August 12, 2008
Sister Helen Prejean speaks at Convocation August 27 at 3:30 p.m. in Hayes Auditorium

Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking and The Death of Innocents, is the featured speaker during Lees-McRae College's Convocation ceremony Wednesday, August 27 at 3:30 p.m. in Hayes Auditorium.

Convocation is an important part of the academic tradition at Lees-McRae College, and each year Lees-McRae offers a Summer Reading Program that relates to the ceremony. This acts as an introduction to academic life and provides a common academic experience for incoming students. This year's selection is The Death of Innocents.

"The Summer Reading Program is a way for us to get students off to a great start in their first year at college. They arrive, often knowing no one else and unsure of college expectations. But right away they get to know each other as they engage in discussions of a book they all read during the summer. And the book is always one intended to be thought-provoking, one that demonstrates the value we place on critical examination of tough issues," said Dr. Debra Thatcher, Lees-McRae College Provost. "The opportunity to actually meet the book's author makes the reading even more meaningful."

Sister Helen Prejean, a native of Louisiana, is known internationally for her tireless work against the death penalty. She was instrumental in sparking national dialogue on the issue and in shaping the Catholic Church's newly vigorous opposition to all state executions.

"We are especially pleased to host Sister Helen Prejean for this year's Convocation. Sister Helen has a compelling story; her personal experiences with prisoners on death row provide us a more intimate connection to issues associated with capital punishment. Our hope is to have students engage in meaningful discussions about justice, forgiveness, human rights, dignity; to become deeply aware of every opinion, decision, and action they make; to take action in order to make the world a better place," Dr. Thatcher continued.

At 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday in Evans Auditorium, Sister Helen Prejean will take part in an open forum with time for questions and answers. The programs are open to the public.

Sister Helen is a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph. She spent her first 24 years with the Sisters teaching religion to junior high school students and working within her community, first as religious education director and then as formation director.

Since then, Sister Helen has divided her time between campaigning against the death penalty and counseling individual death row prisoners. She has accompanied six more men to their deaths. In doing so, she began to suspect that some of those executed were not guilty. This realization inspired her second book The Death of Innocents - An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions.

In 1982, she started visiting Patrick Sonnier in Louisiana's Angola Prison. She became his spiritual adviser, worked to prevent his execution, and finally walked with him to the electric chair. She did the same thing with a second prisoner, Robert Willie. Concerned with the plight of murder victims' families, she founded Survive, an organization that provides counseling and support for grieving families.

She then wrote a book about the experience. The result was Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States, which Random House published in 1993. The book became a best seller, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and spawned an Oscar-winning movie and an internationally-acclaimed opera.

Susan Sarandon won Best Actress in a Leading Role in 1995 for her portrayal of Sister Helen. Now Tim Robbins has made it into a play that is being performed by high school and college students across the country. Lees-McRae Performing Arts will present the play November 7-11, 2008.

She is a regular interviewee and contributor to national and international publications, and has become a recurring presence on major TV news shows. Sister Helen lives in New Orleans and works with the Death Penalty Discourse Center, the Moratorium Campaign and the Dead Man Walking Play Project. She is presently at work on another book - River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey to Death Row.

Sister Helen Prejean's books will be available for purchase following the open forum. For additional information, please contact Meghan Wright, Associate Director of Communications, at (828) 898-8729 or

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