When nun talks, people live: Sister Prejean comes to town

News-DemocratMarch 26, 2014 

Sister Helen Prejean could have faded out of public view after Susan Sarandon starred in "Dead Man Walking," a 1995 movie about her work with prisoners on death row.

Not a chance.

The 74-year-old Catholic nun is as fired up as ever in her fight against the death penalty. She gives about 65 talks a year all over the country, lobbies public officials and continues with her prison ministry in Louisiana. She is writing her third book.

"I've been a little spark in the fire," she said of the six states, including Illinois, that have abolished the death penalty since 2007.

Prejean consulted with Gov. Pat Quinn about his decision on whether to make the law retroactive to include prisoners already on death row.

She called him "a principled man."

"Governors don't meet with me unless they are open-minded and following their consciences," she said. "If they have made a political decision, they don't let this nun get within 400 feet of them."

Prejean was speaking by phone from California last week. She will present two lectures today on the death penalty and social justice at Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville.

Prejean argues that the death penalty goes against New Testament teachings and that it is disproportionately applied to minorities and the poor.

"Poor people often get a poor defense," she said. "They can't afford a good lawyer. The truth doesn't come out at trial."

Prejean's talks are titled "Dead Man Walking -- The Journey Continues." They will be held at 2 p.m. in the Main Complex theater and 7 p.m. in the varsity gym.

Prejean also will sign books (available for purchase). The talks are free and open to the public, but seating is limited. People can make reservations at swic.edu/rsvp.

The college is hosting Prejean as part of its Women's History Month celebration, known as Herstory.

"We are delighted to have her come to SWIC," said philosophy professor Katherine Witzig, co-chair of the planning committee. "It's very timely with all the execution activity in Missouri, one a month for the past five months."

Herstory is designed to showcase the accomplishments of women and encourage people to make a difference in their communities.

This month, SWIC incorporated discussions and exercises on the death penalty in philosophy, political science, English, sociology, public speaking and psychology classes.

Students and faculty also will perform the stage version of "Dead Man Walking" at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday in the theater.

"I think it's less about the death penalty and more about people dealing with violence and trauma," said director Emily Kelly-Padden, an adjunct communications instructor.

Characters fall into three groups: a prisoner on death row and his support system; the victim's family and prison staff.

Play admission is free. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. both nights, but Kelly-Padden recommends people arrive at 6 p.m. to be guaranteed a seat.

"I like the story," she said. "I like the emotion. I like the theoretical convergence of these people dealing with the same event in different ways."

Prejean is a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph in New Orleans. In the mid-1980s, she agreed to correspond with Patrick Sonnier, a death-row inmate in Louisiana, and became his spiritual adviser.

Prejean wrote her first book, "Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States," after witnessing his execution. Sarandon's partner, Tim Robbins, wrote the movie screenplay and later the play script.

"I worked with them on every scene and every line (of the movie)," Prejean said. "Susan Sarandon was the one who made that happen. She read the book."

In recent years, Prejean has expanded her arguments against the death penalty to include figures on death-row inmates who have been exonerated and studies showing it doesn't reduce crime.

She calls the death penalty a "human-rights issue."

"No one should be killed," she said. "No governor should be able to decide who can live and who can die."

These days, Prejean is focused on the case of Manuel Ortiz, a New Orleans man convicted in 1992 of hiring someone to kill his wife to get her life-insurance money. The wife's friend was murdered in the process.

Ortiz's supporters claim the case included prosecutorial misconduct, withheld evidence and a confession by the real killer.

"(Ortiz) is absolutely innocent," Prejean said. "And he is going on 21 years on death row."

At a glance

What: "Dead Man Walking" events as part of Herstory celebration

Where: Southwestern Illinois College, 2500 Carlyle Ave. in Belleville

Talks: Sister Helen Prejean will speak at 2 p.m. in the Main Complex theater and 7 p.m. in the varsity gym today

Play: SWIC students and faculty will perform the stage play "Dead Man Walking" at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday in the theater

Admission: Free for all events

Information: Visit fac.swic.edu/herstory

Reservations: To reserve a seat for one of Prejean's talks, go to swic.edu/rsvp

Belleville News-Democrat is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service