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A national anti-death penalty activist was the featured speaker for the Fourth Annual Gandhi Lecture for Peace and Nonviolence. 

Sister Helen Prejean, author of the book Dead Man Walking, gave the annual lecture at the University of Toledo.

“There is a big connection between what Sister Helen Prejean stands for and what the Gandhi Lecture series stands for, and we are very excited to have her come and share that connection,” said Saumin Mehta, president of the Hindu Temple of Greater Toledo.

Prejean became pen pals with Patrick Sonnier, a convicted killer of two teenagers, when she began dedicating time to prison ministry. Sonnier was sentenced to die in the electric chair of Louisiana’s Angola State Prison; upon Sonnier’s request, Prejean frequently visited him and became his spiritual adviser. As a result, she learned about the Louisiana execution process and was inspired to share her experiences in Dead Man Walking.

Prejean’s book was selected for the University’s First Read Program, which brings together first-year students to share a common learning experience. Jessica Merritt, chair of the program, said she was excited about Prejean’s book selection and even more excited to wrap up this year’s program with the author’s visit to speak on campus.

“This book is written from her perspective and she has challenged, and quite possibly changed, several students’ views on the death penalty,” Merritt said. “Hearing her speak allows each student the opportunity to hear firsthand how this experience has changed her life.”

Prejean joined the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille in 1957 after receiving a bachelor of arts degree in English and education from St. Mary’s Dominican College in New Orleans and a master of arts degree in religious education from St. Paul’s University in Ottawa, Canada. 

Since then, she has been the religious education director at St. Frances Cabrini Parish in New Orleans, the formation director for her religious community, and has taught junior and senior high school students.

Her book Dead Man Walking drew international attention and was nominated for a 1993 Pulitzer Prize. It also was listed on the 1994 American Library Associates Notable Book List and was No. 1 on The New York Times Best-Seller List for 31 weeks. Prejean appeared on “60 Minutes,” NBC’s “Today Show,” “Larry King Live” and other national shows to discuss her experiences. 

Based on the book, a major motion picture starring Susan Sarandon as Prejean and Sean Penn as the death row inmate was released in 1995. It received four Oscar nominations, with Sarandon winning the Academy Award for Best Actress.

Prejean wrote another book, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions, which was published in 2004. 

Today, Prejean educates the public about the death penalty by lecturing, organizing and writing. As the founder of Survive, a victim’s advocacy group in New Orleans, she continues to counsel not only inmates on death row, but families of murder victims.