Stirring up death penalty talk in Eureka
Author of 'Dead Man Walking' to share 'good Southern storytelling' about her experiences
Sunday, January 20, 2008EUREKA - A Louisiana man convicted and sentenced to death for raping and murdering an 18-year-old girl and murdering her 16-year-old boyfriend in 1977.
Another Louisiana man convicted of stabbing a woman in 1984.
A Virginia man who in 1985 was charged and later convicted of raping and murdering a woman outside a Virginia Beach nightclub.
And a Texas woman who is now on death row for killing the 3-month-old boy she was baby-sitting.
'Dead Man Walking: The Journey Continues'
- What: Presentation by Sister Helen Prejean, a death penalty opponent whose Pulitzer Prize-nominated book was the basis for the feature film "Dead Man Walking." She will speak about her experiences as well as her work against the death penalty and her support for families of murder victims and inmates on death row. Her book will be on sale and available for signing.
- When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
- Where: Donald B. Cerf Center, Eureka College
- Tickets: $5; available at the door. For more information, call 467-6420.
Prejean, a staunch opponent of the death penalty, is likely known by most for her first-person account that led to her Pulitzer Prize-nominated book and the basis for the feature film "Dead Man Walking."
The book details her start by helping the poor of New Orleans, and how one letter led to her becoming a spiritual adviser to a convicted killer of two teenagers who was sentenced to die in the electric chair at Louisiana's Angola State Prison, and later her support for families of murder victims.
Come Tuesday, Prejean promises her audience at Eureka College will hear some "good Southern storytelling" she hopes will lead to conversation about the death penalty.
"It's a broken system," Prejean said Wednesday by phone about the death penalty - a day after visiting with Cathy Lynn Henderson, who is in a Gatesville, Texas, prison for murdering the child she was baby-sitting in 1994.
The problems are many, Prejean says, beginning even with those who are sentenced to death. They are poor; a disproportionate number are minorities. She says they often receive poor representation - evident in the court files. In some cases, attorneys did not provide mitigating evidence that could have instead allowed for life in prison versus death, juries didn't get to hear all the evidence, or defendants did not have the financial means to dispute the evidence against them, Prejean said.
No wealthy people are on death row, she points out.
She brings up the more recent Henderson case, saying the original judge did not allow her attorney the money necessary to dispute the forensic evidence of how the child suffered his injury. Henderson was scheduled to die in June but received a stay of execution because of the now newly disputed evidence, Prejean said, adding they are waiting to see what's going to happen next.
Even the option to seek the death penalty is wrong, she says. The ability to take life is given to elected politicians who often are in a position of wanting to appear to be tough on crime. "It's used as a threat ... filled with abuse. There are systematic errors being made," she said, that too often lead to innocent people being put to death.
What's more is that the death penalty defies the Gospels of Jesus Christ, she says.
Closer to home, Prejean was among foes of the death penalty who advised former Illinois Gov. George Ryan before he commuted the death sentences of nearly 170 condemned inmates. Citing persistent flaws and problems in the Illinois capital-justice system, Ryan switched the inmates to life in prison without parole as he left office in January 2003.
She also appeared as character witnesses for Ryan in 2006 during his federal racketeering trial.
Prejean said she will take her audience through her upbringing in Louisiana as the daughter of a lawyer "thinking everything is just fine to discovering a whole other world."
"I'm going to do this until I die," she said.
Dave Haney can be reached at 686-3181 or email@example.com.