News staff writer
Sister Helen Prejean, anti-death penalty activist and author of the book “Dead Man Walking,” called Monday for a moratorium on executions in Alabama until its support can be studied.
“Do we have to keep going down the road of death in Alabama?” she asked while speaking at the Birmingham-Southern College Bishop’s Faith and Ethics Lecture on Monday afternoon.
Sister Helen, who has called for a worldwide moratorium on executions, claimed Southern states have the most oppressive penal systems in the nation, influenced by racism and dating back to the end of slavery.
The majority Alabama’s homicide victims are people of color, but the vast majority of Death Row inmates are there for killing someone white, she said.
“There is a selectivity process, and it’s always been at work,” Sister Helen said.
She also called for churches to become more involved in social justice causes. Sister Helen said social justice is a prominent theme throughout the Old Testament and teachings of Jesus. She cited Martin Luther King, Jr. as an example of a Christian who fought social injustices.
“Our call is to go and stand alongside people and struggle for justice,” she said.
Sister Helen called for those in attendance to work with groups who reach out to prisoners on Death Row. She said the church can help bridge many of the separations in society.
“Dead Man Walking” inspired the movie starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn as a Death Row inmate. Sister Helen published a second book in 2004 called, “The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions.”
Sister Helen said “Dead Man Walking” is an account of her own spiritual journey that started when she began working in public housing in New Orleans, which led to a prison ministry. Sister Helen became a pen pal with inmate Patrick Sonnier, who was sentenced to death in the killing of two teenagers. She served as his spiritual adviser until his execution.
Sister Helen said she made the mistake of not reaching out to the victims’ families during the ordeal, something she did later after a meeting with the father of one of Sonnier’s victims.
“We who call ourselves Christians are called to reach out to both sides of this cross,” she said.