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Dead Man Walking: The Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty That Sparked a National Debate

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In 1982, Sister Helen Prejean became the spiritual advisor to Patrick Sonnier, the convicted killer of two teenagers who was sentenced to die in the electric chair of Louisiana’s Angola State Prison. In the months before Sonnier’s death, the Roman Catholic nun came to know a man who was as terrified as he had once been terrifying. She also came to know the families of the victims and the men whose job it was to execute—men who often harbored doubts about the rightness of what they were doing.

Out of that dreadful intimacy comes a profoundly moving spiritual journey through our system of capital punishment. Here Sister Helen confronts both the plight of the condemned and the rage of the bereaved, the fears of a society shattered by violence and the Christian imperative of love. On its original publication in 1993, Dead Man Walking emerged as an unprecedented look at the human consequences of the death penalty. Now, some two decades later, this story—which has inspired a film, a stage play, an opera and a musical album—is more gut-wrenching than ever, stirring deep and life-changing reflection in all who encounter it.

288 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1993

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About the author

Helen Prejean

25 books118 followers
Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ (b. April 21, 1939, Baton Rouge, Louisiana) is a vowed Roman Catholic religious sister, one of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille, who has become a leading American advocate for the abolition of the death penalty.

Her efforts began in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1981, through a correspondence she maintained with a convicted murderer, Elmo Patrick Sonnier, who was sentenced to death by electrocution. She visited Sonnier in prison and agreed to be his spiritual adviser in the months leading up to his death. The experience gave Prejean greater insight into the process involved in executions and she began speaking out against capital punishment. At the same time, she also founded Survive, an organization devoted to providing counselling to the families of victims of violence.

Prejean has since ministered to many other inmates on death row and witnessed several more executions. She served as National Chairperson of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty from 1993 to 1995.

An autobiographical account of her relationship with Sonnier and other inmates on death row served as the basis for the feature film and opera Dead Man Walking. In the film, she was portrayed by Susan Sarandon, who won an Academy Award. (Although Prejean herself was uncredited, she made a minor cameo as a woman in a candlelit vigil scene outside Louisiana State Penitentiary[1])

In addition to Sonnier, the account is also based on the inmate Robert Lee Willie who, with his friend Joseph Jesse Vaccaro, raped and killed 18-year-old Faith Hathaway May 28, 1980, eight days later kidnapping a Madisonville couple from a wooded lovers' lane and driving them to Alabama. They raped the 16-year-old girl, Debbie Morris (née Cuevas), who would later become the author of her book Forgiving the Dead Man Walking [2] and then stabbed and shot her boyfriend, 20-year-old Mark Brewster, leaving him tied to a tree paralyzed from the waist down.[3]

In 1999 Prejean formed Moratorium 2000 - a petition drive that eventually grew into a National Education campaign entitled The Moratorium Campaign, initially staffed by Robert Jones, Theresa Meisz and Jené O'Keefe and launching Witness to Innocence.

Prejean's second book, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions was published in December 2004. In it, she tells the story of two men, Dobie Gillis Williams and Joseph O'Dell, whom she accompanied to their executions. She believes that both of these men were innocent. The book also examines the recent history of death penalty decisions by the Supreme Court of the United States and looks at the track record of George W. Bush as Governor of Texas.

In 1998 Prejean was awarded the Pacem in Terris Award. It was named after a 1963 encyclical letter by Pope John XXIII that calls upon all people of good will to secure peace among all nations. Pacem in Terris is Latin for "Peace on Earth."

Prejean now bases her work at the Death Penalty Discourse Network in New Orleans and spends her time giving talks across the United States and around the world. She is pro-life: "The pope says we should be unconditionally pro-life; against abortion, against euthanasia, against suicide and (that means also) against the death penalty." This view is commonly called the Consistent Life Ethic.

In 2008, Sister Helen spoke at Jesuit High School, Sacramento, for a theme regarding social justice and the death penalty. Over 1000 students watched her speak on her opinions. Sr. Helen spoke at LaSalle University in Philadelphia on March 23, 2009 Prejean is currently scheduled to speak at the University of Puget Sound on March 30th. The event is open to the public

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This page was last modified on 24 April 2009, at 17:45 (UTC).

