Originally created 02/11/06

Speaker will look at death penalty

Since the publication of Dead Man Walking in 1993 and the release of a movie by the same title in 1995, Sister Helen Prejean has spoken against the death penalty to whomever would listen.

Sister Prejean, 66, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille, will speak at 8:30 a.m. Friday at Aquinas High School. She will hold a book-signing afterward.

The more information people have about those condemned to death row and the legal and political systems that put them there, the more they will drop support for executions, Sister Prejean said in a phone interview from Baton Rouge, La., her hometown and, more recently, her refuge from Hurricane Katrina-battered New Orleans.

According to Sister Prejean, death sentences have been cut in half in the past few years, partly because juries must be told whether a convicted murderer is eligible for a life sentence without parole. Courts also have ruled that someone with an IQ below 70 cannot be given death.

There also is a growing awareness that there are cases in which the innocent have been convicted, she said.

Her book Dead Man Walking, about her friendship with a death row inmate, is available in 10 languages. It was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1993. After it was turned into a movie with Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, the story was staged as a play and an opera.

In the movie, Sister Prejean (Ms. Sarandon) agrees to write a letter to a death row inmate (Mr. Penn). That initial contact leads to her visiting him, befriending him and becoming his spiritual adviser. The final moments of the film show her accompanying him to his execution and witnessing it.

The public should be outraged when innocent people are violated, she said, but the public also should understand "how flawed, futile, morally bankrupt and costly" capital punishment is as a response.

Statistically, many murders are not solved, but those that are result in a disproportionate number of convictions among the poor and black, according to Sister Prejean.

"Even when a person is guilty - and most were truly guilty - what does it mean as a society - looking at our moral quality as a society - to select some of them and kill them?" asked Sister Prejean, who advocates a suspension of the death penalty through the Moratorium Campaign, which she founded.

How can the government "make the moral claim that (killing the killer) can heal the victim's families?" she asked.

Some might deserve to die, "but who deserves to kill them?"

Reach Virginia Norton at (706) 823-3336 or virginia.norton@augustachronicle.com.

Speaker, book-signing

Who: Sister Helen Prejean

Where: Aquinas High School, 1920 Highland Ave.

When: 8:30 a.m. Friday

Phone: 736-5516


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