If ever there was an organization fighting upstream, it’s the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty. Abolishing capital punishment was hardly a popular idea with the general public in 1975, when the coalition was formed, and it’s even less so today. The approaching execution of mass murderer John Wayne Gacy, scheduled for May 10, doesn’t help matters.

“Even people who are personally opposed to capital punishment are reluctant to speak out or support a group like ours,” says Patricia Vader, president of the coalition’s board of directors. She allows that some rethinking is in process. “We’re often seen as callous, one-sided, indifferent to the pain of the survivors. We need to broaden our perspective.”

Technically, the coalition is sponsored by some 58 civil rights and religious organizations, but few of these provide funds, and contributions from the 1,500 people on the mailing list are slim. The only office is in a small corner of the state headquarters of the American Civil Liberties Union, 203 N. LaSalle. The coalition’s monthly speaker series was canceled last year because of poor attendance.

Now the coalition is launching a new quarterly lecture series with higher-profile guests. The series begins Wednesday with a talk by Sister Helen Prejean, who last year published Dead Men Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States. This book, which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, tells of Prejean’s work with death row inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary; its impact comes from the fact that she extended herself not only to the condemned but to the families of their victims. She presents a sensitive view of the pain on both sides, yet comes down strongly against capital punishment as a violation of moral principle and as useless for deterrence.

Vader said Prejean’s approach is causing death penalty abolitionists to reevaluate their methods. The Illinois Coalition now has one board member whose sister and brother-in-law were murder victims and it hopes to recruit others who have lost a close relative or friend but still oppose eye-for-an-eye retribution.

Prejean will relate her experiences and views Wednesday, April 13, at the Schmitt Academic Center of DePaul University, 2320 N. Kenmore, with author Studs Terkel serving as host. A wine and cheese reception will be held at 7:30 PM, followed by the program at 8. A donation of $12 is suggested. Call 201-9740.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Gary Hunter.