"In the discipline of a prison, people can change. And with love, people can change." This was the message delivered by Sister Helen Prejean, author of the book "Dead Man Walking," last night in her speech criticizing the practice of capital punishment.
At a time when just about every Princeton student was glued to his or her television watching the men's basketball team trounce UNLV, Prejean was able to attract a large crowd of University students and townspeople to fill the University Chapel to near-capacity.
Prejean, co-screenwriter of the film based on her book, has visited inmates on death row for over a decade. In her speech, she called on those assembled to reconsider their stance on the death penalty.
"Some people see forgiveness as a weak thing," Prejean said, citing as an example the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and their call for the death of bomber Timothy McVeigh.
But Prejean cautioned the families of victims of violent crimes, saying, "don't let the hatred eat you alive." Adding that "forgiveness is never going to be easy," Prejean noted that the father of one of the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing did not advocate the death penalty for McVeigh while others criticized him for not "loving his daughter enough."
Prejean said his reply was "I will never honor her memory by asking for the death of the person who killed her."
"Our criminal justice system is held together with bailing wire, Elmer's glue and Scotch tape," Prejean said, adding that "the law is not always on the side of human rights."
She explained the inequality of death row inmates' racial makeup. Of more than 300,000 people condemned to die, Prejean said 85 percent of them had killed a white person.
"To entrust the death penalty to a society, they'd have to be a society who didn't care if the victim (of a violent crime) was white or black . . . a homeless person or a judge," Prejean said.
While telling the story of a condemned man with arthritis who was denied any medication, Prejean also stated "torture is built into the death penalty."
"Once you decide you can kill a man . . . all these human rights slide right off the scale," she said.
Prejean called for the United States to address the "root causes" of crime, especially problems in inner-city schools that she characterized as "a disaster waiting to happen."
Above all, Prejean stressed the importance of companionship for the families of the victims.
"One of the best gifts we can give is our presence to each other," she explained. "Across the country, people need to come together and pray for the families . . . be compassionate and listen. It's so important."