President James E. Bundschuh presents the Marymount University
Ethics Award to Sister Helen Prejean.
on the photo to download a full-size version (255 KB JPEG
Helen Prejean signs one of her books for Asia Little '10,
a Marymount Fashion Design major from Mount Vernon, NY. Click
on the photo to download a full-size version (366 KB JPEG
Arlington, Virginia -- On October 27, Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ,
author of Dead Man Walking and The Death of Innocents,
spoke to a packed auditorium at Marymount University, where she
received the Marymount University Ethics Award, presented in recognition
of her work as an author and activist in opposition to the death
Sister Prejean stressed that capital punishment is a moral and
ethical issue that people of good conscience cannot ignore. "Most
people haven't thought about it much," she pointed out. "We
don't know those on death row."
She noted that the administration of capital punishment in the
United States is inconsistent and often hinges on how people of
different races and socio-economic classes are valued by society.
Ninety percent of those on death row are poor, and many experienced
violence and abuse as children. Sister Prejean emphasized, "Jesus
was on the side of the poor, disenfranchised, and ignored."
She added, "We must have a consistent ethic of life
Even those who have done crimes have a dignity that should not be
Sr. Prejean is asking others, and notably Catholics, to join her
in the mission to abolish capital punishment. She wants to build
on Pope John Paul II's appeal for "a consensus to end the death
penalty." "I invite you to get involved," she urged
the Marymount audience. "There are 65 million Catholics in
the United States. That moral force could end the death penalty
If we are silent, we are complicit. Where there is injustice, we
can't be neutral."
Dead Man Walking, based on Sr. Prejean's ministry with death-row
inmates Patrick Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie in Louisiana, became
an Academy Award-nominated film and opera. The book outlines her
journey and her mission. Sister Prejean explained that she did not
initially reach out to the victims' families, thinking that they
would not want to talk with her, the spiritual advisor to those
who killed their loved ones. But when she did speak with the families,
she discovered that they felt isolated, pressured, and torn over
death-penalty sentences. As a result of these interactions, Sister
Prejean founded Survive, an advocacy group for the families
of murder victims. She believes that these families "need the
arms of the community around them."
Sr. Prejean recounted her conversations with Lloyd LeBlanc, the
father of one of Sonnier's victims, David LeBlanc, who was 17 when
he was murdered. While at first LeBlanc was filled with rage and
wanted to kill Sonnier himself, she said that he told her, "After
David's death, people said I had to be for the death penalty, but
I didn't like the way it made me feel." LeBlanc would later
take Sonnier's mother a basket of fruit and tell her that she was
not to blame. "Forgiveness is strength," said Sr. Helen.
"It's not letting the love within us be overcome by hate
It's about us and how we respond."
During the question-and-answer session following Sister Prejean's
presentation at Marymount, an audience member raised the case of Justin
Wolfe, who is on death row in Virginia. His mother, Terri Steinberg,
was in the Marymount audience. Troubling aspects of Wolfe's case include
post-conviction affidavits swearing to his innocence that were said
to be "too late," and the fact that his lawyer was eventually
disbarred. The case is currently under appeal. "Death is too
absolute," stated Sr. Helen. "We make mistakes."
Throughout her presentation, Sister Prejean kept returning to the
dignity of human life. She acknowledged, "It's harder to advocate
for someone who has crossed the line
. Our society is polarized
and says we have to choose one side or the other
. But we must
be on the side of life and for the dignity of life in all situations."
The Marymount University Ethics Award honors individuals who have
taken an outstanding leadership role in promoting and developing
ethical standards and behavior. Sponsored by the University's Center
for Ethical Concerns, the award recognizes men and women whose commitment
and example provide an ethical model for others. Previous recipients
include Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, South
Africa, and 1984 Nobel Peace Prize recipient; Carol R. Taylor,
RN, MSN, PhD, director of the Georgetown University Center for
Clinical Bioethics; Ben Bradlee, vice president at large
for The Washington Post; and the late Sir John M. Templeton,
financier and philanthropist.