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Dead Man Walking Author Speaks Tonight

Sister Helen Prejean will discuss the death penalty


Sister Helen Prejean has written several books, among them Dead Man Walking, which was made into a film starring Susan Sarandon. Photo courtesy of Grant-Guerrero Photography

For the past 30 years, no one has done more to educate people about the injustices of the death penalty than Sister Helen Prejean, the New Orleans nun whose quest to abolish capital punishment became the subject of an Oscar-winning film. An acclaimed author and human rights activist, Prejean speaks tonight at the George Sherman Union about social justice issues in America.

Now 71, Prejean began her prison ministry as a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph in 1981. She had dedicated her life to serving the poor of New Orleans when she was asked to become the pen pal of death row inmate Patrick Sonnier. The convicted murderer of two teenagers, Sonnier had been sentenced to die in the electric chair. Prejean became Sonnier’s spiritual advisor and witnessed his execution. That experience set her on what has become a lifetime journey to end capital punishment. (Currently, 34 states allow the death penalty.)

Prejean’s experience with capital punishment became the basis of her first book, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States. It topped the New York Times best-seller list for 31 weeks, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and was turned into a major motion picture starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. Sarandon won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Sister Helen.

In 2004, Prejean published a second book, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions, the story of two death row inmates, Dobie Gillis Williams and Joseph O’Dell, who Prejean believes were innocent. She accompanied both men to their execution.

Today, Prejean continues her mission of abolishing capital punishment through lecturing and writing. She also counsels death row inmates, as well as families of murder victims. She is presently at work on a new book, Rain of Fire: My Spiritual Journey.

“Sister Helen Prejean is a remarkable human being who has devoted her life to ending state-sanctioned killing,” says Steven Crimaldi, national coordinator of the Dead Man Walking School Theatre Project, one of the sponsors of Prejean’s BU talk. “Her life, wisdom, and wit will inspire students to think about the death penalty for maybe the first time, and that is the true goal of her talk—to get students to start talking about this issue.”

BU Today recently spoke to Prejean about her criticism of the death penalty, why she believes it’s important for young people to be educated about capital punishment, and what it’s like to see yourself portrayed by an Oscar-winning actress.

BU Today: How did you become interested in the death penalty issue?

Prejean: The direct rail that brought me there was that I got involved with four African American people in New Orleans struggling in the inner city. Right around the corner from where I was working was a Louisiana prison coalition office, and one day somebody just saw me and asked if I would like to be a pen pal with someone on death row. That’s what started the whole thing. I didn’t even think he was going to be killed, because it was 1982 and there hadn’t been an execution in over 20 years—there was an unofficial moratorium for a long time. That’s how it all began.

What about the Sonnier case was so compelling to you?

The interesting thing about Patrick was that he never even asked me to come, he never asked me for anything. He was just glad that somebody had found him and was writing him letters, and I realized that he was alone so I went to visit him. Truthfully, I was nervous about meeting him because I had never been with anybody who had committed murder before. I wondered if he was going to look different, you know? Anybody can write nice letters. But then I met him and thought, oh my gosh, he’s a human being.

Then I found out about the murder of two teenagers. I made a big mistake, because I assumed that the families would not want to have anything to do with me because I was the spiritual advisor to the man who had killed their child, but I was wrong about that. The parents of the girl who was killed truthfully did not want to see to me, but the parents of the boy did want somebody by their side. The father reached out to me and said, ‘Sister, where have you been? All this time you never once came to see us,’ and that was really a moment of grace for me. He was the one who said, ‘You need to come walk in our shoes and come talk to us.’ That’s how I entered into the journey of murder victims’ families and what they’re going through.

You have been an outspoken critic of the death penalty. Why do you believe it’s wrong?

Well, it’s a mosaic of things. First of all, for the criteria that the Supreme Court has given, the death penalty is supposed to be for the worst of the worst murders, and truthfully, no one knows what that means. Nobody really knows how to apply that criteria, and that leaves it up to the whims, to the prejudices, to the pressures on DAs, and to various locales.

When you look at the pattern of the practice of the death penalty, you see that 80 percent of all executions occur in the 10 southern states that practiced slavery and that did the most lynching. So everybody has the same criteria and everybody is supposed to have the same protection under the Constitution, and yet when you go to apply the death penalty, there are vagaries. Where did you do it, in Texas or in Michigan? It’s like a lottery. And what it comes down to is—did you kill a white person or a person of color? Eight out of 10 times you’re going to get the death penalty for killing a white person. The race of the victim is one of the determining factors because people have to be outraged over the death. Even if a person of color kills another person of color, often it’s just a negligible blip on the radar screen.

It’s always poor people who are selected for death. Always. Nobody who has resources goes to death row and the reason for that, pure and simple, is a DA is going to think 14 times before they go up against somebody who has the best lawyer and is going to file 100 pretrial motions and fight that DA every step of the way. They’re not going to want to go into court and maybe lose. So here you have a guy who’s poor, and you’re going to get a court-appointed attorney, overworked and underpaid for the most part, and you go for it. The pattern is really clear.

