Sister Helen Prejean, the author of the bestselling book Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States and a nationally-known voice speaking against the death penalty, spoke to more than three hundred Nebraskans in St. Paul and Columbus last week.
Prejean, a Louisiana native and a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, spoke at Sts Peter and Paul Catholic Church in St. Paul on Wednesday evening and at the First United Methodist Church Christian Center in Columbus on Thursday.
Prejean also visited a speech class at Central Community College in Columbus on Thursday afternoon, where she shared advice about storytelling and public speaking in addition to talking about her personal journey to becoming an anti-death penalty activist.
Dead Man Walking is the account of Prejean’s experience as the spiritual adviser to Patrick Sonnier, a death row inmate who was executed by the state of Louisiana in 1984. During her time with Sonnier, Prejean also met the father of David LeBlanc, one of Sonnier’s victims, who told her that he had forgiven his son’s killer not because he condoned what he did, but because the hatred he had felt inside towards Sonnier was even more painful than his grief at losing his son.
“Maybe that is why Jesus says to love your enemies,” Prejean said.
After hearing from David’s father and witnessing Sonnier’s execution, Prejean was inspired to fight to end the death penalty in the United States.
“I was there. I was a witness. My job is to tell the story,” Prejean said. Her book was made into a critically-acclaimed film of the same name starring Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon in 1995.
Prejean used her personal story to demonstrate why she believes Nebraska and the rest of the United States need to do away with the death penalty for good.
“I’m going to say flat out: Nebraska doesn’t deserve the death penalty,” Prejean said.
Prejean reminded the audience of the racial bias and arbitrary nature of the death penalty system, pointing out that 80% of all executions take place in Southern states, such as her home state of Louisiana.
She also noted that the death penalty does not give justice or closure to victims' families, and that the system risks executing an innocent person. Prejean has served as the spiritual adviser for six death row inmates, including some that she believes were innocent of the crimes for which they were executed.
Prejean said that in her experience in the six states that have abolished the death penalty just within the past six years, the difference was always made by constituents letting their state representatives know that they stood behind them.
“When they know they have people behind them it gives them the moral strength to make the decision to help Nebraska to end this thing,” she said.
LB 543, a bill to repeal the death penalty in Nebraska, had the support of a majority of state senators in the past legislative session, but a filibuster prevented a vote from being taken on the bill. The bill will be discussed again at the beginning of the 2014 Legislative session in January.
Prejean’s visit to Nebraska was sponsored by Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, a non-profit organization working to replace the death penalty in Nebraska with life without the possibility of parole.