Chicagoan stands against executions 20 years after Dead Man Walking
Chicago man Bill Pelke founded anti-death penalty organization Journey of Hope after his grandmother was killed in 1985 (photo credit: Andrew Langley


Local death penalty abolitionist Bill Pelke told Democracy Now:  "Once your heart is touched by compassion forgiveness becomes automatic."  He explains how families of murder victims can make the journey from resentment to hope.


20 years ago this week Louisiana nun Sister Helen Prejean published Dead Man Walking, an account of her time as a spiritual advisor to a convicted rapist and murderer on death row.  The book went on to be adapted to the 1995 film of the same name (IMDB) starring Sean Penn with Susan Sarandon in the role of Sister Prejean.  The book and the film fundamentally changed the way many Americans view the practice of executing convicted criminals.  Moreover, the box office numbers revealed that American moviegoers would support deeply personal and moving narratives to an unexpected level, and redefined Hollywood's notions of what could become a  'successful' film.   Sister Prejean recounted her experiences since writing the book as the guest on Tuesday's Rachel Maddow Show.  In that interview she tells Rachel, "The American people are not wedded to the death penalty.  They just never think about it".

One American who thinks about the death penalty a great deal is Chicagoland native Bill Pelke.  In 1985 Pelke's grandmother was killed during a home invasion in Gary, Indiana.  The resulting family conflicts, moral questioning and interactions with the perpetrator herself led Pelke to be one of the five people who founded Journey of HopeJourney of Hope is one of an ever-increasing number of local, national, and international organizations opposed to the death penalty.  Many of these groups focus on legislation or direct activism.  While some are organized around objections based on religion, expense, or racial grounds,  Journey of Hope is a roadshow that travels the country on speaking tours based on the simple idea that when you talk to those most closely involved what you tend to find is that the death penalty has a destructive ripple effect in the lives of survivors and ordinary people.

Both Pelke and Sister Prejean believe that storytelling is an essential element of anti-death penalty advocacy.  By telling the stories of the inmates, as well as their families, the victims' families, the judges and the prison guards people come to a fuller understanding of what it means to the people intimately involved in the process when our society becomes an executioner.   By way of narrative people come to their own reasons, their own conclusions.  By way of story, those unacquainted with the realities of the death penalty or the actions of those opposed to it often come to understand that death penalty abolition isn't about whether criminals deserve to die.  It's about whether we deserve to kill them.

You can donate to Journey of Hope on their website.  They also have an extensive list of organizations joined together to abolish the inhuman practice of executions in America and around the world.

Here are Pelke and Sister Prejean telling their stories together on Democracy Now! and you can watch Sister Prejean's interview with Rachel Maddow here.


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