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Prejean Brings Death Penalty Discourse to Eugene

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Anne Abbott Bucher, EDN

Sister Helen Prejean, a death penalty abolitionist, visited Eugene earlier this month, presenting at the First United Methodist Church, Temple Beth Israel and the University of Oregon.

Prejean, pronounced “pray-zhahn,” most famously entered the public eye when her book, Dead Man Walking, was made into a feature film in 1995, starring Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen.

The story recounts Prejean’s first experience accompanying a death row inmate to his execution. She gives presentations around the world, speaking of her accidental journey into activism against the death penalty.

Sister Helen Prejean (Photo courtesy of Grant Guerro Photography, Austin, Tex.)

Prejean brings a unique perspective to the death penalty debate.  She grew up in Louisiana as a child of privilege. It wasn’t until she joined the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille as a Roman Catholic nun and worked in a New Orleans housing project that she began to understand the impact of race and poverty in society.

Prior to her experience in the St. Thomas housing project, her exposure to African-Americans was limited to the servants who worked at her suburban home.

She entered the death penalty debate by accident when she was asked if she would be willing to write a letter to a prisoner on death row. Little did she know at the time that these letters would change her life forever.

Her pen pal was Patrick Sonnier, the death row inmate featured in Dead Man Walking. Sonnier was convicted of brutally murdering two teenagers and was sentenced to death. Prejean eventually became Sonnier’s spiritual advisor, and accompanied him to his execution.

Prejean reflects on her nervousness upon meeting a murderer for the first time, recalling being struck by Sonnier’s humanness. As his spiritual advisor, she was allowed to accompany him to his execution.

Prejean describes the inner turmoil she experienced upon her exposure to what she calls the “machinery of death.”

On the one hand, this man has committed a heinous crime that deserves to be punished. But on the other hand, he is human and subject to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, guaranteeing humans the right to “life, liberty and security of person.” Even more specifically, “No one shall be subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

With appeals processes lasting up until the final hour, death row inmates often prepare for death several times prior to their executions, exposing them to great stress and trauma.

She speaks of the deep ambivalence posed by the death penalty, which brings suffering to many, not only to the prisoners and their families, but also to the victims’ families and the prison staff that conducts the execution. The killing of a human being is a tragedy, whether it is conducted by a cold-blooded murderer or by a state-sanctioned execution.

On the Forefront of Cultural Debate

A nationwide Gallup Poll released recently suggests that support for the death penalty is diminishing. Currently 25 percent of those polled believe that the death penalty is used too often – the highest percentage Gallup has ever recorded on the issue.

The execution of Troy Davis last month brought to light the issues facing those on death row.  Some of the testimony that pointed to Davis as the murderer of an off duty police officer Mark McPhail in August of 1991 was recanted, casting doubt on the sentence, if not the conviction. This case has raised the question of the reliability of eyewitness testimony as persuasive, particularly if the penalty is death.

The Innocence Project, a national organization dedicated to exonerating the wrongly accused through DNA testing, states that since 1989, more than 250 people have had their sentences overturned due to the technology. Prejean eloquently tackles the legal issues facing those on death row in her 2005 book The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions.

Prejean's book The Death of Innocents

The death penalty is now back in Oregon’s discourse, as Gary Haugen is set to be executed on Dec. 6, after waiving his right to appeal. Oregon has not had an execution in 14 years.

Haugen was initially incarcerated for the rape and murder of Mary Archer. While in prison, he killed another inmate at the Oregon State Penitentiary, for which he was sentenced to death.

A Lane County jury recently sentenced Angela McAnulty to death for fatally torturing Jeanette Maples, her teenage daughter. She is the first woman sentenced to death in Oregon in 50 years.

Wherever you stand on the death penalty debate, Prejean is a powerful storyteller who tackles this controversial issue with dignity and grace.  She is reflective and convincing in her presentation.  She confidently deconstructs her confusing journey into activism, and her personal struggles to reconcile race, class, religion, and culture.

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