Sister Helen Prejean, whose book Dead Man Walking inspired the movie by the same name, knows what it's like to go into the execution chamber with someone on Death Row and to come out alone.
She said it's something like being on a cross.
"You feel yourself stretched across with Christ," said Prejean, who spoke Tuesday night at Pax Christi Catholic Church.
She said the sufferings of crime victims and their families are represented on one arm of the cross, while the other side represents the perpetrator, a human whose life is also being taken.
"Jesus is affixed between both of them," she said.
Prejean was brought to Kentucky by the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. She spoke in Northern Kentucky on Monday and was scheduled to be in Louisville on Wednesday.
Bishop John Stowe of the Catholic Diocese of Lexington told Tuesday night's audience that Prejean was "one of the heroes of the American Catholic Church."
In explaining the church's stance against the death penalty, Stowe read the words of Pope Francis before Congress this year, in which he said that "...a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation."
Prejean said she was unwittingly introduced to her life's work when she was asked to write a letter to Louisiana Death Row inmate and convicted murderer Patrick Sonnier.
The moment she saw Sonnier in prison, her first thought was, "Oh my God, he's human," Prejean said.
"I thought if he'd murdered somebody, he'd look mean," she said. "He was smiling."
She said she was challenged, though, when she learned the details of Sonnier's crime. He and his brother were convicted in 1978 of the execution-style murders of a teenage couple who had been "parking" in a rural area. The girl had been raped.
"There's a part of us that says whoever did that deserves to die," she said.
But, Prejean said, "we kill to show how bad killing is," telling victim's families that "this is going to offer you justice, closure, healing."
Prejean went on to become a spiritual adviser to Sonnier, who was executed in 1984, and later many other Death Row inmates.
She testified this year on behalf of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who ultimately was sentenced to death for the bombing at the Boston Marathon in 2013.
A majority of Americans still support the death penalty, but the numbers are on the decline, according to the Pew Research Center.
A Pew survey released this year found that 56 percent of respondents favored the death penalty for people convicted of murder, down from 62 percent in 2011.
Of those surveyed, 38 percent said they opposed the death penalty for murder.
The Rev. Pat Delahanty, who leads the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, told the crowd that Prejean's activism has helped fuel "a trend away from the death penalty" in Kentucky in recent years.
He said just one or two death sentences have been handed down over the past five years, and he said more people are beginning to see the death penalty as "a human life issue" rather than a political one.
Delahanty said bills to be filed in each chamber of the state legislature for consideration during the next session will again seek to abolish the death penalty in Kentucky.