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Nun tells of her mission against death penalty

The Davis Enterprise, April 26, 2004

The details are painfully vivid as Sister Helen Prejean recalls the first execution she ever witnessed. She describes the death penalty as "surreal."

Guards shave the prisoner's head and eyebrows, dress him in a clean white T-shirt and cut off the left leg of his pants. They walk him into the chamber and behind the wall is the executioner, "paid $400 for the man he kills tonight." He pumps 1900 volts, lets the body cool, then pumps 500 volts and 1900 volts again. What had been a human being is now a corpse.

"It was 1984 and everyone thought the death penalty was fine ... my mission was born," Prejean said. "And I started talking to anyone who would listen to me."

One of the world's most prominent death penalty opponents and author of the Pulitzer-nominated book, "Dead Man Walking," Prejean shared her experiences at the Mondavi Center for Performing Arts at UC Davis on Friday night.

Her lecture was the 5th and final installment of the Distinguished Speakers' Series. During the introduction, Celeste Rose, vice chancellor of university relations, said next season's list of speakers, including Pulitzer Prize winning author Toni Morrison, will be announced May 5.

Prejean took the crowd on a journey from writing her first letter to a death row inmate to writing a book that was later made into an Oscar-winning movie starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn.

In her strong Louisiana accent, Prejean spoke passionately against the death penalty. She believes all life should be given a chance and should be treated with dignity.

"Killing is wrong," she said. "We have gassed, shot, hung, electrocuted and lethal injected 908 people (in the United States)."

Prejean urged audience members to ask themselves whether they could kill one of these prisoners, or whether they would have to hire another person to do it.

"What we need is to awaken our hearts in America that we don't need state-sanctioned death," Prejean said.

In 1981, she began a prison ministry and has since accompanied three men to the electric chair and witnessed their deaths.

Prejean said when she wrote to the 1st man and he wrote back, a connection between 2 human beings was created and she couldn't walk away. When he asked her to be his spiritual adviser, she agreed.

"I was scared -- ooh, was I scared. I'd never been in a prison before," Prejean said.

On that 1st visit, she remembers hearing the guards bring him down the hall. She recalls his voice, with a Cajun accent, and his chains and shackles dragging across the floor. When they brought him into the room, she looked through the mesh window and saw him for the 1st time -- the face of a death row prisoner, the worst of the worst.

"I was shocked at how human he looked," Prejean said. "What did I think? Did I expect a monster?"

Prejean read a newspaper article detailing the gruesome attack by the inmate, Patrick, and his brother.

"And now I know what they did and it's just unspeakable. This is every parent's worst nightmare. These kids go on a Friday night to a football game and they never come back," she said.

After the game, the boy and his girlfriend had driven out to lover's lane. Patrick and his brother approached the car with guns, told the couple they were trespassing and forced them to walk away from the car "to meet the property owner." The teens were later found with their faces down in the wet grass, shot in the back of the head. The girl had been raped.

"It was all so messed up," Prejean said.

Patrick's brother killed the 2 teenagers, but Patrick was the only one sentenced to death, Prejean said.

She later noted that only 2 % of convicted killers are given the death penalty and capital punishment is seldom sought when people of color are killed.

"We can't just say we're going to kill the killers sometimes," Prejean said.

Juries are instructed to give the death penalty only for the most heinous crimes. But, she said, every murder is a terrible crime that takes away a unique and irreplaceable human life.

Prejean said the death penalty is "about 98 % political symbolism."

For example, she said, New York Gov. George Pataki reinstated the death penalty in that state, saying capital punishment was needed to deter crime. Since then, only 6 people have been put on death row at a cost of $120 million, Prejean said.

Just think, she said, what could be done with $120 million to make a difference in children's lives, with the Head Start program or health care.

Prejean said California spends $5 billion on the prison system and that 50% of the prisoners are functionally illiterate.

Prejean said her home state of Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate. Prisons there have old folks homes and hospice programs, she said, because once a criminal is put in jail, they rarely come out.

"We're doing a throw-away system and building a bigger and bigger system of throwing them behind the walls," Prejean said.

And threatening them with death, she said, is not the answer.

"The death penalty doesn't make people feel remorse," Prejean said.

While Patrick was remorseful, another death row inmate, Robert, was not. The death penalty made him become tougher, trying to beat it.

"He winked at me from the electric chair when he sat in it," Prejean said.

In the movie of "Dead Man Walking," Prejean said the main character is a composite of the 1st 2 death row inmates that she met.

Prejean said Sarandon was reading her book and wanted to make it into a movie because it would take the American people on a deeper journey than most films.

"That's just a miracle that that happened," Prejean said.

"When you do a book, it's like a child; it has legs and goes wherever it wants to go," Prejean said.

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