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 635 reviews
Profile Image for Meredith Holley.
Author 2 books2,198 followers
May 4, 2011
This is the story of a serial killer who enslaves people, usually black men, and tortures them by telling them the date the killer plans to execute them and then by keeping them locked in chains until that date, always reminding them of the date’s imminence. Sometimes, the killer tells them that if they are lucky, if the killer likes them enough, they might escape death, but that just seems to increase the torture because the killer doesn’t really plan to let them go. The killer in this book also has a kind of Dexter complex, where the killer chooses victims morally corrupt enough that few people even notice their deaths. Of course, the killer in this book is state government.

This is actually one of the saddest books I’ve ever read. It’s hard to feel very sympathetic towards the prisoners that Sister Helen advocates for, and I have to be honest that I don’t share her confidence that a true life sentence will always be a true life sentence, or even that a true life sentence is more humane than the death penalty. On the other hand, I am completely convinced of the arbitrariness of state executions. Also, it was deeply tragic to read about the families of the executed men, and their devastation seems to deserve respect, just as does the devastation of the families of the executed men’s victims.

This year, I sat in the courtroom and watched parts of the trial of Angela McAnulty, who tortured her daughter to death over the course of about seven years. At the point that her daughter, Jeanette Maples, died, the coroner couldn’t name a cause of death because there were so many possible causes. She had numerous infected wounds, brain hemorrhaging, water in her lungs, and was severely emaciated. Angela had forced (forced? convinced?) her husband to install locks, to which only Angela had the keys, on most of the doors in the house, including the bathroom. Her daughter was only allowed to use the bathroom supervised because she would try to drink out of the toilet if she was unsupervised. There were other things, worse things. There were other kids who weren’t tortured, but who Angela involved in torturing Jeanette. The jury gave her the death penalty, and I have to say I would have done the same. In her police interrogation tape, she said that instead of torturing her daughter, she probably should have taken up smoking.

So, I feel pretty conflicted about the issue of the death penalty. I think Sister Helen Prejean is a lovely woman, and I think her compassion is truly noble. I’m not wholly convinced that the death penalty is the worst of American institutions, though. Buuuuuut, at the same time, the corruption that the death penalty seems to practically breed is truly disturbing. The fact that it is only used against the poor is equally troubling.

Although Angela McAnulty confessed to her crimes, and so no trial occurred as to her guilt (the only issue was sentencing), it was still a problem to me that her defense attorneys put on almost no case. Their closing argument was something like, “Yep, this is pretty much the worst thing ever. You’re a smart jury, and we’re reconciled to whatever you decide.” I’m not satisfied that that is actually a defense. I know the burden is on the state to prove a crime, but that doesn’t mean that no defense is necessary. According to Sister Helen, failure of the defense to actually provide a defense is a rampant problem.

I keep coming back to thinking about this issue in relation to the recent Supreme Court case Connick v. Thompson . That case is fascinating. Like, I want to investigate it and write a book about all of the people involved in it. It is, like, EVERYTHING interesting about the law. But, the thing about it is that I feel with great certainty that Justice Thomas’ opinion is correct (Slate does not agree). I think Justice Ginsburg’s dissent would have created really troubling law. So the reason it relates to Dead Man Walking is that they are both about the death penalty in Louisiana and how corrupt the prosecution of criminals who end up on death row is. They are both about how legal procedure is basically what decides who wins and loses. Since I totally love legal procedure for some insane reason, I kind of love that fact, but not when people unjustly die because of it.

One awesome thing about the Thompson case is that Harry Connick, Jr.’s dad, Harry Connick, Sr., who was the lead D.A. in New Orleans for a helluva long time (Wikipedia says 1973-2003), is the “Connick” in the title of the case.

Anyway, the issue in Connick v. Thompson was that Mr. Thompson was convicted of a crime and sentenced to the death penalty because the New Orleans prosecutors withheld evidence of a lab test that exonerated him. So, the lab tests get discovered, new trial, Mr. Thompson gets not only gets no death penalty in the new trial, he also gets completely acquitted of the crime. The withholding of evidence is a violation of the case Brady v. Maryland, which says prosecutors can’t withhold exonerating evidence.

Then, this is the interesting part (to me). You probably all know this, but I didn’t before law school. The statute 42 U.S.C. § 1983 is the civil rights statute that says that we can sue people who “under color of” state law deprive us of our rights. So, the Supreme Court says that “people” can mean a lot of things. One of the things it can mean is municipal authorities in their personal capacities. (Like, as themselves, not as their office. So, when Sarah Palin was governor of Alaska, I would sue her as Sarah Palin, not as governor.) It can also mean municipalities themselves, but if you sue a municipality, you have to show that there is some procedure or custom, instituted by the municipality, that supported the deprivation of your rights. Some rule to change. This is the same with suing someone in their official capacity, like suing Mr. Connick as D.A. of New Orleans, or suing Governor Sarah Palin.

