Friday, December 14, 2012

Considering the Death Penalty

Our Pilot Program students in the Loyola Intensive English Program spent the Fall 2012 semester considering the death penalty through reading, film, discussion, and writing.

We read three books with different views on the death penalty.
  • DEAD MAN WALKING by Sister Helen Prejean. Sister Prejean, a Catholic nun, opposes the death penalty and serves as spiritual advisor to men on death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola LA. In Dead Man Walking, Sister Prejean tells of her experience with the first two death row inmates whom she advised spiritually in the 1980s, Elmo Patrick Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie, and explains in detail her opposition to the death penalty.
  • VICTIMS OF DEAD MAN WALKING by Detective Michael L. Varnado and D. P. Smith. Detective Varnado investigated the killing of Faith Hathaway by Robert Lee Willie, one of the men whom Sister Prejean served as spiritual advisor in Dead Man Walking. Detective Varnado wrote his book in answer to Sister Prejean. He believes that murder victims rather than murderers should receive the public's attention and that the death penalty is warranted in cases of wanton first-degree murder.
  • A LESSON BEFORE DYING by Ernest J. Gaines. This is a novel about an innocent black man, Jefferson, who is convicted of killing a white man in the 1940s and sentenced to die in the electric chair. In an attempt to obtain a more lenient sentence of life in prison for Jefferson, the defense attorney had told the jury that killing Jefferson would just be like killing a hog. The local black teacher, Grant Wiggins, makes it his mission to visit Jefferson in prison during the time left before his execution and to convince Jefferson to go to his inevitable death, not with the stigma of a hog, but with the dignity of a man.
Well-used copies of A Lesson Before Dying, Dead Man Walking, and Victims of Dead Man Walking
 We also watched three films.
  • THE FARM: LIFE INSIDE ANGOLA PRISON. This film describes life at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola LA. The film follows the stories of six Angola inmates, one of whom is on death row.
  • DEAD MAN WALKING. This is the film version of Helen Prejean's book, starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn.
  • A LESSON BEFORE DYING. This is the film version of Ernest J. Gaines' novel.
Besides our class discussions, the Pilot students also had the opportunity for two additional conversations.
Dr. David O'Donaghue
  • AN INTERCULTURAL CONVERSATION. We were privileged to have Dr. David O'Donaghue, founder and director of the New Orleans Lyceum and of Chautauqua New Orleans, come to Loyola and facilitate an intercultural conversation on the death penalty with our Pilot students and several interested members of the New Orleans community. This helped us to deepen and sharpen our ideas on the death penalty as we articulated our ideas in this conversational setting.

Father William Barnwell
  • CONVERSATION WITH FATHER WILLIAM BARNWELL. We were also privileged to have a visit from Father William Barnwell, an Episcopal priest, who talked with us about his work with inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola LA. Like Sister Helen Prejean, Father Barnwell serves as an advisor to a death row inmate at Angola.

The Pilot students wrote responses to the three books and the three films. They also each wrote a longer essay explaining their view for or against the death penalty.

And as lagniappe, three Pilot students drove to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola LA with LIEP instructor Karen Greenstone on Sunday, October 7, to experience the Angola Prison Rodeo!

Our next two posts will feature an essay by Pilot student James Zhang of China in favor of the death penalty, followed by an essay by Pilot student Jessica Osteicoechea of Venezuela opposing the death penalty.

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