Published: September 25, 2015
Sister Helen Prejean visited The University to discuss her experience with death row Monday.
She was featured at the annual Ignation Values in Action Lecture, where she informed listeners of her advocacy for the abolishment of the death penalty. Sister Prejean has worked with several inmates as they served their time on death row.
She told her heart-wrenching journey through New York Times Best seller, “Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty,” and her book “The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions.”
“Dead Man Walking” begins with an expanation of how Prejean originally got involved with death row.
“When Chava Colon from the Prison Coalition asks me one January day in 1982 to become a pen pal to a death-row inmate, I say, sure,” Prejean wrote.
Pat Sonnier was the first execution she witnessed, but what Prejean did not mentioned in the book was the moment when he told her he did not want her to come to his execution, because he wanted to protect her.
“‘Pat, if I am there and am able to witness what they do to you, I will tell your story around this land,’ and I had no idea what I was saying, ‘and perhaps your death can be redemptive so others don’t have to die,’” Prejean said.
Prejean has witnessed six executions, two of which she believes were unjustified. After meeting Richard Glossip, an inmate at County Jail in Oklahoma City, she fears the number of innocent deaths will increase.
Glossip was convicted of first-degree murder of Barry Van Treese, owner of the Budget Inn where Glossip was employed. Justin Sneed, another employee at Budget Inn, was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
While Sneed confessed to the murder, Glossip refused to plead guilty because he claimed he was innocent. Now, 18 years later, Glossip faces the death penalty; however, Glossip’s original lawyers have been searching for evidence to prove his innocence, which is why they contacted Sister Helen Prejean.
Sister Helen Prejean noted that Sonnier and Glossip had similar impacts on her. She shared how her experience with Sonnier influenced her present case with Glossip.
“When you witness something like that, it either paralyzes you or galvanizes you,” Prejean explained. “It has unleashed an energy in me that I know I’ll be working for the rest of my life because you can’t just witness people’s death in the system and just say ‘Oh that’s too bad.’ ’”
Don Knight, one of the pro bono lawyers working with Prejean, changed the direction of the case when he held a press conference covering all of the details to inform listeners of evidence of Glossip’s innocence, which failed to be mentioned in both trials.
Glossip supporters’ prayers were answered Sept. 16. The Oklahoma Court of Appeals granted Glossip a two-week stay after lawyers filed an emergency request to review more evidence.
Declaring this stay three and a half hours before his original execution date could be described as crazy, but according Catherine Cullen, Ph.D., an education professor at The University, “It’s not crazy, it’s God.”
Cullen reflected on Sister Helen Prejean’s remarkable perspective.
“I love Sister Helen Prejean, because she is a strong minded advocate, she uses God’s care and love to motivate her and to do the right thing,” Cullen said. “She also uses God’s care and love to open her mind and see both sides of the story.”