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An Eyewitness to Execution Brings Her Message to Kentucky

PHOTO: Sister Helen Prejean, witness to six executions and author of Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in America, will speak in Louisville and Lexington this week. Photo courtesy of Prejean.
PHOTO: Sister Helen Prejean, witness to six executions and author of Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in America, will speak in Louisville and Lexington this week. Photo courtesy of Prejean.
December 3, 2013

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Sister Helen Prejean has witnessed six executions. Since the first 20 years ago, the Roman Catholic nun has been on a crusade to abolish the death penalty, a message she brings to Louisville and Lexington this week. Prejean wrote the book "Dead Man Walking," her personal account of being a death row inmate's spiritual adviser and a witness to his execution. It was made into a movie in 1996.

According to Prejean, support for the death penalty is eroding, but ...

"It's still entrenched in pockets of the Deep South. I mean, there's such a deep, deep connection between slavery, poverty, racism and harsh penal codes," she said.

Prejean said 80 percent of the executions in the U.S. take place in former slave states. Kentucky is among 32 states where the death penalty is legal.

Prejean believes the need for the death penalty in America was "stoked by fear." But she said that now, people are coming to understand that there is a safe alternative.

"The fear has been diminished because people know that they can be protected equally well by life without parole sentences, and that no political animals, like governors, are ever going to let people out."

Prejean, a native of Louisiana who considers herself a southern storyteller, said she can tell by the "stillness of an audience" that her message is resonating. She speaks on Thursday night in Louisville, and Friday evening in Lexington.

She said the reason she serves as a witness to executions is so the condemned can see her face and, in her words, "have dignity when they die." She said her six experiences have galvanized her crusade.

"It makes me get out on that road to wake up the people about this. I cannot walk away," she declared. "It's truly a moral imperative that I must work 'til the end of my life, that this must change."

The Kentucky Legislature has rejected recent efforts to make life without parole the maximum sentence. Death penalty opponents are expected to try again in 2014.

Link to information on Prejean's Kentucky visits at KCADP.org.

Greg Stotelmyer , Public News Service - KY