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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Anti-death penalty activist stuns crowd

Published: February 7, 2014
Section: News

By the time Sister Helen Prejean, renowned anti-death penalty activist and New York Times bestselling author, stepped back from the podium to take questions from the more than 200 people gathered in Levin Ballroom Thursday night, she was talking to a different audience. The event, presented by the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism and 12 other cosponsors as part of this year’s ’DEIS Impact festival, began with the trailer for “Dead Man Walking,” the Oscar-winning film based on Sister Prejean’s bestseller of the same name.

Schuster Institute founder Florence Graves then took the stand to introduce “perhaps the most famous nun in the United States” before Sister Prejean herself was given the microphone. At this point the crowd of students, faculty and guests had an idea of what they were in for. Not 20 minutes before, they had all feasted on the buffet of cookies, cider and other refreshments and were chatting with each other and holding brochures for the event. When Prejean was ready for questions an hour and a half later, the emotional weight and value of her story had been fully absorbed by the crowd. Some were crying. Others simply sat in the silence and awe.

Prejean began her presentation by speaking her admiration for Brandeis as a university centered in social justice. “You drew me here because of what Brandeis is as a university,” Prejean said, telling the crowd that she still reads the famed Justice’s work for guidance in her activism. Prejean then went into her complete story, from growing up in the privileged suburbs of New Orleans as a Sunday School teacher to the writing of “Dead Man Walking” to today. She described how she first found social activism after “waking up to the Jesus that supported justice as well as just being nice” and learning from the poor black residents of the St. Thomas projects, where she lived.

One day in St. Thomas, Prejean was approached by the head of the local prison coalition to volunteer as a pen pal to death row inmates, and she agreed. After several letters with a specific prisoner, Prejean eventually visited, and “[I] saw in his eyes that he was just a human being.” It was after this meeting that Prejean became the spiritual advisor to several more inmates, including the Sonnier brothers, who became the subjects of her book. “Culture says that [the death penalty] is just what we do,” said Prejean. “Some people are just bad and we need to kill them to exercise our laws, which are just. But how is it that 80 percent of these bad people are executed in the 10 southern states that practiced slavery?” It was soon after the book was released that Prejean received a call from Susan Sarandon, who went on to win an Oscar for her portrayal of Prejean in the “Dead Man Walking” film, directed by Tim Robbins.

Prejean’s most effective story was that of the father of one of the Sonnier Brothers’ victims. Prejean told the audience how she had expected him to be angry with her for challenging the seeking of the death penalty for the men who had murdered his only son. However, the father joined Prejean in her fight against capital punishment, as “he’d seen that killing wouldn’t change anything.” She also brought up other examples of grieving parents who had felt pressure from district attorneys and communities to seek the death penalty to somehow “prove” that they had loved their children.

She also went into the stories of prison executioners who had suffered from depression because of their jobs. She asked the audience, “What is it when you purposefully kill a completely defenseless person?” Prejean then took several questions from visibly affected students, encouraging them to find their own causes. “You have to walk to make your path,” Prejean concluded. “I know that y’all will do that and change our world for the better.”

2/10/14: Correction was made in order to reflect the number of guests in attendance at event.