Pittsburg State University hosted two death penalty opponents on Friday, beginning with a talk at 11 a.m. in the Crimson and Gold Ballroom by Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, and Bluhm Legal Clinic, Northwestern University School of Law.

Pittsburg State University hosted two death penalty opponents on Friday, beginning with a talk at 11 a.m. in the Crimson and Gold Ballroom by Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, and Bluhm Legal Clinic, Northwestern University School of Law.

Sister Helen Prejean, author of “Dead Man Walking,” spoke at 7 p.m. in Pittsburg Memorial Auditorium for the final event of the 2011-2012 Performing Arts and Lecture Series (PALS).

Warden grew up in Carthage, Mo., started out his career as a reporter for the Joplin Globe and attended a few PSU courses during that time.

“We know that since 1989, the dawn of the DNA age, 877 wrongful convictions have been overturned,” he said. “That’s when a person has been restored to legal innocence by exculpatory evidence not presented at trial.”
Warden added that this number does not include persons who, while possibly innocent, had their convictions overturned because of legal technicalities.

He noted that death penalty supporters claim that there have been no wrongful executions in the United States, but countered that claim with the sad case of William Jackson Marion, who had been a roommate of good friend John Cameron in Clay County, Kan., in 1872. The two left Kansas, saying they were going west to work on the railroad, but a few days later Marion returned without Cameron. Eleven years later, a body was found dressed in clothing that witnesses identified as belonging to Cameron.

Marion was indicted, convicted and sentenced to death. He was hung on March 25, 1887, still proclaiming his innocence.

“Three years later, Cameron was found living in Kansas,”  Warden said. “He said he had run away to avoid a shotgun wedding and had no idea his friend Marion had been accused of his death. This was the first documented wrongful execution in the United States.”

Since the Center on Wrongful Convictions was founded in 1998, it has been instrumental in the exonerations of 34 innocent men and women in Illinois. Staff members were also responsible for an additional 14 exonerations before the center was founded. Of those 48 exonerated people, 13 had been sentenced to death.

“We’ve simply got to abolish the death penalty,” Warden said.

For Sister Helen Prejean, her struggle against the death penalty started with a simple human encounter. While she was working at Hope House in New Orleans, she was asked to become a pen pal with Patrick Sonnier, a death row inmate.

“God is sneaky, sneaky, sneaky,” she told her audience. “I  thought, ‘I was an English major, I can write some nice letters.’ The problem is, he wrote back and there was an encounter between two human beings. Then he wrote that he was a Catholic and asked if I would be his spiritual adviser.”

Sister Prejean later visited Sonnier in prison.

“I saw his face for the first time and I was shocked,” she said. “He looked so human.”

She learned about the crime he had been involved with, the murder of two teenagers. His brother, Eddie Sonnier, had pulled the trigger, but had received two life sentences. She began visiting the brother as well.

Sister Prejean also became acquainted with the families of the two slain teenagers, learned of their pain and also the pain of Patrick and Eddie Sonnier’s mother.

“She was living there in that town and she couldn’t even go into the grocery store without people talking about her, loud enough for her to hear,” Sister Prejean said. “People cut up the bodies of dead animals and threw them on her porch.”

Finally, she saw Patrick Sonnier die.

“He didn’t want me to be there, he said that I would be scarred by it,” she said. “I told him I wanted to be the face of Christ for him, and I wanted him to look at my face at his execution.”

Afterward, she wrote a book about the experience, titled “Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States.” It was made into a successful film, an opera and a play by Tim Robbins for high school and college students.

That play will be presented at 8 p.m. April 26, 27 and 28 and 2 p.m. April 29 in the Grubbs Studio Theatre, PSU. In conjunction with the production, students have also been writing poetry.

Sister Prejean said she read some of the poetry before her presentation.

“It’s excellent poetry, good stuff,” she said.

She continues to campaign against the death penalty and has answers for those who believe that the death penalty is justified by scriptures.

“There are 37 different crimes with the death penalty in the Old Testament, including sassing your parents, not keeping the Sabbath and having sex with animals,” she said. “The animal has to die, too.”

Sister Prejean noted that several states have abolished the death penalty already, and she believes that Kansas will eventually do so as well.

“I think it’s just not part of you,” she said.