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Search The Fig Tree's stories of people who make a difference:

Death penalty abolition advocate seeks to inspire action

Sister Helen Prejean
Sister Helen Prejean

Sr. Helen Prejean, CSJ, was recently in Spokane, telling of her ministry with six death-row inmates and advocating ending the death penalty. 

The event included the one-act play, “Dead Man Walking,” performed by students from Gonzaga, Whitworth, Washington State Universities and Rogers High School.

For 20 years, Sr. Helen has offered the opportunity as part of her journey to educate people on the death penalty.

“I befriend people who are sent to death and hold them in unconditional love,” she said.

“Society justifies killing those who have killed as retribution for families of victims, but Jesus’ message is that love is stronger than hate, and compassion is stronger than retribution,” Sr. Helen said.

“It is a broken, flawed system, that claims the government and courts are God’s agents, yet prosecutors are more likely to seek the death penalty in election years,” she has observed.

Sr. Helen told of her experience with Matthew Ponselet, portrayed in the play.  He was the first person she accompanied.  She had never been involved in anything like it.  She was terrified.

“I went into the restroom in the death house to pray,” she said.  “I knew if he fell apart, I’d fall apart, too, as I walked with him to his death.”

She said two she accompanied to their deaths were innocent.

Sr. Helen said that over time, Pope John Paul and Catholic teachings proclaimed opposition to the death penalty.  Even the catechism has changed.

“It’s ethical to be outraged over killing innocent people,” she said.  “Those I accompanied to their deaths were not heroes, but they were human beings.”

She has been involved with guards and executioners, too.

Hollywood at first turned down the screenplay for “Dead Man Walking,” because there was a nun in it, she said.  Susan Sarandan won an Oscar for playing her.

“We each must do our bit to transform people,” said Sr. Helen.

“Some do not even know that we still have the death penalty,” she said.  “We have a job to do, because we are a democracy.  If we are not working to change the law, we are complicit.  I invite people to deeper reflection and to work with people to end the death penalty and make Washington a “life” state.”

For those concerned about safety, she said people who kill can be sentenced to life without parole.

Local groups working to end the death penalty, including Safe and Just Alternatives/Washington, Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and the Fellowship of Peace, organized the event.

For information, call 230-3017.

Copyright © November 2013 - The Fig Tree