In Thompson, Mr. Connick, Sr., came out and said basically, “Yes, yes, unfortunately I misread Brady when I was the lead prosecutor.” *this is me going ballistic* So, he misread Brady to mean that he was supposed to withhold evidence? No. I am not willing to believe that happened. But, the genius thing about this is that then the attorneys bringing Thompson’s case sued the municipality, or Mr. Connick in his official capacity, not the prosecutors in their personal capacities. They argued that Mr. Thompson’s case alone, one instance of withholding evidence, combined with Mr. Connick’s statement that it was a mistake on his part, showed a custom of the municipality. And Justice Thomas was like, “No, one instance doesn’t show a custom or a procedure or a rule that we can attribute to the municipality.”

People tend not to sue officials in their personal capacity because individuals have less money, less insurance, than municipalities. The interesting thing if you take the Thompson case with Dead Man Walking is that Prejean is pretty clear that she thinks that this kind of thing went on all the time in the New Orleans Parish. Even the Slate article above notes that Louisiana courts have overturned, for Brady violations, many convictions coming out of Connick’s office. Correct me if I’m wrong (and I honestly haven’t read the opinion very closely because I have to actually do my schoolwork at some point), but it’s my understanding that the Supreme Court only considered the violations in relation to Thompson (and it would seem that way, too, because Thompson is the only plaintiff here). So interesting that, at least as it appears from reading the facts in the opinion, the attorneys didn’t bring suit using the other cases as well, even as evidence. All of the courts, even the lower courts that awarded judgment to Mr. Thompson, agreed that it was not custom or procedure to withhold evidence.

Anyway, that’s me geeking out on federal courts. I’m sure I haven’t explained the whole situation that well. And it does make sense to gamble by suing Connick in his official capacity, hoping for a judgment on which Mr. Thompson could actually collect, than to sue in his personal capacity. I just wonder about the lack of evidence. I wonder about the statements that Sister Helen makes in this book, which pretty blatantly imply that Mr. Connick’s office has been consistently guilty of § 1983 violations.

Okay, none of this is actually related to the paper I have to write on judicial review and the death penalty, so I need to go work on that now. It’s all just been rattling around in my head, so I felt like I needed to put it to paper. If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! Do you want to write my federal courts paper for me, too?
Profile Image for Shaun.
521 reviews180 followers
February 1, 2015
...if we believe that murder is wrong and not admissible in our society, then it has to be wrong for everyone, not just individuals but governments as well.

This is the crux of Sister Helen Prejean's argument against capital punishment. She also asserts that the death penalty is not a deterrent to violent crime, costs taxpayers substantially more than life in prison in the long run,and is not fairly meted out on the merits of a case, but instead influenced heavily by race, poverty, and geography. She also claims that the individuals involved with the actual execution are generally uncomfortable with the process and if the public were forced to face the reality of the killing, existing support would wane.

I won't bother summarizing the plot/story. All I will say is that she offers a compelling argument against the death penalty, providing both personal accounts and statistics to back up her stance. At times I was brought to tears, which I think speaks to her ability to humanize the bad guys.

Early in the book, I was bothered by the fact that she didn't spend as much time humanizing the victims. It's much easier to feel for the man sitting on death row when you are allowed to forget what he's done. However, I think she rectifies this somewhat in the second half of the book where the victims are finally given a face, albeit a somewhat hazy one.

At this point in my life, I tend to agree with the sister, though I can't imagine how my resolve might be tested if it had been my child that was tortured, raped, or brutally murdered.

Still, I think Prejean's recounting and thoughtful commentary raises a number of valid points not only about the death penalty but also the US criminal justice system in general.

There are some religious undertones that I found annoying. Obviously, she felt her faith was a driving force behind her quest to have the death penalty abolished. Yet she works really hard to get there, a little too hard (after all Christianity is based on a human sacrifice...Christ's life in exchange for our souls...we are redeemed by Christ's blood and suffering...etc, etc, etc). Plus, my personal experience is that those who claim to be of a religious persuasion tend to be more supportive of the death penalty than those who are not.

Bottom line: it's a great discussion about the value of life, and whether the collective "we" has the right to take it. Does government condoned violence really deter violence or help us to heal from violence or does it only perpetuate the same attitude of violence that we're supposedly trying to discourage/punish?

