Sister Helen Prejean speaks to teens about death penalty

Sister Helen Prejean spoke to students at DeSales High School Nov. 11 about ending the death penalty. (Photo Special to The Record  by Father Patrick Delahanty)

Sister Helen Prejean spoke to students at DeSales High School Nov. 11 about ending the death penalty. (Photo Special to The Record
by Father Patrick Delahanty)

By Marnie McAllister, Record Editor

Sister Helen Prejean, the author of “Dead Man Walking” who works to end the death penalty, spoke to students from several Catholic high schools at DeSales High School last week.

She told them about her personal experiences counseling men sentenced to death. And she identified some of the problems that she sees in the system that levies the ultimate punishment.

Her listeners — mostly high school boys — said in an interview afterward that her words made them rethink their position on the death penalty. A few said they changed their positions; others said Sister Prejean gave them something to think about.

“I thought going in that it (the death penalty) was something that was necessary. But she brought these insights and experiences,” said Trey Hoback, a sophomore. “She was pretty positive that three of the seven people she’s been with on death row are innocent. If she’s right, that’s a pretty heartbreaking fact.”

Sophomores Jacob Averill and Jonathan Tobbe said they were surprised to hear the effect capital punishment has on prison employees. Sister Prejean told them that it troubles some guards.

“What stuck out to me the most was her stories about how it affected the guards who were strapping them into a chair and how it affected every single person in the prison,” said Averill. “I wouldn’t think that it would have an impact on anybody except the criminal. She talked about one guard whose job was to collect the clothing (of the executed person) and he couldn’t handle it.”

Averill said Sister Prejean also noted that people on death row seem to have one thing in common — they had unhappy childhoods.

“She said every one grew up in a broken home or didn’t finish their education or something bad happened in their childhood that put them on the wrong path,” he said. “It showed me how blessed I am.”

Ryan Carlin, a DeSales junior, said Sister Prejean persuaded him and debunked some of his misconceptions. He also said, for those unconvinced, her presentation “really got the school talking.”

Chad Bader, coordinator of campus ministry at DeSales, said the school hallway conversations were focused on her presentation afterward.

“It wasn’t that everyone began magically agreeing, but they were a lot more open to the dialogue,” he said. The students seemed to realize “the death penalty has a human component, that there was a lot more at stake.”

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