October 25, 2000

Dead Man Walking Author Asks Cornell to Reflect on Death Penalty

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The first time Sister Helen Prejean accompanied a death row inmate to his execution, it was “like a second baptizing.” She realized that society was committing a crime by doing to the criminal what he had done to his victim.

Prejean, the author of Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the U.S., spoke to an audience of about 900 students, faculty members and Ithaca community residents yesterday in Alice Statler Auditorium about her commitment to being a spiritual advisor to death row inmates.

She became a pen pal and spiritual advisor to Patrick Sonye for the two-and-a-half years prior to his execution. Prejean assumed this role when she was approached by a person that asked her if she wanted to be a pen pal with a death row inmate.

“I wasn’t sure what to do,” Prejean said. “When we get involved in something, we take a step, a step down a road. We don’t know where that road is going to lead, but we take a chance and follow it.”

Prejean stressed that one does not have to be special to be able to communicate with inmates. “When I looked at him and he looked at me through the screen, I knew he was a real person. A fellow human being.”

She also explained that she was not always a religious person. “I was reading a story by a little girl, called, ‘The Poor Family.’ It read, ‘The whole family was poor. The mother was poor. The father was poor. The children were very poor … the butler was poor, the chauffeur was poor!’ After reading that, I knew that I had to get on the side of the poor if I wanted to learn what poor was,” Prejean said about her religious awakening.

Prejean told the audience that the death penalty, even when carried out in the most humane way possible, is a crime against humanity. She rebuked the most common arguments for the death penalty, such as it being a deterrent to crime and being a just punishment. “How can it be a deterrent of crime if the people doing the thinking and the people doing the killing are two different people? These criminals don’t think about the consequences of the crimes when they commit them.”

Prejean’s book, which was on the New York Times bestseller list for 31 weeks and was nominated for a Pulitzer prize, was made into a motion picture directed by Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins.

Sarandon also won the 1996 best actress Academy Award for her portrayal of Prejean in the movie. Prejean knew that Sarandon was a good choice to write the screenplay because she had been an active member of Amnesty International and had denounced the incarceration of HIV-positive Haitians at Guantanamo Bay.

The event was sponsored by the Cornell University Program Board. “We hope that we’ve been able to draw visibility to an issue that many Cornellians care about, and that those in attendance found a good source of discourse from which they can draw their own conclusions,” said Craig Koester ’01, president of the CUPB, about the board’s decision to bring Prejean to campus.

The lecture impacted many of the students in attendance. “She was an incredible speaker,” said Rachel Altman ’02. “I tend to get bored when people speak for long periods of time, but I did not want to get up and leave at any point tonight.”

Prejean even changed one student’s opinion of the death penalty. “I never really had a concrete opinion on the death penalty,” said Gillian Klempner ’02. “She had such an effect on me that I signed a petition in there. That’s how much of an impact she had on me.”

“It was nice to see that someone with such an opinion on a controversial topic could present it in such a non-controversial way. This is missing in politics today. She wanted you to reflect on what she said, not to just take her viewpoint,” said Vincent Reina ’02.

Archived article by Seth Harris