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Sister Helen Prejean to Give Kegley Memorial Lecture at CSUB
  April 7, 2006
Mike Stepanovich, 661/654-2456,,
or Jaclyn Loveless, 661/654-2138,

A soft-spoken nun who has perhaps the loudest voice in the continuing discussion of the American death penalty is the featured speaker at the 20th annual Charles W. Kegley Memorial Lecture, sponsored by the Kegley Institute of Ethics at California State University, Bakersfield, with support from Kern Schools Federal Credit Union.

Sister Helen Prejean, author of "Dead Man Walking" and made famous by Susan Sarandon's portrayal in the film of the same name, will discuss the death penalty and other issues during her lecture on Tuesday, April 18, at 7 p.m. in the Doré Theater on the CSUB campus. Sister Helen will sign that book, along with her new one, "The Death of Innocents," after the lecture and both will be available for purchase at the event.

"Sister Helen's talk is especially timely in light of the ongoing court proceedings regarding the death penalty in California," said Christopher Meyers, CSUB philosophy professor and director of the Kegley Institute of Ethics. A federal judge has halted executions in California until he is satisfied that those being executed are not in any pain. At the same time, California legislators are considering imposing a moratorium on the punishment, following the lead of Illinois and Maryland, until officials can feel assured no innocent person will ever be committed to death row. Meanwhile a federal jury in Virginia is trying to decide whether to condemn Zacarias Moussaoui.

"Few people have her insights into what clearly is the most extreme penalty one can be assessed for a crime," Meyers said, "and I'm sure those attending the lecture, regardless of their views on the death penalty, will find her remarks not only revelatory but also thought-provoking."

The ethics center is also hosting a follow-up panel addressing the local perspective on capital punishment. Featuring local criminal justice and ethics experts, including District Attorney Ed Jagels and Public Defender Mark Arnold, the panel discussion will be held in the Stockdale Room in the CSUB cafeteria on Wednesday, April 19, at 7 p.m.

Both events are free and open to the public.

While Sister Helen opposes the death penalty, she is clearly not blind to the plight of victims and their families. In an interview on Public Broadcasting System's "Frontline," she discussed her feelings about both the death penalty and victims' families.

"That's truly animalistic behavior," she said of two condemned men. "I mean the way that Robert Willie and Joe Vaccaro took this girl Faith Hathaway alone in that truck, bringing her down to that gravel pit, raping her, stabbing her, killing her, she's all alone, she begged to die. We look at that and we go, ‘That's not human, that's not human behavior.' It isn't. It's like a wild animal tearing someone; it's violence where you treat a person not as a person but completely as an object. I'm horrified at that. I mean when I hear of anybody doing that, a mugger just blowing somebody away with a gun in their face, or here's a girl all alone. She was all alone in the darkness of the woods with these two savage people, who were not acting in a human way, who were completely unresponsive in a human way. It must have been so terrifying."

However, she said, it still doesn't justify the death penalty, "Because there are some human rights that are so deep that we can't negotiate them away. I mean people do heinous, terrible things. But there are basic human rights I believe that every human being has. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the United Nations says it for me. And it says there are two basic rights that can't be negotiated, that government doesn't give for good behavior and doesn't take away for bad behavior. And it's the right not to be tortured and (the right) not to be killed. Because the flip side of this is that then when you say OK– they truly have done heinous things – so now we're going to turn over to the government the right to take their life. It involves other people in doing essentially the same kind of act. In executions that have gone on here in Louisiana, and one very recently, I heard that the captain in the death house said to one of the people there as they were leaving, ‘Leave this place and leave this to us idiots to do,' and there were tears running down his cheek because he was involved in the process of killing a fellow human being."

A native of Baton Rouge, La., Sister Helen joined the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille in 1957 and received a bachelor's degree in English and education from St. Mary's Dominican College, New Orleans, in 1962. In 1973, she earned a master's degree in religious education from St. Paul's University in Ottawa, Canada. She has been the religious education director at St. Frances Cabrini Parish in New Orleans, the Formation Director for her religious community, and has taught junior and senior high school students.

Sister Helen began her prison ministry in 1981 when she dedicated her life to the poor of New Orleans. While living in the St. Thomas housing project, she became pen pals with Patrick Sonnier, the convicted killer of two teen-agers, sentenced to die in the electric chair of Louisiana's Angola State Prison.

Upon Sonnier's request, Sister Helen repeatedly visited him as his spiritual advisor. In doing so, her eyes were opened to the Louisiana execution process. She turned her experiences into a book that not only made the 1994 American Library Associates Notable Book List, but also was nominated for a 1993 Pulitzer Prize. "Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States" was No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list for 31 weeks. It also was an international best seller and has been translated into 10 different languages.

In January 1996, the book was developed into a major motion picture starring Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen and Sean Penn as death row inmate Patrick Sonnier. The film was directed and written by Tim Robbins, and received four Oscar nominations, including Tim Robbins for best director, Sean Penn for best actor, Susan Sarandon for best actress, and Bruce Springsteen's "Dead Man Walking" for best song. Sarandon won the award for best actress.

The book was the basis for an opera, presented by the San Francisco Opera and premiered in October 2000. Terrance McNally wrote the libretto; Jake Heggie composed the music.

Sister Helen and "Dead Man Walking" have been the subject of numerous media stories and reviews in the United States, Canada, Spain, Holland, England, Scotland, France and Australia. She has been featured in the New York Times Magazine, Vogue, Good Housekeeping, the St. Anthony Messenger, the Ligourian, the Chicago Tribune, the Atlanta Constitution, the New Orleans Times Picayune, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Orleans Magazine, the Tablet, Sisters Today and numerous other print media.

Her broadcast appearances include "60 Minutes," NBC's "Today Show," "ABC World News Tonight," "The Tom Snyder Show" on CNBC, "Larry King Live" (radio), "The Phil Donahue Show," BBC World Service Radio, National Public Radio's "Weekend Edition" and "Fresh Air," an NBC special on the death penalty, the Canadian Broadcast Co.'s "Man Alive," the BBC's "Everyman," ABC's "Prime Times Live," and PBS' "Frontline."

Fifteen years after beginning her crusade, the Roman Catholic nun has witnessed five executions in Louisiana and today educates the public about the death penalty by lecturing, organizing and writing. As the founder of "Survive," a victim's advocacy group in New Orleans, she continues to counsel not only inmates on death row, but the families of murder victims, as well.

Sister Helen has served on the board of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty from 1985 to 1995, and chaired the coalition's board from 1993 to 1995. She is also a member of Amnesty International, and an honorary member of Murder Victim Families for Reconciliation. She presently is the honorary chairperson of Moratorium Campaign, a group gathering signatures for a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty.

Sister Helen's second book, "The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions," was published in December 2004. In it, she tells the story of two men, Dobie Gillis Williams and Joseph O'Dell, whom she accompanied to their executions. She believes both of them were innocent. In "The Death of Innocents" she takes the reader through all the evidence, including evidence the juries never heard either due to the incompetence of the defense lawyers or the rigid formalities of court procedure. Sister Helen examines how flaws inextricably entwined in the death penalty system inevitably lead to innocent people being executed and render the system unworkable.

For more information about the Kegley Memorial Lecture, please call (661) 654-2555.