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Sister Helen Prejean is the most prominent anti-death penalty activist in the United States, devoting her life to ending capital punishment. Her 1993 memoir Dead Man Walking, brought these issues to the forefront of national debate.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Life and Devotion
Sister Helen Prejean was born on April 21, 1939, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, into a tight-knit, happy, middle-class Catholic family in 1939. Her mother was a nurse and her father was a lawyer. She received a loving and religious upbringing.
The Prejean family was keen on road trips, and it was on these protracted excursions that Helen learned to tell a story and, conversely, to meditate in silence. At St. Joseph’s Academy for girls in Baton Rouge, using the rhetoric skills she learned from her father, she was a bright and popular student, elected to class office.
In 1957, when she was eighteen, Prejean took her vows, becoming a sister of St. Joseph of Medaille, an order focused on charitable works and education. She received a BA in English and education from St. Mary’s Dominican College and later an MA in religious education from St. Paul’s University in Ottawa, Canada. For over twenty years, Prejean taught middle- and high-schoolers, in addition to working in parish religious education. In 1981 the sisters of her order and Prejean herself began to rethink their mission, which, until that point, had not been devoted to Joseph of Medaille’s dictum to serve those most in need.
A New Dedication
Desiring a position more in keeping with her responsibilities to the poor, Prejean took a post at the St. Thomas Housing Project in New orleans, and it was during this time that she began her prison ministry. She has referred to the path of the New orleans poor—specifically African Americans—to prison as a ”greased rail,” and she reasoned that inmates, undeniably lacking in material goods, fit with her dedication to serve those most in need. In 1982 in Louisiana, an unofficial moratorium had prevented the state from executing anyone for two decades. When Prejean received a request from a representative of the Louisiana Coalition on Jails and Prisons to begin an epistolary communication with Patrick Sonnier, she agreed. Sonnier had murdered two teenagers and had been sentenced to die at Angola State Prison. At the time her letter writing began, Prejean still did not believe the state would execute him. When Sonnier asked her to come and visit him, she agreed to this as well. She would continue to visit him for two and a half years, until the date of his execution.
Diary of a Spiritual Adviser
Sonnier, along with his brother, Eddie, had been convicted in 1977 of rape and two brutal murders. Eddie’s sentence was life in prison, while Patrick received the death penalty. Prejean did not doubt Sonnier’s guilt, but she felt a call to compassion that surmounted her innate disgust with him; she became his spiritual adviser. Polite visitations turned into deeper meditations and prayerful encounters with Sonnier, who, by several accounts other than Prejean’s, was a remorseful prisoner.
Prejean kept detailed diaries during this time, which she used to write her best-selling account of her time (including the details of execution) with two death-row inmates, Dead Man Walking. The other man, Robert Lee Willie, whom Prejean found far less repentant, was also executed, and the family of his victim would continue to publicly disdain Prejean for her perceived unwillingness to sympathize with their pain, prompting her to begin her work counseling the grieving families. Dead Man Walking catapulted Prejean and her cause into the spotlight. The book would go on to be nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and was turned into a feature film starring Susan Sarandon.
Over the years, Prejean became increasingly appalled by the capital punishment system. As she gained exposure to capital punishment’s intricacies—the secretive nature of the execution, the mental anguish wrought upon the individuals charged with carrying out the gruesome task—she also became more sensitive to the fact that the death penalty is meted out with a clear bias against the poor, uneducated, and nonwhite.
A Shift in Focus
Whereas Dead Man Walking focused its anti-capital punishment argument on the stance that it is morally and ethically repugnant for the state to put its citizens to death, The Death of Innocents (2004) seeks to persuade readers that by virtue of sheer incompetence, capital punishment cannot continue. She tells the stories of two death-row inmates, Louisianan Dobie Gillis Williams, a man with an I.Q. of sixty-five, poor and black, convicted of rape and murder, and Joseph Roger O’Dell, a career criminal from Virginia who was convicted of murder, rape, and sodomy in Virginia.
The misconduct at the two trials was stunning. The attorney for Williams was staggeringly inept, and O’Dell was allowed to represent himself, all with disastrous results. Both men were eventually executed, although in 2002 the Supreme Court decided that the Constitution bars execution of the mentally handicapped.
Prejean continues to council death row inmates and advocate for the abolition of the death penalty. Her numerous accolades have brought increased awareness to the cause, and she founded a support group, SURVIVE, for the families of the victims.
Works in Literary Context
The Fight against Capital Punishment
Prejean is part of a long tradition of memoirists who have, out of a sense of duty, placed themselves into difficult or even dangerous situations in order to educate the public. Her striking ability to meld a personal story with a larger social and political one accomplishes these educational goals. Upton Sinclair, the journalist who immersed himself in the revolting Chicago meatpacking industry in order to report on the horrendous conditions for both animals and workers, is her forebear in this work. Prejean’s stories have influenced the film adaptation of Dead Man Walking, but other creative attempts to discredit capital punishment, among them the 2003 film The Life of David Gale, owe a debt to her message.
Works in Critical Context
Prejean’s books have been well received, and critics find her prose an engaging vehicle for her extraordinary personal story—worthy of praise in its own right.
Dead Man Walking
When Dead Man Walkingappeared, Laura Shapiro in the New York Times wrote, ”[Prejean] is an excellent writer, direct and honest and unsentimental; her accounts of crime and punishment are gripping, and her argument is persuasive.” Adam Liptak, reviewer for the New York Times Book Review, writing about The Death of Innocents, noted that Prejean’s first effort was a ”fine, furious” piece of social activism literature, and much of that was echoed in the second book. He did find, however, that the work suffered from an overload of Catholic theology and tenuous attempts to wrestle with the intricate legal issues involved.
- Bragg, Rick. ”Visiting Death Row with Sister Helen Prejean; Making Executions Personal.” New York Times, March 21, 1996.
- Liptak, Adam. “‘The Death of Innocents’ A Reasonable Doubt.” New York Times Book Review (January 23, 2005).
- Prejean, Sister Helen. ”Death in Texas.” New York Review of Books (January 13, 2005).
- Shapiro, Laura. I Would Not Want My Murderer Executed.” New York Times, July 4, 1993.
- The Nobel Peace Prize 1986. Retrieved December 6, 2008, from http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/ peace/laureates/1986/press.html.
- PBS: Sister Helen Prejean Interview. Retrieved December 6, 2008, from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/ frontline/angel/interviews/hprejean.html.
- Sister Helen Prejean. Retrieved December 6, 2008, from http://prejean.org.
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