As Virginia readies itself for its third execution this year, Sr. Helen Prejean, author of "Dead Man Walking," argues that the death penalty is the state's own poisonous shot in the arm. 

Capital Commitment

Unlike most writers, Sr. Helen Prejean never dreamed her book would be nominated for a Pulitzer and inspire an Oscar. She only hoped it would stop another killing. Four times she's walked into the execution chamber in Louisiana. But unlike those she accompanied, she left the chamber each time with breath for a new day. As a nun with the Sisters of St. Joseph Medaille in New Orleans, Sr. Prejean makes it her mission to convince states — of which Virginia is one of the most deadly — that capital punishment fails to serve justice. Between talks on college campuses and forums held with national policy makers, Sr. Prejean spoke to Style about vengeance, reconciliation and accepting a calling from God. Style: Since your book "Dead Man Walking" has been made into a major motion picture, you've been recognized as one of the most public protesters of capital punishment, calling state executions cruel and unfair. What do you think the state should do with its most violent offenders? Sr. Prejean: The first use of prison needs to be for violent offenders. We need to be much more discriminating in who we send to prison. We send far too many people to prison for non-violent crimes. Of course, there is a legitimate need to incapacitate people for violent crimes. But as far as killing human beings, which we've been doing for 25 years, if you look at the selective process — who is given the death penalty and who isn't — you know not only is it wrong; it's not working. It also shows our courts aren't working. And Virginia has been leading the way. You can find people just as violent throughout the prison system as those waiting on death row. We all know by now that the death penalty is not used for deterrence. And it's expensive. But most important: More and more innocent people are coming off death row, and Virginia's had many of its own cases. Style: A good bit of the Sisters of St. Joseph's mission is reconciliation. How do you bridge the gap between unlike and often hostile groups: men and women, rich and poor, sick and healthy, criminals and victims? Sr. Prejean: My charism is the death penalty, and what I work for in my ministry is the reconciliation between death row inmates and their families — and their victim's families. It's a matter of being there for both groups, not one or the other. They're all very alone, not just the prisoners on death row, but their families. They're treated as pariahs. The deepest call of the gospel, one of the teachings that I return to, is that things that seem to be opposites are not. But it takes an understanding of mercy to see this. And you know, even where you least expect it, I've seen the power mercy has to heal. I've seen such beautiful witnesses, who've chosen not to see the ways of vengeance. Style: In your view, what can people do to bring about a stronger sense of community? Sr. Prejean: That's absolutely the most important part. Now you're talking about the soil, bringing people together. Not individualizing them or isolating them as groups. And that includes bringing together races. This is something we can all work toward. You'd hope the churches could do that. But Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. observed that, regrettably, it is often during that one hour or so on Sunday mornings that we are the most segregated. Style: Recently, The New York Times featured a front-page article on the dwindling number of women who choose to enter the sisterhood. Is this a concern for you and your sisters in terms of how your mission might continue in the future? Sr. Prejean: It's just that religious life has taken a new shape. Now women know there are many ways to follow the Gospel. We'll have a smaller number of women joining, but it doesn't bother me at all. I see lay women who are carrying out the message of the Gospel in so many ways that they couldn't, or didn't do before. Style: How might a woman today figure out if God is calling her? Sr. Prejean: It would be someone who knows she wants to belong to a wider family. She'd want to work in the community to bring about healing, justice and values consistent with prayer and the teachings of the Gospel. She'd have to want a deep spiritual life. That's the profile. For many of those entering, it's a second career. They are older, some have been married, raised children, lost their husbands. Some are grandmothers. They're in the second part of their life now, and want a wider outreach. I think it's wonderful and inspiring. There will always be those who enter, who feel a calling. This is the trend now. The Jepson Leadership Forum welcomes Sr. Helen Prejean, Wednesday, Jan. 26 at 7:30 p.m. at the University of Richmond Alumni Center. The lecture is free and open to the public. Early arrival for seating suggested. Book signing and reception follows. Sr. Prejean gathers with members of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty for Death Penalty Awareness Day, Thursday, Jan. 27 at 11 a.m. at the State Capitol. www.richmond.edu/academics/leadership

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