'Moratorium' on executions raises evacuee nun's spirits

Sister Prejean says Louisiana judges will be unable to review death penalty cases
By BOB ARNDORFER
Gainesville Sun
HURRICANE KATRINA

GAINESVILLE, FLA. - Hurricane Katrina forced Sister Helen Prejean and about 60 other nuns to flee their New Orleans Mother House last week and relocate indefinitely to Baton Rouge.

But the catastrophe had an effect on something else to which the woman known as "the Death-Penalty Nun" has devoted her life.

"Katrina put a moratorium on the death penalty in Louisiana for at least three years," Prejean, 66, said before a talk Wednesday night at Holy Faith Catholic Church in Gainesville.

She said court buildings in New Orleans were so badly damaged that judges, among other things, won't be reviewing death penalty cases anytime soon. Prejean has been working more than 20 years to abolish the death penalty in the United States.

That effort was given a boost by her 1993 book, Dead Man Walking , and director Tim Robbins' 1996 movie that earned Susan Sarandon an Academy Award for best actress for her portrayal of Prejean. The book explores Prejean's spiritual journey from being pen pals with a death row inmate to accompanying him to his execution and how that experience crystallized her belief that the death penalty goes against true Christian teachings.

She talked about that journey — from a privileged upbringing in Baton Rouge to spiritual adviser to death row inmates — before about 200 people at Holy Faith. Her Gainesville visit was the first stop on a nationwide tour to promote her second book on the death penalty, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions , which details her experience with two executed men who she said clearly were innocent.

After her hourlong talk, she signed copies of both books — and accepted donations to the rebuilding of the convent in New Orleans.

Prejean (pronounced PRAY-zheen) emphasized that her mission is as much to the families of victims as it is to their killers.