Sister Helen Prejean shares her experience-based perspective of the death penalty with UO

This story was written by Emerald freelancer Hannah Golden. @@[email protected]@

Sister Helen Prejean’s@@ third speech at the University of Oregon, “Envisioning a More Compassionate America,” took place in the EMU Thursday evening. Her Louisiana drawl and witty sense of humor added to the classic image of a Roman Catholic sister.

Even more surprising is that Prejean tours around speaking out against the death penalty and abortion. She grew up in 1950’s Louisiana, lived through the Jim Crow Laws and, like many people, used to believe that convicts on death row were there by fault. But having spent years battling the court systems, she claims, “Culture gives us glasses,” and that faulty procedures and trials are shockingly common.

The events of Prejean’s life created her passionate crusade against capital punishment. Her journey began by serving as a minister to convicts in Louisiana; in all, Prejean stood by six convicts as they got the chair. This experience led her to author the bestselling book “Dead Man Walking,” which boasts 31 weeks on the bestseller list and has been made into an Academy Awards winning film.@@[email protected]@

Though a controversial subject, Prejean was clear on her position against capital punishment. Common people can’t see through prison walls, she argues. The death penalty is not secret, but in function, it is. She believes compassion is the way to combat the fact that the court system shuts away too many innocent people. But convincing people to think with compassion in regards to the death penalty presents what Prejean calls the Seesaw Fallacy: if you’re against the death penalty, you must therefore be against the victims of murder.

This also pressures the victim’s family to pursue capital punishment to avenge the victim’s death and seek justice. Anything less equates to not loving the victim enough. But she asks for compassion as a response to both sides of the seesaw.

Prejean also believes the death penalty is not just a moral question; most social problems, like race and poverty, are consumed by the issue.

More death sentences are sought in cases of a white victim and black criminal than a black victim and black criminal. Prejean chastises the U.S. Supreme Court, which acknowledged race as a factor in sentencing. According to her, the Court has refused to change the system to consider race in our law.

But Prejean says she sees “signs of awakening” across the country with more states limiting the death penalty’s scope and freedom. With this, Prejean foresees the day when electric chairs are the stuff of history museums.

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