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Tuesday, November 20, 2018

04-04 Columbia Tribune

Execution opponent spreads word

By TIM HIGGINS

Scum. Monsters.

The words roll easily off the tongues of some death-penalty advocates when describing the murderers they are so willing to execute. But Sister Helen Prejean says the moral battle over capital punishment involves concepts far more complex than simple rage. Tomorrow, she said, will mark exactly 16 years since the issue - and her mission - became so
clear to her.

After watching the execution of a man convicted of killing two teenagers in Louisiana, Prejean knew what she had to do, she told a packed house at the University of Missouri-Columbia's Middlebush Auditorium. "I got to tell the story. I am a witness," she said. "My mission was born there that night." Many members of the audience clutched Prejean's book - "Dead Man Walking" - as the Pulitzer and Nobel prize nominee spoke passionately about her cause for nearly two hours, capping a weeklong Journey of Hope organized by
Missouri opponents of the death penalty.
Tears dripped from Michelle Mirzoian's eyes as she listened to the nun, whose story was also captured in an Academy Award-winning movie based on her book. "There are real people on both sides of this issue," Mirzoian said. Prejean's story began nearly 20 years ago when she was working in a housing project in New Orleans. She was matched with a lonely pen pal, a prisoner named Patrick Sonnier at Louisiana's Angola State Prison. She wrote a letter. He responded. It turned out he was on death row. She became his spiritual adviser, and so began her foray into the world of "scripted death." Sonnier didn't look like the terrible killer Prejean had imagined. He looked like any man, she remembered. But she had read about his terrible crimes: A 17-year-old boy and an 18-year-old woman dead. The girl was raped; both were shot in the head. She met the victims' families. She met the murderer's mother. All had tormented souls, Prejean remembered. In 1984, Prejean watched Sonnier put to death in the electric chair. She remembers the ceiling fans that sucked the smell of sizzling flesh from the room. And she remembers the emptiness she felt afterward. "I couldn't believe it," she said.
Soon thereafter, her mission to abolish the death penalty began small. "I would talk to any group that would have taken me," she said. There were no crowds early on. She once spoke to three people at a nursing home, and two of them fell asleep. She began participating in marches to garner attention for her cause. Then she wrote her book, which fell into the hands of actress Susan Sarandon. "Let's make a movie," Sarandon said in a phone call. Jeff Stack, an organizer of the Journey of Hope and an ardent local opponent of the death penalty, said he was proud to have Prejean in Columbia this week. Yesterday, his group went to the Statehouse for a rally that attracted about 500 people.

Many of the speakers featured on the Journey of Hope tour lost loved ones to murderers but still fight the death penalty. Stack admires their commitment. But if his loved ones were murdered? "I hope I never have to cross that painful bridge," said the man who has protested dozens of executions. "I don't know what I would want."