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Dead Man Walking author to speak Nov. 1

Sister Helen Prejean

Sister Helen Prejean, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Death Row spiritual advisor and celebrated author of Dead Man Walking, will come to Lehigh on Nov. 1 to discuss her belief that capital punishment is immoral.

Her talk, which is free and open to the public, will be at 7:30 p.m. in Packard Lab Auditorium.

The event is being co-sponsored by the university Chaplain’s office, with support from the Visiting Lectures Committee.

"We are honored to have Sister Helen Prejean, come to Lehigh,” says Lloyd Steffen, University Chaplain and religion studies professor who has also written about the death penalty in his book, Executing Justice: The Moral Meaning of the Death Penalty.

Prejean’s involvement with the death penalty is “spiritual and deeply personal, but she is also concerned with justice and appeals to all people of good will to reflect on how the capital justice system works and doesn't work.”

As someone who has seen many of the flaws of the criminal justice system up close, Prejean is able to recount stories that provoke the most serious ethical questions about state killing and the execution of the innocent, Steffen says.

“Prejean is often called 'the preeminent witness to our most persistent barbarism' because she can translate the injustices associated with the death penalty—especially its racism and its preferential option for the poor—into a searing testimony people will not be able to forget."

A life dedicated to the poor

Prejean began her prison ministry in 1981, when she dedicated her life to the poor of New Orleans. It was at this point in her life when she began communicating with Patrick Sonnier, the convicted killer of two teenagers, who was sentenced to die in the electric chair of Louisiana's Angola State Prison.

Upon Sonnier's request, Prejean visited him as his spiritual advisor, and gained a disturbing insight into the Louisiana execution process.

Her account of this period of her life is retold in her award-winning book, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States, which was ultimately nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. It remained on the New York Times bestseller list for 31 weeks, and has been translated into 10 different languages.

In 1996, the book was developed into a major motion picture starring Susan Sarandon—who turned in an Oscar-winning performance as Prejean—and Sean Penn as a death row inmate. In total, the movie received four Oscar nominations: Sarandon for best actress, Tim Robbins for best director, Penn for best actor, and Bruce Springsteen for best song.

Prejean’s experiences and insights have been the subject of numerous print and broadcast media stories and reviews in the U.S., Canada, Spain, Holland, England, Scotland, France and Australia. They include a profile in the New York Times magazine, as well as appearances on 60 Minutes, NBC’s Today Show, ABC’s World News Tonight; BBC World Service Radio, NPR, and Frontline on PBS.

Fifteen years after beginning her crusade, the Roman Catholic sister has witnessed five executions in Louisiana and today educates the public about the death penalty by lecturing, organizing and writing. As the founder of "Survive," a victim's advocacy group in New Orleans, she continues to counsel not only inmates on death row, but the families of murder victims, as well.

She presently is the honorary chairperson of the Moratorium Campaign, a group gathering signatures for a world-wide moratorium on the death penalty. In 2000, the group presented U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan with 2.5 million signatures from people all over the world who are calling for a moratorium on the death penalty.

For more information about the talk, please call (610) 758-3877.

--Linda Harbrecht

Posted on Tuesday, October 31, 2006

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