Catholic nun battles to end death penalty

Sister Helen Prejean is shown outside Toronto's St. James Cathedral where she was speaking at an event organized by  Amnesty International onSaturday night.Sister Helen Prejean is shown outside Toronto’s St. James Cathedral where she was speaking at an event organized by Amnesty International onSaturday night. 

Sister Helen Prejean raised her hand to Patrick Sonnier as the guard slipped a hood over his face.

It was the last sight Sonnier, convicted of killing two teenagers, would ever see.

“It was about the dignity. I wanted him to have the dignity,” Prejean said, sitting in a pew at St. James Cathedral Saturday night, before speaking at Cities for Life, an annual event where people around the world speak out against the death penalty. This year more than 1,240 cities participated.

It was “bone-chilling” cold that April night in 1984. And as the Roman Catholic nun left the Louisiana State Penitentiary, she buckled.

“I threw up,” she said. “I had never watched anybody be killed in front of my eyes before.”

The moment has never left her.

“It either paralyzes you, or galvanizes you,” she said. “The realization hit me, very clearly and forcefully, that people are never going to get close to this.

“I had been a witness. I had to tell the story.”

That story has since been told around the world. Her Pulitzer Prize-nominated book Dead Man Walking was turned into an Academy Award- winning film, starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn.

According to Amnesty International, 18 countries executed prisoners in 2009, the majority in China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the United States. Two-thirds of the world’s nations have eliminated the death penalty. It is still legal in 58 countries.

On Saturday, Antonella Mega came to find hope in Prejean’s words.

Her husband, Hamid Ghassemi-Shall, is being held in an Iranian prison, and faces the death penalty. The Iranian-Canadian former salesman was arrested on charges of spying.

“When I heard that Sister Helen was coming to speak, I felt a ray of hope,” she said, her eyes welling.

Prejean spoke of how working with poor people in New Orleans first opened her eyes to the importance of fighting for human rights. Her focus on the death penalty was a natural extension of her passion and faith.

She’s been a part of the lives and witnessed the executions of five more inmates since Sonnier’s death.

“They need someone,” she says. “Imagine that you have a society that says you are such disposable human waste, that we have to kill you and be rid of you like vermin.”

Prejean’s effort to eliminate the death penalty around the world continues, as she writes and speaks widely on the issue.

She often reflects on that first moment that changed the course of her life.

“You hardly have words for it,” Prejean says of Sonnier’s execution. “It’s death by script.”

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