By Catherine O’Grady
Campus Ministry hosted Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States and vocal opponent of the death penalty, on Thursday evening in Caldwell Hall. Prejean’s presentation emphasized the dignity of all human life, even the lives of those people convicted of terrible crimes.
Prejean joined the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille in 1957 and moved to the St. Thomas Housing Project in New Orleans in 1982. It was there that she became pen-pals with Patrick Sonnier, a man on death row for the murder of two teenagers. Over time, Prejean became Sonnier’s spiritual director and was present for his execution by electric chair in 1984.
A few months later, Robert Lee Willie, another death row inmate, asked Prejean to be his spiritual director. It was her witness to the execution of these two men that sparked her passion to abolish the death penalty.
Prejean spoke about the dignity of all human life, innocent or guilty.
“Is there any dignity in taking a person and rendering him defenseless and killing him?” asked Prejean. “Is dignity only for innocent life? There is dignity even in those of us who have done a terrible crime.”
Prejean sat down to write Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States, which recalled her experience walking with Sonnier and Willie to their deaths, in 1994. In 1995, the book was turned into a film starring Susan Sarandon, a notable Catholic University alumna.
“I loved [Prejean],” said Carolyn Albright, a freshman Theology and Psychology major. “I thought she was incredible at putting the focus on the dignity of the criminal because even in their lowest points and darkest choices, they are still a human being in need of love. It is an important message and is super countercultural.”
Prejean’s book sparked a national debate on the death penalty, which has led her to engage with Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis, as well as people of all faiths and beliefs.
“Dignity isn’t just for innocents,” said Prejean. “Can people ever be identified solely with an action in their life?”
As of August 2018 and motivated by Prejean’s work, the Catechism of the Catholic Church has been revised under Pope Francis to declare the death penalty inadmissible under any circumstances.