Sister Helen Prejean Visits Portland State






@body:Sister Helen Prejean, an internationally known activist against the death penalty and three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, spoke at the Koinonia house Friday.

Portland State was one of nine places in Oregon that Prejean stopped to speak about the death penalty.

Prejean came to Oregon to support the Life for A Life campaign in their effort to put an initiative on the November 2002 ballot which would replace Oregon’s death penalty with life in prison without parole plus restitution.

Prejean began the hour-long speech by describing how she got involved with the death penalty. Her involvement with poor people in a New Orleans African American housing project was a pivotal experience.

She explained, “There is nothing like going behind the tapestry of the great American dream where there are knots and cut threads and spaces and gaps.”

Throughout the speech Prejean shared personal experiences, statistics, jokes and reasons to end the death penalty.

Regarding emotions she said, “We have outrage that we have to deal within ourselves when we hear about the death of an innocent person, but we have to push ourselves and we have to ask ourselves a question; if I say this person deserves to die, can I do it? If there’s a part of us that holds back, there’s a part of our soul that has not said yes to the death penalty.”

According to Prejean there are 3,700 people on death row and over 700 people have been executed. She states that approximately two percent of murderers are selected to die based on two criteria: wealth and race.

Accordingly, eight out of 10 people selected to die were convicted of killing white people. She adds that 90 percent of district attorneys are white.

Prejean continued by saying, “I found that the death penalty brings out our three deepest wounds in this country: Our assault on the people; poor people alone are almost exclusively chosen to pay with their lives for their crimes, racism and our pension for trying to solve social problems with violence.”

Prejean described her confusion when getting to know someone on death row, saying, “Obviously there is good in this person, obviously people are worth more than the worst thing they ever did in their life.”

As Prejean approached the end of her time she shifted her subject to one of inspiration and motivation.

She said, “I think we’re at a new moment in this country, where we are going to turn the death penalty around. I think Oregon is going to play a special role in this, nationally.”

The audience broke out in laughter when Prejean explained by saying, “I think there’s more reflection that goes on [in Oregon]; I think you read more books.”

She ended the speech by asking the audience to sign a petition in order to get the Life For A Life initiative on the November 2002 ballot. She said they needed 120,000 more signatures to be safe.

She motivated people by saying, “Our signatures represents us, and it’s cumulative. When a wave begins to build before it hits the shore; that’s the way all movements happen for social change that has ever happened.”

She received a standing ovation before sitting down to autograph her book, “Dead Man Walking,” for several people.

A line quickly formed at a table hosted by the Life For A Life committee. They sold Prejean’s book and another book by William R. Long titled, “A Tortured History.” The committee received no proceeds, but the volunteer at the table said they were simply happy to have her speak on their behalf.

Petitions and informational literature were also provided at the table.

Julie Richards, coordinator of the Portland State chapter of Amnesty International, was responsible for Sister Prejean’s appearance at Portland State. She said, “I contacted Angela Harris with Life for A Life, as soon as I found out that Sister Prejean was coming to Oregon.”

Reflecting on the lecture, Richards said, “She is amazing, extraordinary. She makes a sad and difficult issue fun.” According to Richards 130 people attended the lecture. Angela Harris, operations manager of the Life For A Life Committee, accompanied Prejean on her tour of Oregon.

According to Harris Oregon will be the first state to put an anti-death penalty initiative on a ballot.

In addition to Prejean, they are supported by former senator Mark Hatfield, former Oregon Secretary of State Norma Paulus and Oregon Health and Sciences University Doctor William Connor.

Harris pointed out that although Prejean is an important part of the campaign “she is one of many who will help bring this issue to light.”

Harris said about the turnout, “I’m really happy with the turnout; people are ready to get involved.” She said that the total turnout for all nine speaking engagements was over 1,000 people.

Diane Kahl, a volunteer for Life For A Life and friend of a death row prisoner, said, “A lot of people don’t even know about Life For A Life this was a very positive public relations event.”

Kahl was concerned that the Sept. 11 incident would cause the movement to be pushed back. But, she said, “People are inflamed about the retaliation [on Afghanistan]. They are tapping into that emotion and strengthening this movement.”

According to Prejean’s official Web site at, she has lived and worked in Louisiana all her life.

She currently chairs the Board of Directors of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and she has been a member of Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille since 1957.

Erin Way, a junior majoring in theatre arts, learned of Prejean by watching the movie. Way said, “I thought she was very even handed in the way she handled the issue [of the death penalty]. The wisdom she used in the handling the issue really spoke to me.”

Prejean is currently writing another book titled, “Innocence Betrayed: Unmasking the Death Penalty.” It is the story of three innocent people on death row, two of whom have already died. Prejean expects it to be published by next summer.

To learn more about this issue visit the moratorium campaign, at The campaign is a nonprofit, educational organization dedicated to abolishing the death penalty, chaired by Prejean.

To learn more about the Life For A Life campaign visit Their Web site offers detailed information about the death penalty, their initiative and various ways to help their cause.