Finally, the essence of the death penalty is how it makes us think as a society that the way we are going to stop violence or remedy violence is by imitating it. The other illusory aspect is the promise to the victims’ family that—they’ll have to wait maybe 5, 10, 15, or 20 years—they will be summoned. And they get to watch. They get to watch as the person who killed their loved one is executed, and that’s supposed to heal them. It’s supposed to give them closure, but because the media can be at their doorstep whenever there’s a change in the status of the case, the wound is opened again and again. How can they heal? How can they move on with their life? They’re waiting for this because they’re told that this is what’s going to give them closure and that this is going to get them justice. And when you think about what it is in its essence, you’re watching human beings who have lost a loved one watch as the state kills somebody. How can that possibly be healing for anybody?

You’ve accompanied five inmates to their execution. What was that like?

It was unbelievable for me. I don’t believe that anyone should be rendered defenseless and killed, but especially Dobie Williams. He had an IQ of 65. He was just trying to figure out what happened to him. It’s just so unspeakably wrong. If you read the book and see what happened at his trial, it just makes you ashamed that this is still going on in our country. The evidence they presented against him—supposedly three policeman heard him confess, but had no physical evidence of a confession—is so outrageous. And Dobie was scared of needles. They draw a curtain, and Louisiana wants to have a fail-proof system, so they put two IVs in your arm. It took them a half hour until they were finally able to get a vein in his neck. He was alone in there with the people killing him, and that was just so hard. So when I’m present, it’s always about their dignity and being there for them at the end, being there for them to see my face.

Are you optimistic that the death penalty will be abolished in your lifetime?

Yes, it’s beginning to happen; you can see it. Illinois just banned it. When you look at the practice, even in Texas, which is the buckle of the death penalty belt in the United States, you see that they used to do 46 to 48 death sentences a year and last year there were only 2. You can see diminishment practices all across the United States. Another impact on people is the number of wrongfully convicted people that get placed on death row. We all went into this thing thinking we had the best court system in the world, and now we really see that it’s riddled with mistakes. And for some people that’s a very deeply moral question—how can we set this thing up and then get the wrong person? It’s not worth it for that reason alone.

Why do you think Dead Man Walking resonated with such a wide audience?

I believe it’s because I bring you over to both sides of the issue. If I had been slanted about it, people could never have made the journey. If somebody is not there, they’re starting out thinking, look at the crime, look at what they did to this innocent victim. Don’t try to talk to me about their human rights. If we think that way, we’re going to give to them exactly what they did to their victim.

My editor at Random House, Jason Epstein, said to me, “Helen, if you’re not really honest with the readers and face unflinchingly this terrible crime, then people are never going to read your book.” So I took that advice, and early on in the book I talk about the horrific crime of the killing of two teenage kids and the outrage that we feel over that. Then, I gradually take the reader over to what it means for the state to execute. You have to take people there. You don’t preach at them, you don’t say that the death penalty is wrong, you write in a way that takes people into the scene so that they can experience it directly themselves and then draw their own conclusions.

Prejean3_vWhat was it like to see Susan Sarandon portray you on screen?

I’m so deeply into this issue and trying to bring people into it, so when I was there for the filming, and I’m watching Susan act as me, all I could think was, wow, she’s really being honest in the way she’s portraying this role. It was such an honest portrayal of my own journey and the mistake with the victims’ families and their being angry with me because I hadn’t reached out to them. Susan is really the one who had a passion for the film, saying that we need to have a film that can bring people into a deeper journey on this issue. I worked with her and director Tim Robbins on every line and scene. They could not have been more collaborative.

Do you and Susan keep in touch at all?

Yes, in fact I just did an event with her in San Francisco at a home for women recovering from prostitution, addiction, prison, and homelessness. She’s good, you know? She’s really solid.

What will you speak about tonight at Boston University?

It’s going to be the same journey that I just took you on. I’m a storyteller, so I’m going to bring them through the story, bring them over to both sides of the issue, and give them information along the way that I know they probably did not know. I will give them information about how theory is one thing, but how the death penalty actually works is something else entirely.

Why is it important for college students to hear this message?

It’s very important for young people to understand the crucial issues of our day. You look at what’s happened in Tunisia, in Egypt, and in Libya, and it’s young people who are leading it. We need to wake up our young people that this is one of the most important moral and civil rights issues of the day. And whether you’re a person of religious faith or not, human rights is the route that we all walk on as we make our way in the 21st century. Now a majority of countries in the world, because of human rights, have abolished the death penalty and we’re among the last, so young people are very important in this struggle.

An Evening Encounter with Social Justice and Capital Punishment in America, a talk by Sister Helen Prejean, is today, Tuesday, April 12, at 7 p.m. in the GSU Conference Center, Room 228, 775 Commonwealth Ave. The event, sponsored by BU Hillel, the Jewish Law Students Association, BU’s Women’s Resource Center, Massachusetts Citizens Against the Death Penalty, Dead Man Walking Theatre Project, and BU School of Theology, is free and open to the public.

Watch the trailer for Dead Man Walking here.

Tom Vellner can be reached at tvellner@bu.edu.


One Comment on Dead Man Walking Author Speaks Tonight

  • Anonymous on 04.12.2011 at 1:48 pm

    Sister Helen Prejean

    I grew up in the south, and all my family felt very strongly about the need for the death penalty. Sister Helen Prejeans’ books changed my opinions by examining every perspective of this practice. As she says, the story of Dobie Williams is particularly moving. She tells us that on his way to his execution, he set aside his dessert for later. How can the death penalty be a deterrent for people operating at that level? And yet, as Sister Helen so compelling shows, Dobie is representative of just the kind of person who is most likely to suffer this penalty. I firmly believe that Sister Helen’s work is making America a better nation, and I applaud BU for scheduling her to speak.

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