NEW YORK—Bringing her campaign against the death penalty to Fordham University on April 23, Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J., the author of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated book Dead Man Walking (Random House, 1993), challenged an audience in the McNally Amphitheatre to join the growing national discourse examining the injustices of capital punishment.
Sister Prejean cited polls that show a decline in support for the death penalty and pointed to the re-examination of capital punishment laws in New Mexico, New Jersey and New York, as evidence of the nation’s changing views.
“It is not a moral peripheral issue; it’s at the heart of our society,” said Sister Prejean. “We have to look at our society [and ask]what kind of justice is this … what kind of healing is this?”
Sister Prejean came face to face with those questions while serving as the spiritual adviser during the early 1980s to Patrick Sonnier, a death-row inmate in Louisiana. Since then, she has made it her life’s mission to speak out about what she saw and felt the night of his execution in hopes of convincing others to work for the abolition of the death penalty. In 1993, she published Dead Man Walking , a firsthand account of her experiences with Sonnier while he was on death row.
“A book is a special way of having discourse,” said Sister Prejean. “You’re using your imagination and emotions to take a spiritual journey to get closer to the issue.”
That spiritual journey led Sister Prejean into collaboration with Tim Robbins, who in 1995 wrote and directed a major motion picture based on her book. The film version of Dead Man Walking garnered several Academy Award nominations, and Susan Sarandon won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Sister Prejean.
“It’s all about the discourse,” said Sister Prejean, noting that 1.3 billion people watched Sarandon receive her award and that the book became a national bestseller after the movie was released.
Sister Prejean’s visit to Fordham coincided with the Fordham University theatre department’s production of Tim Robbins’ new theatrical adaptation of Dead Man Walking . The production was part of a yearlong project whereby Robbins invited select schools throughout the United States to stage the play. Sister Prejean and Robbins attended the April 23 performance in Pope Auditorium and later spoke with the cast and crew.
“Anyone performing this play will be reflecting on the issue of the death penalty, and anyone seeing it performed will also be reflecting on it,” said Sister Prejean.
Connor Murphy, a Fordham College at Rose Hill freshman and a member of the Progressive Students for Justice’s prison reform committee, said he felt more confident talking about the complex moral and legal issues surrounding capital punishment after attending Sister Prejean’s lecture and later meeting with her.
“My views against the death penalty are as firm as they have ever been,” he said. “But now I feel less isolated in trying to address the issue.”