Death penalty opponent brings message to series at Winthrop

Sister Helen Prejean always writes the words "Choose Life" when she autographs her book.

It's a plea the compassionate woman took to Winthrop University on Monday night when she discussed the emotional process and journeys experienced by both sides of the death penalty -- the families of victims and the death-row inmates and their families.

"I've never thought that I would be drawn into this suffering," Prejean said earlier in the day about her ministry to death-row inmates and the families of murder victims that began in 1981.

Prejean, who wears a cross around her crisp, white, collared shirt, has been talking to audiences of all ages and backgrounds in the Southeast to help eliminate the death penalty that exists in 38 states. South Carolina is one of them -- eighth in the nation for executions, she said.

"We just need to take the death penalty off the table and not let the government be the arbitrator of life and death," said the nun with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille in Louisiana. "The alternative sentence is life without parole."

The 68-year-old added that some victims' families like the idea of knowing that the convicted murderer is behind bars without means of returning to society to kill again.

Prejean was one of the speakers during the Death Penalty Awareness Series hosted by Winthrop's Peace, Justice and Conflict Resolution Studies Minor and The Oratory in Rock Hill. The series, which began in September, includes the Department of Theatre and Dance's production of "Dead Man Walking" by Tim Robbins, which runs Wednesday to Sunday in the Johnson Studio Theatre.

"The purpose of the series was not to condemn the death penalty, but to ask questions and get the answers," said Ginger Williams, a Winthrop history professor who was instrumental in putting together the series.

The play, based on Prejean's book "Dean Man Walking," is about her experiences with the prison ministry. The book was nominated for the 1993 Pulitzer Prize and was developed into a movie starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn that was released almost 12 years ago. Her second book, "The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions" was published in December 2004.

Prejean, who educates the nation about the death penalty through lectures and writing from September to May, has witnessed six executions since 1984. She'll never forget any of them, she said.

She is the founder of Survive, a victim's advocacy group in New Orleans. She is currently ministering to two death-row inmates -- a man in Louisiana and a woman in Texas. Prejean also is working on her third book, "River of Fire."

In 1999, 98 executions were scheduled to take place. Some executions did not happen, and the number dropped to about 50 in 2001. The majority of those sitting on death-row are poor and minorities, she added.

Her success in spreading the word doesn't come without criticism. Some have accused Prejean of taking the side of the death-row inmates over the families of victims. But she assures that she is not taking anyone's side because all parties involved have suffered a loss.

Prejean maintains a relationship with some of the murder victims' families, some she met in the mid-1980s.

She said during a talk Sunday at The Oratory that one victim's father taught her "what it meant to be plunged into tragedy and to follow the path of grace." The father taught her about forgiveness when he said he didn't want love to be overcome by hatred.

Despite the emotional roller coaster of her ministry, she plans to continue the mission that was laid before her.