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Sr. Prejean Calls for Citizens to "Raise Their Voices" Against the Death Penalty.
October 29, 2008


Marymount President James E. Bundschuh presents the Marymount University Ethics Award to Sister Helen Prejean. Click on the photo to download a full-size version (255 KB JPEG file).


Sister Helen Prejean signs one of her books for Asia Little '10, a Marymount Fashion Design major from Mount Vernon, NY. Click on the photo to download a full-size version (366 KB JPEG file).

Arlington, Virginia -- On October 27, Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, author of Dead Man Walking and The Death of Innocents, spoke to a packed auditorium at Marymount University, where she received the Marymount University Ethics Award, presented in recognition of her work as an author and activist in opposition to the death penalty.

Sister Prejean stressed that capital punishment is a moral and ethical issue that people of good conscience cannot ignore. "Most people haven't thought about it much," she pointed out. "We don't know those on death row."

She noted that the administration of capital punishment in the United States is inconsistent and often hinges on how people of different races and socio-economic classes are valued by society. Ninety percent of those on death row are poor, and many experienced violence and abuse as children. Sister Prejean emphasized, "Jesus was on the side of the poor, disenfranchised, and ignored." She added, "We must have a consistent ethic of life…. Even those who have done crimes have a dignity that should not be taken away."

Sr. Prejean is asking others, and notably Catholics, to join her in the mission to abolish capital punishment. She wants to build on Pope John Paul II's appeal for "a consensus to end the death penalty." "I invite you to get involved," she urged the Marymount audience. "There are 65 million Catholics in the United States. That moral force could end the death penalty… If we are silent, we are complicit. Where there is injustice, we can't be neutral."

Dead Man Walking, based on Sr. Prejean's ministry with death-row inmates Patrick Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie in Louisiana, became an Academy Award-nominated film and opera. The book outlines her journey and her mission. Sister Prejean explained that she did not initially reach out to the victims' families, thinking that they would not want to talk with her, the spiritual advisor to those who killed their loved ones. But when she did speak with the families, she discovered that they felt isolated, pressured, and torn over death-penalty sentences. As a result of these interactions, Sister Prejean founded Survive, an advocacy group for the families of murder victims. She believes that these families "need the arms of the community around them."

Sr. Prejean recounted her conversations with Lloyd LeBlanc, the father of one of Sonnier's victims, David LeBlanc, who was 17 when he was murdered. While at first LeBlanc was filled with rage and wanted to kill Sonnier himself, she said that he told her, "After David's death, people said I had to be for the death penalty, but I didn't like the way it made me feel." LeBlanc would later take Sonnier's mother a basket of fruit and tell her that she was not to blame. "Forgiveness is strength," said Sr. Helen. "It's not letting the love within us be overcome by hate…. It's about us and how we respond."

During the question-and-answer session following Sister Prejean's presentation at Marymount, an audience member raised the case of Justin Wolfe, who is on death row in Virginia. His mother, Terri Steinberg, was in the Marymount audience. Troubling aspects of Wolfe's case include post-conviction affidavits swearing to his innocence that were said to be "too late," and the fact that his lawyer was eventually disbarred. The case is currently under appeal. "Death is too absolute," stated Sr. Helen. "We make mistakes."

Throughout her presentation, Sister Prejean kept returning to the dignity of human life. She acknowledged, "It's harder to advocate for someone who has crossed the line…. Our society is polarized and says we have to choose one side or the other…. But we must be on the side of life and for the dignity of life in all situations."

The Marymount University Ethics Award honors individuals who have taken an outstanding leadership role in promoting and developing ethical standards and behavior. Sponsored by the University's Center for Ethical Concerns, the award recognizes men and women whose commitment and example provide an ethical model for others. Previous recipients include Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, South Africa, and 1984 Nobel Peace Prize recipient; Carol R. Taylor, RN, MSN, PhD, director of the Georgetown University Center for Clinical Bioethics; Ben Bradlee, vice president at large for The Washington Post; and the late Sir John M. Templeton, financier and philanthropist.