‘Dead Man Walking’ author discusses capital punishment

Kate Carrubba

Famed anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J., was the keynote speaker at a Villanova conference focusing on Catholic Social Teaching and criminal justice.

The two-day conference was sponsored by Villanova’s Office for Mission and Ministry, as well as the Office for Service and Learning in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Villanova Theology Institute and The Journal of Catholic Social Thought.

Held in the Jake Nevin Field House, Prejean’s talk was highly attended by both students and members of the conference.

Prejean was introduced by Curtis McCarty, a former prisoner who spent 19 years on death row for a crime he did not commit. He said that the prisoners on death row had lost hope because no one would defend them, but the rise of “Dead Man Walking” became “a bright light among the madness” and restored their hope that some day things would change.

“Hearing Sr. Helen speak is an educational opportunity,” McCarty said earlier in the day. “Sr. Helen is a good Catholic who stands up for the unfortunate and the despised.” McCarty held his own talk during the conference entitled “An Innocent Person Who Survived Death Row.”

Prejean’s talk was entitled “Dead Man Walking – The Journey Continues,” though she did not make the book the focus of her discussion. Rather, she chose to focus on the humanity of the death row inmates.

Prejean described how deeply involved she became with the case of the Sonnier brothers (as described in “Dead Man Walking”) and how Patrick Sonnier taught her the power of forgiveness.

She became so determined to see him as a human being that she did not raise the subject of the murder the first time they met face-to-face.

Prejean also emphasized how we are separated from reality when it comes to the death penalty. She stated that 230 people are condemned to die in Pennsylvania, but the public does not hear about them.

“All we have are the witnesses,” Prejean said in an interview. “The movie brought the story to the world. People need to see what is involved to end the death penalty. My job is to be the witness and tell the story.”

Prejean was full of admiration for the recent ‘Nova production of the stage version of “Dead Man Walking.”

“The play changed people’s hearts,” she said. “It made them think.”

She said that the play brought awareness of the issue to Villanova’s campus and helped to break through what is so often referred to as the “Villanova bubble.”

Prejean also raised the topic of the legal aspects of the death penalty in her talk.

“We kill people by procedure,” she said in reference to the twists and turns of the legal system. “Even for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a Roman Catholic, procedure is ultimate.”

Prejean disclosed that the official cause of death of an executed prisoner is legal homicide, which she used as an example of the subjective nature of the death penalty.

She likened the use of the death penalty to torture, as a prisoner’s nightmare is to get a stay of execution within hours of death, which has happened multiple times in some cases.

Prejean analyzed the religious position on the death penalty. She said that in the “Gospel of Life,” Pope John Paul II said we have prisons, and, therefore, we do not need to kill, though earlier the same pope also said that the state could execute in cases of “absolute necessity.”

However, Prejean urged people to think about the dignity of human life and whether there is dignity in the death of a man who has been rendered defenseless.

She cited statistics that showed the death penalty is being repealed in areas where there are larger numbers of Catholics, such as in the Northeast, where less that one percent of American executions occur.

In contrast, Prejean stated that over 80 percent of executions occur in the Bible Belt regions of the South.

Prejean ended her talk by speaking about the universal nature of human rights.

“We can end the death penalty,” she said. “Until then, we are complicit.”

She urged those present to purchase her books, “Dead Man Walking” and “The Death of Innocence,” go to a quiet place and read them. Prejean also invited those present to join groups such as the Pennsylvania chapter of Alternatives to the Death Penalty or a new group on campus called Villanovans Against the Death Penalty.