of using correct and accurate terminology and language when addressing the militia movement.

“It’s tricky, because ‘militia’ is embedded in our shared historical knowledge in a really different way, because we go back and think about men with the tricorn hats instead of about paramilitary guys holding the big guns and wearing the scary masks,” she said.

Belew said that militias were integral to the founding of the United States and are even mentioned in the Constitution. However, she explained they have since been reorganized into other military structures as part of the Dick Act.

“In fact, militias are now illegal in all 50 states,” Belew said.

However, militias still exist and have been seen at events such as the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally. These militias, Belew said, are not regulated by anyone except themselves.

“So, following the legal scholar Mary McCord, I have begun to think of them not as malicious but as an unregulated private army,” Belew said.

She concluded the lecture by reiterating that building an anti-racist vocabulary is an excellent way for people to help limit the power and capacity of white power violence.

She also moved away from the 20th century and gave a final take on the modern militia movement.

“We’re now living in an age where members of these unregulated private armies are running for office,” she said. “That means that we have to worry not only about mass-casualty violence, but we also have to worry about threats to the rule of free elections, to the idea that America should be ruled by and for the people and to the idea that democracy is going to be our system of governance.”

Jenna Abu-Lughod

Contact Jenna at