DEATH PENALTY opponent speaks as Terre Haute prepares for execution


Sunday, May 6th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6



TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (AP) _ Her words tinged with a New Orleans accent, Sister Helen Prejean summed up the spiritual conundrum of Timothy McVeigh's upcoming execution.

``The key moral question about Timothy McVeigh is if, in the book of justice, anybody deserves to die, it's Timothy McVeigh. But the key question to us, as a society, is who deserves to kill him?''

McVeigh is scheduled to die by lethal injection May 16 for bombing the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995, killing 168 people.

Prejean, whose book ``Dead Man Walking'' was make into an Academy Award-winning movie, was in Terre Haute on Saturday to give the commencement address to about 90 graduates at St. Mary-of-the-Woods College, just north of the federal prison where McVeigh is waiting to die.

Prejean related anecdotes from her death row experiences during her address but never mentioned McVeigh.

``I figured she would probably want to stay clear of that. This was our commencement,'' said one of the graduates, Katie McCarthy. ``I was happy she did.''

The college awarded Prejean an honorary doctorate in letters.

For years, Prejean has traveled the country, giving as many as 20 speeches a month in opposition to the death penalty. She's counseled five men on death row.

``Where are we as a people as we continue the cycle of violence?'' she asked at a news conference before the commencement address.

It's a question many in this western Indiana city and across the country are asking as the first federal execution since 1963 draws closer. Terre Haute is expected to become a focal point for death penalty protesters in the days leading up to the execution.

Oddly enough, Prejean's appearance at the small Catholic college was planned long before McVeigh's execution was scheduled.

``It was coincidental,'' said Sister Joan Lescinski, president of St. Mary-of-the-Woods. ``Some people would even say it was providential.''

Prejean said a more fitting punishment for McVeigh would be to keep him in his cell for the rest of his life surrounded by pictures of the bombing victims. While she believes nothing good can come from the execution, she does see America's attitude about the death penalty changing.

To fully change that attitude, she said all executions should be broadcast to the public.

``The death penalty is not one of the moral issues that people have to reflect on,'' Prejean said at the news conference. ``We don't see what it means for our sentiment and emotion to be turned into policy. I don't think people who support this want people to see it.''