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Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Nun Taking the Journey
By Mary Fox

It was the start of the Journey of Hope. The journey would contain talks on abolishing the death penalty and talks on forgiveness.
Speakers would be people whose family members are on death row and people whose family members were murdered.
The talks are being given, through June 19, in rallies and churches, in small gatherings and large, across three states. Michigan City was Saturday’s target, with a rally across from the Indiana State Prison. Although the campaign has moved on, a couple of its speakers remained in town today for appearances at local schools.
Before any of the speeches were made, about 20 participants filled a house last week. They were from Minnesota, where there is no death penalty; Texas; Michigan; and even Sweden and Britain.
The people in the room had journeyed more than miles. Many had journeyed through courtrooms. Some had imprisoned family members. Some had been victimized. Some just wanted an end to capital punishment.
In such a surrounding, the author of Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States” envisioned her book for the first time.
Sister Helen Prejean, of Louisiana, called her book “a journey of the heart.”
It tells the story of a nun who was not impressed when her order, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille, decided to stand with the poor. It tells how she changed her mind, began to work for the poor and was prompted to correspond with a death row inmate.
She became Patrick Sonnier’s spiritual adviser, helped him fight to live, watched him apologize and die.
Before the end of the book, she would witness two more executions.
She would establish friendships with the victims. She would learn that she could be friends with people on both sides of the issue.
But more importantly, she would learn about their pain and what they needed from others.
In the book, she tells how victims’ families still need people to listen, how their friends are uneasy and abandon them. They also need to know the legal system. She tells of the pain caused when the system does not keep them informed of developments in cases. She tells how families sometimes are not told when an arrest is made.
The reader meets the men of death row whom Prejean befriended. It is easier to empathize with Sonnier than with some of the others.
Through the words of a guard, the reader learns that Sonnier “wouldn’t eat when he first got here. He didn’t sleep much. The guy was eaten up by what he did.”
In the book, Sonnier says, “Every night when they dim the lights on the tier, I kneel by my bunk and pray for those kids and their parents. Nobody was supposed to get killed.”
The book alleges the system that metes out the death penalty is corrupt. The reader meets Howard Marsellus, who had served as chairperson of the Pardons Board in Louisiana under Gov. Edwin Edwards. Marsellus tells of his guilt. He was sure that at least one man whose case came before him was innocent. He still recommended the death penalty. He was a team Player.
“I chose loyalty above integrity.”
He watched that man die, and then cried on the way home.
In an interview, Prejean said she wrote her book assuming the readers would be for the death penalty.
“Revenge. They deserve it. Look what they did.”
“Justice to victims demands it.”
“You can’t trust prisons. They’ll let them out and they’ll kill again.”
None of these hold water with Prejean.
Revenge, she said, does not work. Watching their daughter’s murderer did not ease the pain of a family in “Dead Man.”
“You can watch a person die a million times and you still have to deal with your grief.” It’s a desultory answer to their grief.”
Prejean would like some people to be imprisoned the rest of their lives. Most states, she said, have provisions for true-life imprisonment or long-term sentences.
“And we need that assurance,” she said. “I need that assurance, too. I’m as scared of crime as anyone else. It’s terrible.
Prejean said it troubles her that so many religious people are for the death penalty. It is her belief that that is a contradiction of the essence of Jesus.
The message that “Jesus taught, both in his life and death, is that the love is stronger than hate. And that compassion is stronger than vengeance,” she added.