'Dead Man Walking' nun writes new book

 Sister Helen Prejean, whose book inspired the Oscar-winning movie Dead Man Walking, is writing a second book, the Toledo Blade reported yesterday.

The 64-year-old nun said her new work describes her experiences in counselling two death-row inmates, Dobie Williams of Louisiana and Joseph O'Dell of Virginia.

"The working title is Machinery and Death, in which I tell the story of two people that I believe were innocent that I accompanied to executions," she said.

Sr Helen, who belongs to the Sisters of St Joseph of Medaille in New Orleans, has been a crusader against the death penalty since 1981.

"I'm a person that is trying to live out of faith," she said. "I really see God's power behind this because I'm a Catholic nun. I was a spiritual adviser to a man on death row in Louisiana in the early '80s when everybody and their cat believed in executions, and then I watched this man, Patrick Sonnier, put to death in the electric chair, and after him I accompanied four others, and I wrote the book."

She balanced her story by not only giving the condemned man's side but also capturing the pain and misery of the victims' families.

"Most people do struggle with this issue. They feel ambivalent about it," she said. "You know they're horrified over crime, they're outraged, they say that a person deserves to die. Then, on the other hand, they know they can barely trust the government to fill a pothole, let alone decide which one of its citizens should die."

The death penalty "corrupts everybody it touches," she said. Prosecutors eyeing a judicial position can put a death-penalty conviction ahead of other concerns, even if it means withholding evidence or distorting the facts, in order to look tough on crime, she claimed.

Others tainted by capital punishment include politicians who use the anguish of a victim's family in order to win votes; wardens who bear the burden of making sure that executions are carried out; prison workers who strap inmates down and afterward have trouble eating or sleeping, and victims' families who await the execution of their loved one's killer only to find it does not bring satisfaction.

Sister Helen said she has also witnessed the emotional trauma victims' family members endure after waiting ten or 15 years for an execution date to be set, then mustering the inner strength to travel to the prison and take a front-row seat in the witness room, only to have the courts issue a last-minute stay. And that can happen time and time again, for up to ten years she said.

It would be helpful for victims' families if the government provided counselling, set up support groups, helped with funeral expenses, and aided with jobless assistance because grief and confusion often lead to unemployment, she said. As for the Bible's oft-quoted verse on capital punishment found in Exodus 21:24, "eye for eye, tooth for a tooth," she said it needs to be put in context.

"Sure, you can find the death penalty in the Old Testament," Sister Helen said. "In fact there were 37 crimes in the Old Testament for which you could be given the death penalty."

In fact, she said, God was ordering restraint by calling for the punishment to fit the crime. "Vengeance was so uncontrolled, if somebody in one village did something to somebody in another village, they would go and wipe out the whole village," Sister Helen said.

That scripture was superseded by Jesus' teachings, she said, including the statement in Matthew 5:38: "You have heard said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also."

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