Nun who wrote `Dead Man Walking' to speak in Notre Dame auditorium

Death penalty foe finds pope's stance heartening

February 03, 1999|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Sister Helen Prejean is about to embark on another friendship with an inmate on Louisiana's death row, a relationship that will likely culminate in accompanying the convicted murderer to his execution.

Prejean, who wrote of her ministry to death row inmates in "Dead Man Walking," a best-selling book made into a Hollywood film, has accompanied five inmates to their executions. It never gets easier.

"I just never get used to it because the death house has this surreal aspect to it, that everything seems so normal," Prejean says. "It's not like visiting someone in the hospital, where they're fading, they have a disease; their faculties are fully involved, and then they walk to this place and they're killed."

Prejean will speak at 8 p.m. today on her work with inmates, their families and the families of their victims at LeClerc Auditorium, College of Notre Dame of Maryland. Her talk is the first of a four-part lecture series called "Reaching for the Fullness of Life."

Prejean, who is outspoken about her opposition to the death penalty, says executions have become a way of life in many states, particularly those in the South. The selectivity of executions makes them patently unfair, she says: The victims tend to be white, the convicts minority and poor.

On Jan. 8, Prejean witnessed the execution of Dobie Gillis Williams, a man convicted of a 1984 murder.

Earlier this week, while on a plane to a Roanoke, Va., speaking engagement, she said she decided she would next become spiritual adviser to Manuel Ortiz, an immigrant from El Salvador who was convicted of hiring a hit man to kill his ex-wife and her boyfriend. Ortiz is at the beginning of the appeals process and has no execu- tion date set, a fact that figured into Prejean's decision.

Prejean said getting to know Ortiz earlier keeps her from having to witness another execution so soon.

"After going through this with Dobie, I took someone who is at the beginning of the process," she said. "I don't know, I guess that may be part self-preservation."

Prejean said she has no set criteria for determining whom she will counsel.

"Somehow we find each other," she said. "I have accompanied five people to execution, and each of them that I got to know along that road, was each of them unique, each of them different. There's not a generic death row inmate. Nor are they monsters, because when you meet them, you meet a human being who has more facets to them than the terrible crime that they did."

She also has no illusions about whom she is dealing with.

"It creates a kind of tension that you're in the presence of someone who you can never forget has done this terrible thing," she said.

She says that does not justify the taking of life by the state, a belief that Prejean says is rooted in her Roman Catholic faith.

In her quest to stop executions, she has gained an ally: Pope John Paul II, who last week in St. Louis called the death penalty "both cruel and unnecessary," and included it as a pro-life issue along with opposing abortion and euthanasia. John Paul persuaded the governor of Missouri to commute the death sentence of a man who had been scheduled to be executed during the pope's visit.

"It just delighted me. This was his fifth visit to the United States, and he never has spoken about the death penalty as one of the life issues before. This was a first," she said. "The reverberations of that are going to ripple all through the Catholic Church.

"Somebody like [Supreme Court Justice Antonin] Scalia, who's a Catholic and who goes for the death penalty every chance he gets, and who faithfully goes to Mass every week and who squares the death penalty with his faith, it's going to be harder for him now."

"He can say he's for the death penalty," Prejean said. And to justify it, "He can quote the way he interprets the Constitution. But not the Catholic faith."

Tickets for Prejean's lecture cost $15 and are available by calling 410-532-5371.

Pub Date: 2/03/99

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