The New Abolitionist

by Betty Gabrielli

When the Newman Campus Ministry announced it was bringing the author of Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States to Oberlin, the talk's location had to be changed three times.By the time Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, stepped onto the stage, students and others from as far as Cincinnati and Michigan packed Hall Auditorium to near capacity.

"We are all more than our worst acts," said Sister Helen while acknowledging the outrage such crimes make us feel and describing the pain of victims' families as well as that of the first man she accompanied to execution.

She connected her listeners to "the protocol of death" leading to the execution and the reality of the prisoner in his final moment. "Before the mask was put over his face, his eyes found my face. And it was a human look. It was a look that said, 'I am a human being, like you.' I carry his look to you tonight."

Sister Helen also chronicled her journey from privileged life as a suburban nun to a globe-circling activist.

"When we get involved in things, God takes us step by step. He doesn't give us a big old search-light to scan the end of the road, but, step by step, our hearts begin to be ruled with passion at all the suffering and injustice."

The realization that U.S. prisons "are a form of legalized slavery" led her in 1993 "to witness the truth" about the death penalty in her book. Speaking engagements proliferated, but it was the 1995 Academy-award winning film adaptation, starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, that caused the quantum leap of interest in her work.

Today the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize nominee spends 20 days each month crisscrossing "America, Europe, Japan, wherever that look takes me," speaking with humor, empathy, and a shrewd grasp of the criminal justice system. And the one point Sister Helen never fails to make haunts long after she's gone:

"If you feel outrage at the terrible crimes these people have done, and you think they should be executed, you've got to ask yourself one very important question -- are you willing to kill him?

"If you're not, you've got to hire somebody else to do it for you. And that means a part of you is not really square with this fate, that really doesn't want it."

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