Salem-Journal: Sister Helen Prejean speaks out against the death penalty at Willamette
Oct 24, 2012 Tuesday night’s talk in Willamette University’s Cone Chapel might have been mistaken for a Sunday sermon.
The pews were filled with people, listening in rapt silence. Roman Catholic Sister Helen Prejean, her speech rising and falling in dramatic arcs, recounted her experience watching the execution, by electric chair, of convicted murderer Patrick Sonnier in Louisiana in 1984.
The experience is what led Prejean to begin touring the nation to speak against capital punishment, experiences that culminated in a Pulitzer-nominated book, “Dead Man Walking.” This week marked the sister’s fourth visit to Oregon.
Her visit is particularly timely. The Oregon Supreme Court announced Tuesday it would accept the case of Gary Haugen, a convicted murder who was sentenced to death before Gov. John Kitzhaber issued a moratorium on all executions in November of 2011.
Haugen, who landed on death row in 2007, sued because he refuses to accept the governor’s reprieve of his death sentence and claims he has a right to die.
The Supreme Court is scheduled to begin hearing the oral arguments in March.
Prejean is also spending the week teaching classes both at the University of Oregon and at the Oregon State Penitentiary.
She spoke Tuesday of her own background with executions and her moral reasons for opposing them, praising Oregon, which hasn’t had an execution since 1997, for having “a life spirit and a respect of people.”
“We don’t really have a death penalty; it’s not a working death penalty,” she said. “Oregon doesn’t really execute people.” Constitutionally, Oregon does allow capital punishment as a means of justice, but its own history with the subject is complex. Voters most recently legalized capital punishment in 1984, but had twice previously outlawed it.
There are 37 people on death row as of June 2011, where the average length of time of waiting for death is 12 years.
According to Prejean, the death penalty takes a toll not only on inmates, but the Oregonians who have legalized it.
“Oregon doesn’t deserve the death penalty,” she said. “(Inmates) don’t deserve it and we don’t deserve to kill them. Who are we to decide a person deserves to die? How long will it take our court to recognize that condemning them to death and making them wait in a small cell for 15 to 20 years is torture?”
Written by Laura Fosmire