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Sister Helen Prejean speaks of her journey to advocacy at UCO

Steve Browne / Red Dirt Report
Sister Helen Prejean, advocate for the abolition of the death penalty.
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EDMOND, Okla. – The plane was delayed due to weather, but Sister Helen Prejean came back to Oklahoma to speak at the University of Central Oklahoma on Halloween night.

Prejean, well-known anti-death penalty advocate described her journey from spiritual advisor to activist to a packed auditorium on Saturday.

Prejean’s appearance was sponsored by several college departments and student organizations including Conservatives and Progressives United to Abolish the Death Penalty and the Department of Political Science.

According to Prejean, her journey began in the early 1980s when she was asked to exchange letters with convicted death row inmate Elmo Patrick Sonnier, sentenced to die for his part with his brother Eddie in the rape and murder of Loretta Ann Bourque, 18, and the murder of David LeBlanc, 17.

“I thought I was only going to be writing letters,” Prejean said. “I never dreamed they were going to execute him.”

Prejean’s time as spiritual advisor to Sonnier, and witness to his execution in 1984, was described in her book Dead Man Walking, later made into a movie starring Susan Sarandon who continues to support Prejean’s activism.

“I had a good editor when I wrote Dead Man Walking,” Prejean said. “He told me I didn’t reach out to the families of the victims and that was an act of cowardice. I met them at the worst possible time, the pardon hearing. The father of David said, ‘Sister all this time you’ve been visiting with those boys, but you never once reached out to us.’ We went to the chapel and prayed together.”

Prejean described her upbringing in an affluent family in New Orleans and the awakening that came after she moved to the St. Thomas housing projects.

“African-American people became my teachers,” Prejean said. “All the rules are different: education, health care. Every family had somebody in prison. If you’re poor you can’t pay bail, you have to wait for trial. Some people wait three or four years.”

Prejean acknowledged there are criminals who must be locked up for the safety of society, but said the death penalty is inconsistently applied based on where the crime was committed, the race of both the accused and the victim, and how good a defense the accused can afford.  

Prejean has traveled to Oklahoma several times in the past few months to witness for Richard Glossip, who she maintains is innocent. Glossip’s execution has been delayed three times, most recently when it was found minutes before he was scheduled to die that the wrong drug had been delivered.

There is currently an indefinite moratorium on executions in Oklahoma.

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Steve Browne

Steve Browne is an award-winning reporter and columnist who entered journalism by accident while...

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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