In the spring of 2011, a bill that would abolish the death penalty in Illinois sat on the desk of Gov. Pat Quinn, next to a ringing phone, piles of letters and often, advocates for or against capital punishment.
More than a decade later, Quinn can recall phone calls from the families of murder victims, prosecutors and at least three prominent fellow Catholics: actor Martin Sheen, Nobel Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Sister Helen Prejean. Prejean visited his office with a plea to end executions in Illinois.
Quinn, who is Catholic and a lawyer, said he heavily weighed Illinois’ history of wrongful convictions, but Prejean made both a rational and a religious appeal.
“What she said was along the lines of, ‘This is our Christian faith, that every life matters, even people who have done terrible things,” Quinn recalled to a reporter following a speech Friday by Prejean for the Catholic Lawyers Guild of Chicago at the University Club.
“She’s not a scold; she appeals to your reason, and your faith. Just a very compelling person.”
At 84, Prejean remains a devoted activist to the cause that made her something of a celebrity, even before the wave of states dropping the death penalty that began around the time Quinn’s predecessor, George Ryan, commuted the sentences of 167 death row inmates in 2003.
The Louisiana-based Catholic sister, whose book about ministering to death row inmates was adapted into the 1995 film “Dead Man Walking,” remains friendly with Susan Sarandon, who won the Oscar for Best Actress for playing Prejean on screen. She also has Chicago ties: her papers are archived at DePaul University, and she visits the city each year in April.
Friday, she offered up scripture and recollections of her time alongside death row inmates, governors and two popes with a doses of humor. Her speech Friday focused on the reasons Catholics who oppose abortion— as church doctrine dictates— should also oppose the death penalty, a position Prejean prodded Pope Francis to adopt.
“People say they are pro-life, but they are only pro innocent life,” she said. “If you are pro-life, you can help us. You can help our church understand the dignity of life, even of those of us who have done horrible things.”
Noting that for years, polls showed support for the death penalty correlated closely with one’s religious faith — those who reported going to church more often tended to show greater support for capital punishment — Prejean noted another data point.
“Americans are not exactly Biblically literate,” she said, noting that in another survey, “Fifth-percent of Christians said Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.”
Prejean said she recently spoke to Richard Glossip, an Oklahoma death row inmate whose execution seems almost certain despite dubious evidence he was involved in a 1997 murder, and she intends to minister to him, one of seven men she has escorted to the death chamber. She counts the former hotel manager among the three executed men she has known personally who were likely innocent.
“This guy is probably innocent from what I know of the case,” she said. “So I’ve got to go do something about it.”
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April 28, 2023 at 09:11PM