Death-penalty Debate at Heart of Book Chosen for Summer Reading Program

A nonfiction account of the relationship between a nun and two death-row convicts, their families and individuals on either side of the death-penalty debate has been selected as this year’s summer reading program book.

The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions by Sister Helen Prejean was chosen by a University committee for incoming undergraduates to read and discuss. Prejean’s account, published in 2005, covers the time leading to the convicts’ executions. She maintains that both were wrongfully given the death penalty.

UNC asks all new students – expected to be 3,879 freshmen and transfer students this year – to read a book over the summer and come prepared to participate in group discussions led by faculty and staff. The noncredit assignment, an academic icebreaker, is voluntary and strongly encouraged. Next fall’s discussion groups will be held Aug. 20; fall semester classes begin Aug. 21.

UNC’s program focuses on discussion and dialogue, not the book itself. Officials say the goal is to create an intellectual climate in which students can come to their own conclusions and turn information into insight.

Prejean details the trial and execution, in 1999, of Dobie Gillis Williams, a black man from Louisiana with an IQ of 65, who was accused of rape and murder. She recounts the story of Joseph Roger O’Dell, executed in 1997 after a Virginia murder conviction, which she says might have been overturned by forensic evidence the state destroyed after the execution.

A Roman Catholic nun and an activist against the death-penalty, Prejean has delivered hundreds of lectures nationwide and has appeared on television programs, including ABC’s World News Tonight, CBS’s 60 Minutes and the syndicated Oprah. Her 1993 book, Dead Man Walking, about a presumably guilty death-row convict, was adapted to a film nominated for four Academy Awards in 1996.

The nine-member book selection committee of students, faculty and staff began meeting in the fall to consider books for this year’s program.

“This was the committee’s clear choice,” said Douglas G. Kelly, chairman of the selection committee and professor in the department of statistics and operations research. “Members praised it as a narrative that, while compelling and moving, is told calmly and with tolerance for all sides of the contentious issue of the death penalty in the United States.”

Of the five books that made it to the final round of the committee’s selection process, only The Death of Innocents was in the top three on every member’s list. Other finalists were Honky by Dalton Conley, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan, The Wal-Mart Effect by Charles Fishman, and With These Hands: The Hidden World of Migrant Farmworkers Today by Daniel Rothenberg.

The Death of Innocents “raises critical issues that everyone should think about, including choice, trust, responsibility, justice, belief,” a staff member serving on the committee wrote in the recommendation. “It will take readers beyond their current selves.”

A student committee member wrote: “Prejean takes a strong stance against the death penalty but handles the opposing viewpoint with sensitivity and professionalism. Students on both sides of the argument will be forced to re-evaluate and defend their ideology and will be empowered by Prejean’s characters.”

The selection committee started with 218 suggestions about books, types of books or general topics from members of the University community. Covering a diverse range of topics, authors and viewpoints, those suggestions included nominations and input from the University community that resulted from a campus-wide e-mail, online postings to the reading program Web page and recommendations from alumni, members of the public and others that were sent to the chancellor’s office.

The committee’s criteria for selecting a book include finding a work that will be intellectually stimulating to entering freshmen and transfer students and will provoke thoughtful discussion. Other priorities are that the book should be engaging, relatively short and easy to read and that it address a topic or theme that students can apply to their lives, such as societal issues.

The reading program, now in its ninth year, was among recommendations from a 1997 faculty task force convened by the late Chancellor Michael Hooker ’69 to enhance UNC’s intellectual climate. Other recommendations implemented included a first-year seminar program, in which new students tackle academic subjects in depth for an entire semester with senior faculty, and an Office of Undergraduate Research.

Since 1999, the summer reading program choices have been There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz, Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman, Approaching the Qur’an by Michael Sells, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich, Absolutely American: Four Years at West Point by David Lipsky, Blood Done Sign My Name by Timothy B. Tyson and – the only novel in the group – The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri.

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