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A life’s work on death row

Sister Helen Prejean visits with students in the "Human Rights in Global Perspective" class taught by Katy Crossley-Frolick.

Fighting for justice:

In 2011, Jim Petro ’70 told Denison Magazine: “I can accept the idea of the death penalty, but I get real antsy about the idea of a mistake.” Petro, the former Ohio Attorney General and former Chancellor for the Ohio Board of Regents, helped to reinstate the death penalty in Ohio in 1981 when he was a member of the Ohio House Judiciary Committee, but his feelings on the punishment have changed a bit since then. He still believes the death penalty should be a decision made by society, he told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in early 2012, but he wouldn’t vote in favor of it today, largely because his arguments in 1981 revolved around cost-savings and deterring criminals. “Neither of those things have occurred, so I ask myself, ‘Why would I vote for it again?'” Petro told the Dealer‘s Mark Naymik. “I don’t think I would. I don’t think the law has done anything to benefit society….”

Petro does pro bono work for the Ohio Innocence Project arguing the cases of those he believes to be wrongly convicted. He is also the co-author (along with his wife, Nancy Bero Petro ’70) of False Justice: Eight Myths That Convict the Innocent, a book that follows actual cases and outlines the problems within the system that can lead to the incarceration of innocent people, including false confessions and mistakes made by forensic scientists. The Petros hope the book will encourage debate over the criminal justice system and urge reform. For more on the Petros’ work, read “The Case of Inmate No. A246292” in Denison Magazine.

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.”

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