[custom-field name=”aside” cssclass=”right-aside”]While living and working in a poor area of New Orleans in 1982, Sister Helen Prejean began exchanging letters with Elmo Patrick Sonnier, a death row inmate at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. She became Sonnier’s spiritual adviser and eventually accompanied him to his execution in 1984.
Initially, Prejean had no idea how deeply she would become involved in challenging the death penalty. “I just had to put my boat in the current and go,” she said.
She wrote about her experiences with Sonnier and other death row inmates in Dead Man Walking, which served as the basis for an Oscar-winning film in 1995. She published her second book, The Death of Innocents, in 2004. Since Sonnier, Prejean has accompanied five other men to their deaths.
A Catholic nun and self-proclaimed southern storyteller, Prejean spoke in Slayter earlier this week to share her stories of counseling inmates and victims’ families and to advocate against the death penalty. The impact of Prejean’s work was particularly evident in three of the attendees: Joe D’Ambrosio, Derrick Jamison, and Dale Johnson—all exonerated Ohio death row inmates.
During her two-day stay in Granville, Prejean participated in three classes and also met with student groups, faculty, local priests and pastors, and an Ohio high school class for further discussion. For Jack Shuler, assistant professor of English, Prejean’s visit offered a meaningful contribution to his class, “Dead Man Walking: Executions in America,” which examines the history of executions in the U.S. and addresses the controversy surrounding the death penalty today. It is the only course of its kind in the country.
Prejean sat down with Shuler’s students and talked about the trajectory of her activism.”It was monumental that we were able to have her speak to us,” says Alexis Gothberg ’13, an English major and theatre minor from Rye, N.Y. “It highlights the social and political importance of this class.”
Her visit to campus is part of the 2013 Innocence Tour, which is sponsored by Ohioans to Stop Executions (OTSE), a group that urges citizens to challenge the justice system. Prejean was invited to Denison as part of the Spectrum Series, celebrating this year’s theme of “Creativity & Courage,” in collaboration with the Goodspeed Lecture Series.
For those looking to join the campaign against the death penalty, Prejean explained that education is the place to start. “This is a common road,” she said. “Whether you step inside a church or not, it is human rights. It’s dignity for everyone.”