Swallowing Poison

By Emily Gold / May / June 1999
November 14th, 2007
Should killers be sentenced to die? Two forceful opponents of the death penalty visited campus this spring to urge students to join their cause.

Dead Man Walking, said she was first drawn to visit a death-row inmate by her firm belief that a man is better than his worst act. Overcoming feelings of guilt for consorting with a criminal, she began a series of meetings with Patrick Sonnier, who'd been convicted of brutally killing a teenage couple. After Prejean watched Sonnier die in a Louisiana electric chair, she began to speak out against the death penalty.

Speaking to a full crowd in the Salomon Center in mid-April, Sister Helen Prejean, the nun portrayed by Susan Sarandon in the film

"We practice torture," she said in a Louisiana accent. "Instead of preventing crime, we're pouring kerosene on crime. In fact, we're imitating violence." Prejean described her experience as Sonnier's spiritual adviser in her best-selling book, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Prejean believes she can change the minds of death-penalty supporters, who, she says, are influenced by political rhetoric and outrage. "Who is not outraged," she asked, "when you hear about teenagers being killed or old people being killed in their homes? Outrage is legitimate." However, Prejean asserted, the death sentence is administered unfairly - convicts who are African-American, who are poor, or who have killed a white victim are more likely to end up on death row. "We are far more outraged about the deaths of some people than the deaths of other people," she said.

One way to change people's minds about capital punishment, Prejean said, is to televise executions. "As long as the death penalty is abstract and far away from us, it's easier to do it," she said.

One of Prejean's allies is Bud Welsh, who spoke a month earlier at an anti-death- penalty forum held at the MacMillan science building. Welsh described his reaction to the news that his twenty-three-year-old daughter had died in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing: "The rage and the [desire for] revenge, the hate that hit me when Julie was killed - it was insanity."

At first Welsh, who, like Prejean, is Roman Catholic, believed Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols didn't even deserve a trial. "I wanted them hung," he recalled. "I wanted them fried."

Then Welsh visited McVeigh's father. "I decided revenge and hate were what killed Julie," Welsh told an audience of about fifty. "I had to do better than that."

The audiences for Prejean and Welsh seemed moved by their stories. "You've changed my life," gushed one woman who approached Prejean after her lecture. The woman said she had supported the death penalty after being abducted and raped but changed her mind after reading Prejean's book. "Vengeance," she said, "is like swallowing poison and waiting for the other person to die."v

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May / June 1999