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Author of 'Dead Man Walking' says tide turning against death penalty

Congregation of St. Joseph Sister Helen Prejean, author of a bestselling book on capital punishment, says the tide is turning against the death penalty in the United States.

"The wave hit the shore," Sister Prejean said May 20. "The highest number of executions was in 1999. In time it is happening, you can begin to see it."

Sister Prejean, whose book "Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States," was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 and turned into a movie, spoke with the Catholic Voice shortly before giving a commencement address for College of Saint Mary at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha.

A native of Louisiana working in New Orleans, she has sought for nearly 30 years to abolish the death penalty while providing spiritual counsel to inmates on death row and the families of victims.

"The death penalty is beginning to move into disfavor with people and diminishment in practice, that's the thing you look for," Sister Prejean said.

In the past five years, five states have abolished the death penalty: New York, New Jersey, New Mexico, Illinois and Connecticut. Oregon recently declared a moratorium on the death penalty, temporarily suspending the executions of 37 inmates on the state's death row.

In 2008, the Nebraska Supreme Court declared electrocution cruel and unusual punishment and the state turned to lethal injection.

Sister Prejean said she credits the change to a shift in public opinion about violent solutions to social problems.

"We are used to solving our social problems, or thinking we can, through violence," she said. "Getting out of Afghanistan, getting out of Iraq, we begin to see the limits in a lot of ways of the violent solution."

She also credits Blessed John Paul II's efforts to refine church teaching on the death penalty and his inclusion of the death penalty in pro-life issues during a 1999 visit to St. Louis.

"That shifted everything," Sister Prejean said. "He said no to abortion, no to euthanasia, no to physician assisted suicide and no to the death penalty, which is cruel and unnecessary. Even those among us who have done a terrible crime have a dignity that must not be taken away."

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