As the honored speaker at Elmhurst College’s annual Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Lecture, Sister Prejean discussed the moral and ethical arguments against capital punishment. The academic discussion turned into one of real consequences as attention was called to the small flame on stage that burned in honor of Frances Newton of Texas. The 40-year-old woman was executed less than two hours before Sister Helen Prejean addressed a crowd of over 1,000 people Sept. 14 inside the Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel at Elmhurst College.
Speaking about a topic she feels most Americans "feel very ambivalent" about, her voice grew heavy and her words slowed during a discussion on the execution that occurred at 6 p.m. Sister Prejean told the crowd that she had met with Newton and was familiar with the case that left doubts of guilt in the minds of many. Sister Prejean said this was another unfortunate example and the topic of her second book, "The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions." She said, "When you read the book, you will be the first full jury they ever had who knows all the facts."
Currently touring the country to promote the 2004 book that followed the highly lauded tome published in 1993, "Dead Man Walking," the nun set the tone for the presentation early urging the audience to seriously reflect upon the death penalty. She said, "We’re here to talk about life and death. We’re here to talk about our country, the social fabric that holds us together....We want to navigate morally, we want to feel the outrage for those who have been killed who are innocent, but we also want to look critically at how our society deals with violence and what our moral response should be."
The nun, who worked in Louisiana for over 20 years, also addressed the headlines that were on the minds of many just a few weeks after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. She acknowledged her personal inconvenience was incomparable to the thousands that are suffering great tragedies as a result of the hurricane. Sister Prejean was too humble to discuss details of how her New Orleans ministry, the Moratorium Campaign, was destroyed and left her staff scrambling to re-establish its headquarters in Baton Rouge. However, she did offer a parallel between the natural disaster and the human-instigated tragedy of the death penalty. She said, "It’s a symbol, an emblem of the neglect that’s been going on in our cities for a long time. People have been drowning in New Orleans for a long time."
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