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Saturday, December 14, 2019

06-07 Gary Post-Tribune

Nun: Death Penalty’s ‘Random…Vengeance’
By Mark Taylor

Sister speaks out against the punishment that she considers inhumane

Dune Acres – Helen Prejean’s shirt told the story.
“Abolish the death penalty,” the legend read. “Just do it.”
That’s why the nationally known Catholic nun was so far from her Louisiana home: to urge an end to capital punishment in Indiana.
Since 1982 Prejean, a member of the Medaille has been a lonely voice in the abolitionist wilderness, spanning the country to preach against the inhumanity of killing people who have killed people.
Prejean spoke Sunday to a small group of abolitionists gathered in the home of Helen Boothe. She also read from her soon-to-be published book, “Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death penalty in the United States.”
Prejean, who marched at the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City Saturday, was part of a local two-week anti-death penalty effort called the Journey of Hope. The effort was sponsored by Amnesty International, the Indiana Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation.
“Sister Helen was the inspiration for the Journey of Hope,” said Bill Pelke of Portage, a Bethlehem Steel worker, abolitionist and grandson of Ruth Pelke.
Ruth Pelke was a Glen Park grandmother whose 1985 murder captured international headlines when her killer, Gary ninth-grader Paula Cooper, 15, was sentenced to death for the crime.
Prejean said her journey began when her order took a stand to be on the side of the poor and work toward social justice. At the urging of a friend, she wrote a letter to a death-row inmate, Patrick Sonnier, at the Louisiana State Penitentiary.
I didn’t know then how it would change my life,” said the short woman with salt and pepper hair and owlish glasses. “I came from a sheltered environment and wasn’t prepared for this.”
She became friends with Sonnier and witnessed his execution. “I discovered I had this strength.”
Prejean has since ministered other death-row inmates and the families of some of their victims.
It’s also drawn national attention, media exposure that at first was not welcomed by her religious order.
“Some sisters had questions,” she said. “But they have been very supportive.”
Although Prejean is opposed to the death penalty, she supports life sentences without the possibility of parole for heinous crimes, particularly first-degree murder.
“Serious crimes do merit serious punishment,” she said. “People need to feel safe. But when people are educated about the death penalty, support for it drops.”
She said the death penalty is applied randomly and arbitrarily. Of the 25,000 homicides last year, she said only 200 were punished by death penalty sentences.
“The death penalty has nothing to do with solving crime,” she said. “It is a random act of vengeance. It’s almost always used against poor people and frequently against people who kill white people.