Providence (R.I.) Journal, April 17, 1999:
Sister Helen Prejean speaks at Brown University
It all began innocently enough. A friend, says Sister Helen Prejean,
asked her to write some letters to a convicted killer sitting on death row.
Sure, she replied, not knowing that it would eventually cause her to
start making trips to Angola State Prison, 2 1/2 hours from New Orleans, to meet Patrick Sonnier, a man everyone said should die.
Nor did she know then that, when it came Sonnier's turn to be executed, she'd be there standing before him, looking directly into his eyes.
"Look at me," she told him in their final moments together. "I will be
the face of Christ for you."
Yesterday, Sister Prejean, who has become internationally famous as a
result of actress Susan Sarandon's portrayal of her in the movie Dead
Man Walking, looked into the eyes of an audience of 750 people at Brown University's Salomon Center and, in a sweet Louisiana accent, spoke in personal terms why she believes the death penalty needs to be abolished.
She spoke about redemption and healing, and about racism and a craving
for vengeance that can poison a soul.
"Saying you can protect human life with capital punishment is like
putting kerosene on a fire," she said. "When you let the government
kill people, you undermine the idea that killing is morally wrong."
If Sister Prejean was looking for some converts yesterday, she
apparently found a few.
Her lecture yesterday -- which came under the auspices of both the
annual K. Brook Anderson Lecture and the Providence Journal/Brown University Public Affairs Series, "One Nation Under God? Spiritual Life in America" -- mesmerized her audience.
Priya Motaparthy, 18, of North Carolina, a Brown freshman, said she had just rushed out of economics class to hear Sister Prejean's talk and hadn't expected to react to it in such an emotional way.
Wiping away a tear, Motaparthy said the lecture took away her
ambivalence about capital punishment. She was now against it. "It was a weird feeling. I just wanted to go up and hug her. She made me think not just about the death penalty, but about other ways of being human."
Natasha Korgaonkar, 18, of Worcester, another freshman, said she had
been required to read Sister Prejean's book, Dead Man Walking, last year in high school, and that it had changed her opinion on the whole issue. Of the nun's visit yesterday, she said: "I was never so moved so much in my life. She's an amazing person."
Rita Michaelson, the wife of former attorney general Julius C.
Michaelson, said she thought the nun's talk was the most powerful one
she had heard in Brown's halls in all her years of coming to lectures at the university.
Sister Prejean, who was nominated last year for the Nobel Peace Prize
and who turns 60 next week, broke the ice yesterday by recounting how the movie, based on her book, came to be.
She said she received a phone call from actress Sarandon, telling her
how she was looking for "substantive" roles to play and found one in her book. Meeting the actress, she said, she quickly saw that Sarandon was serious, and that she wasn't going to turn her story into something akin to Sister Act or The Flying Nun.
But it took several more months, Sister Prejean recounted, before
Sarandon was able to convince her spouse, Tim Robbins, to read the book.
When he did, the two pushed to have the movie made, overcoming the
rejections of every major studio in Hollywood.
"The studios didn't believe that you could have a box office success
with a story about a nun and an inmate," Sister Prejean said of the
film, for which Sarandon went on to win the Academy Award for Best
Actress. "But people still flock to see the movie or to rent the video.
2 weeks ago it was on Russian television.
"I believe there's a spiritual impetus in something that has truth in
it. It cuts people real deep."
Sister Prejean, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille since 1957, has lectured widely in the last 14 years, counseling numerous death row inmates. She has been witness to at least 6 executions.
The reason Americans are so willing to accept capital punishment, she
said, is because it is usually put forth in the abstract, and usually
in response to a heinous crime that provokes outrage.
Those convicted of heinous crimes are frequently referred to as
"vermin" or "monsters," all as part of an effort to dehumanize them
and make it that much easier to eradicate them, she said.
But if Americans had a chance to reflect deeply on what's really going
on, she said, support for the death penalty in this country would
"The politicians can make great speeches about why we need the death
penalty, but when the time comes to kill, it's not the politicians who
are there to administer the legal injection or to pull the switch. The
job usually falls to 12 or so hired hands, the guards and people who
strap them down."
Would she favor having executions televised, a student asked. Yes, she
replied. "As long as the death penalty is abstract, it's easier to do
it. The people who are most opposed to TV coverage are those who are
most in favor of the death penalty. I believe when the death penalty is brought closer to the people, it will hasten the day when it will end."
The nun saluted Rhode Island for being one of the few states that have
refused to adopt a death penalty. "In Rhode Island you have had the
wisdom not to go down that road."
She predicted that in time the death penalty will fall in America, as it is falling elsewhere. A United Nations resolution calling for a
moratorium on the death penalty, she observed, was endorsed by 109
nations. The last time the issue came to a vote, she said, the United
States found itself in the "uncomfortable" position of voting with
Iran, Iraq, and China -- while most of the nations of the world,
including the countries of the former Soviet Union, voted for the
Earlier yesterday, Sister Prejean spoke at an informal Bible reflection with 25 priests, nuns and ministers at Manning Chapel, where she was asked what she thought about a jury's decision to impose the death sentence on John William King, a white man convicted in the dragging death of a black man, James Byrd Jr., in Jasper, Tex.
While that case was an exception to the rule that white people don't get the death penalty for killing blacks, it was still wrong, the nun said.
In that case, she said, there's a danger that it could be held up high
by death penalty advocates to "prove" that justice is even-handed.
At the end of yesterday's lecture at Salomon, a Brown employee went to
the microphone to say that during her college years she was abducted and raped.
"I believed in the death penalty after that," she said. "I thought it
would make me free."
But, after years of being consumed by feelings of vengeance, she said,
"I read your book. It changed me and freed me."
She said studies are now coming out that show that "forgiveness is
better and that vengeance makes you sick. I can tell you, Sister, from
my experience it's true."
Sister Prejean concluded the session and stepped into the audience,
where the 2 embraced.