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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Sister Helen Prejean Delivers the 4th Annual Prophetic Voices of the Church Lecture

 

Event Recap

In a rare moment in the cacophony of college life, over 600 students packed into Robsham Theatre on the evening of March 16th and sat in absolute silence. The only voice was that of Sister Helen Prejean, world famous anti-death penalty activist and author of Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States and the recently released Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions (Random House, 2005). Sr. Helen, in a voice that moved her audience with its tones of weariness, sadness and struggle, narrated her witness to the last days and moments of Patrick Sonnier as he was put to death by electrocution in Angola State prison in Louisiana for the murder of two young teenagers. She spoke of how she was raised in a climate of upper middle class privilege and how she was eventually led through a series of small events and decisions to the role that she has today. She related in personal terms her prison ministry in the last months of Sonnier’s life as well as the pain and agony of the murder victims and their families. Her themes included the ways that Jesus led her down the path that she walks today and has called her as a witness to the inequality of the justice system in the United States. This witness included the writing of Dead Man Walking, its subsequent transformation into a movie, and now its re-birth as a play that can be performed by high school and college aged groups free of copyright fees in order to raise consciousness among young people about the morality of the death penalty.

She also spoke at length about her new book The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions (2005, Random House) in which she relates the stories of two men who she believes were wrongfully executed by an unjust system. One inmate, Dobie Gillis, had an IQ of 65 and was, she believes, incompetently represented by a defense that did nothing to challenge a prosecution based on speculation and conjecture. The other inmate, Joseph O’Dell, was convicted on the testimony of a “jailhouse snitch” who later admitted to lying. The larger message of these accounts is that the poor do not get the same justice as the wealthy which undermines the legitimacy of not just the death penalty but with the entire way that we view and treat “criminal acts” in this country.

The effort to bring Sr. Helen to this campus was coordinated and co-sponsored by the Community of Sant’Egidio in Boston which has an active group on the Boston College campus. The Sant’Egidio Community has had an ongoing involvement in raising consciousness about death penalty issues on campus and in the Boston area.