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Life force

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A day with Sister Prejean

Prejean with students in Burns Library: "You rarely see rich people rotting on death row." Photo by Lee Pellegrini

Prejean with students in Burns Library: "You rarely see rich people rotting on death row." Photo by Lee Pellegrini

Dressed casually in dark slacks and a loose-fitting white-linen shirt, Helen Prejean, CSJ, walked into the wood-paneled Thompson Room on the second floor of Burns Library and, in her easy New Orleans drawl, began introducing herself. The 30 or so students who were there to meet her for lunch had already lined up for the buffet, so she walked down the length of it, shaking hands as if it were a receiving line. She assuaged shyness with quips and jokes: Southerners received approval for their accents; Bostonians were chastised for theirs; a student wearing a T-shirt with an anti-death-penalty slogan was asked to hold it taut to display its message. "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind," Prejean read aloud. "I like it."

The noted anti-death-penalty activist, Prejean had been in Australia, Texas, California, and North Carolina in the previous eight days, speaking before audiences and signing her new book, The Death of Innocents. On the evening of March 16, she was to deliver the Prophetic Voices of the Church Lecture sponsored annually by BC's Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life. Now she was going to spend an hour with a select group of students invited by the Boisi Center.

Plate in hand, Prejean surveyed the room's tables, then chose to sit at one already nearly filled with students. When everyone in the room was seated, she stood. "Our time together is precious," she said, "I'll start with a brief version of my story. Then I want to hear from you."

Prejean began with an account of her first visit, as a 42-year-old Sister of St. Joseph, to Patrick Sonnier on Louisiana's death row. Sonnier and his brother Eddie had brutalized and killed a teenage couple, each with shots to the back of the head. Eddie, who later admitted to pulling the trigger, is serving life in prison. Patrick Sonnier was executed by the state in 1984; Prejean's relationship with him was the focus of her first book, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States (1993).

"I had always held faith in the legal system. I figured people reaped what they sowed," said Prejean. But as she began to look more deeply into issues of crime and punishment and the circumstances of Sonnier's case, she discovered, she said, that "who lives and who doesn't" is not "just about guilt. . . . When I started spending time with poor people, I saw a direct path to death row," Prejean said, describing a route from hopelessness to drugs and crime to violence to murder and finally to the public defender. "You rarely see rich people rotting on death row."

When Prejean opened the floor to questions, Michael Del Ponte '05, a theology major and member of BC's Global Justice Project, an activist organization of students and faculty, asked her why she had chosen the death penalty as her mission. "There are so many other pressing social justice issues," he said.

"What I've discovered," she answered, is that the death penalty "is a paradigm for all violence"—for war, terrorism, street crime. "It doesn't work. It keeps us from looking at the underlying problems."

"What about the victims' families?" a young woman at a neighboring table followed up. "How do you balance your advocacy for prisoners with the grieving families?"

For Prejean, the answer was best told in a story. At a public appearance some years ago, she'd described Derrick Todd Lee, a Louisiana serial killer on death row. Every human being, even a serial killer, she'd said, is worth more than his worst act. A woman stood up in the front row and said, "My beautiful daughter was killed by Derrick Todd Lee, and I want to see him dead."

"I let her talk as long as she wanted," said Prejean, noting that years ago this encounter would have been her nightmare: "I was not always brave in the face of other people's pain. . . . I've learned you have to be able to stand in the presence of it." When the mother had finished speaking, Prejean said only this: "I don't think anyone in this room can understand the pain you're in now. And everyone can understand that you want him dead because of it."

The students too seemed to understand. "For most people, vengeance is the natural reaction," said Michael Hemak '05, a biochemistry major and a member of 4Boston, a student-run service organization sponsored by the Office of Campus Ministry. "But most of us don't act," he said, "so why do most people accept the death penalty?"

Prejean responded: "We live in little bubbles of people who are like us," she said. "When I talk to poor people and people of color, I just blow on the coals and they get how unjust the [capital punishment] system is. . . . As I get farther up the economic scale, I have to build a whole fire, starting with the twigs, and straw."

She cited Justice Thurgood Marshall, who called support of capital punishment "an unreflected opinion." "That is why I'm here today," she said. "And I'm betting, that is why you're here too."


PREJEAN'S evening lecture was set to begin at 7:00 p.m., and by 6:45 Robsham Theater's 600 seats were filled. Heather Gatnarek, a senior and member of the Community of Sant'Egidio, the Catholic prayer and service group that helped arrange Prejean's visit, introduced Prejean.

As she had at the student luncheon, Prejean leavened her message with humor, amped up a notch for the larger crowd. She began with the story of how Dead Man Walking, "a little book by a nun," made it to Hollywood. The actress Susan Sarandon, taken with the story, had contacted Prejean and asked if they could meet. "Now, I'd never seen any of her films, so I went out and rented Thelma and Louise," said Prejean. "The whole movie, I'm following Geena Davis's character, who, as you know, is that ditzy one who does all that stupid stuff. . . . So when Susan walks in, I said, 'Oh thank you, Jesus, she's Louise.'"

Then Prejean's tone grew serious. The film was not just a story about her work against the death penalty, she told the audience; it was a story about the power of finding your passion. "I thought it was enough just to pray for the poor. . . . It certainly was a lot easier." But there is no such thing as being apolitical, she said. Silence affirms the status quo. "To become impassioned was the best gift ever."

Afterwards Kevin Collins '05 described his reaction: "Sr. Prejean is an ordinary person who's made a choice to fight. I feel like she was telling us that's who we are, or who we could be." Then Collins added, "It's easy to separate yourself from the 'extraordinary' people out there. But it's also easy to get on board with ordinary people doing extraordinary things. It's inspiring."

Cara Feinberg

 

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