Profile Image for Elle.
584 reviews1,254 followers
Want to read
January 18, 2021
In light of the eleventh-hour federal executions the Trump administration has rushed through at the tail end of his presidency, I’m doing a buddy read of this book by anti-capital punishment activist, Sister Helen Prejean, with my friend Carmen over at @tomesandtextiles!
Profile Image for Graham.
595 reviews9 followers
November 16, 2013
Wow. "Work of the eyes is done, now go do the heart work" (p309, from Rainer Maria Rilke)
Sister Helen Prejean must be one of the bravest people in the world. Not only does she support men convicted of murder on death row, and be with them in hyper final hours, and be with them in the death chamber itself, but she makes time for the victims, attends and raises money for victim support groups and does all this in the name of Jesus, bringing hope and comfort, steel and velvet, challenge and compassion.
I'm in awe.
I thought the book was going to be challenging, but not like this: people, dates, times, corruption of legal process, withholding evidence, common brutality to the families of both those convicted and those victimised. And well researched, humane and thoughtful too. She does not shirk from hard questions, nor does she go for pro hominem arguments.
She tells of one family who, after the man who murdered their daughter is executed, lose their focus: p188 'with Robert Willie dead, he doesn't have an object for his rage'. Isn't that the saddest sentence in the whole book?
Compare with p312-3: " Lloyd...went to the execution....not for revenge, but hoping for an apology. Patrick....had not disappointed him...'....I want to ask for you forgiveness...' and Lloyd had nodded his head, signalling a forgiveness he had already given.... But he acknowledges that it's a struggle...as he remembers David's birthday year by year and loses him all over again... Forgiveness is never going to be easy. Each day it must be prayed for and struggled for and won."

Questions of justice, revenge, 'paying for crime', punishment, acknowledgement, restitution, acceptance, restoration all come up here. Whilst society perhaps still needs to come up with a way of adequately dealing with people who commit terrible crimes it is clear that the death penalty is not that way.
Profile Image for Olga Kowalska (WielkiBuk).
1,380 reviews2,234 followers
June 9, 2018
„Przed egzekucją”, wydane w Polsce w trzydzieści lat po wykonaniu ostatniego wyroku śmierci w naszym kraju, wciąż wywołuje skrajne emocje, bez względu na to, po której czytelnik staje stronie. To historia niezłomnej walki z amerykańskim systemem sprawiedliwości, która trwa niezmiennie od lat. To nie jest książka do czytania z przyjemnością, ale do poznania szerokiego spektrum faktów i uczuć, jakie pojawiają się przy tematyce kary śmierci, targając zarówno skazańcami, ich obrońcami, rodzinami zarówno skazanych, jak i samych ofiar. Siostra Helen Prejean nie potrafi i nie chce być obiektywna, niemniej pokazuje ten skomplikowany temat z różnych perspektyw, starając się oddać głos wszystkim, których on w jakiś sposób dotyczy.

„Przed egzekucją” to ważna pozycja, która wciąż robi wrażenie, tym większe, że w polskim wydaniu książki czytelnik znajdzie nie tylko wstęp napisany przez samą siostrę Prejean do polskich czytelników, ale również uzupełniający reportaż zatytułowany „Dawca krwi” Mariusza Sepioło o ostatnim polskim skazańcu.
Profile Image for Wallace.
35 reviews3 followers
January 7, 2008
So, this one has a seriously funny story attached to it, but it also had a huge impact on me at that time in my life. I went out on a first date with a really cute guy, and we went to the movie. I was so troubled by the film (although I loved it), that I cried so much he had to take me home. I couldn't even talk! He surprised me by asking me out again, though. He must have thought I was a lunatic.

The book is very good, and it lives up to the notion that the book is always better than the movie. It won't make you cry as much, though, as it's written exclusively from the Sister PreJean's perspective, and it's more about her work in the case. Her perspective and guidance for those she meets is so compassionate and honest. Very enjoyable book.
Profile Image for Kathrina.
508 reviews125 followers
December 28, 2015
Sister Prejean is speaking on our campus on April 9th. I'm very much looking forward to speaking with her, and I'll be assigning this book (as well as attendance at her lecture) to my undergrad students. There may only be one or two books you read in college that really make an impact on the person you become. This might be one of them.
Profile Image for Licha.
732 reviews106 followers
February 19, 2015
Had to abandon this book at Chapter 3, page 43. I've never abandoned this many books in a short span of two months so I'm a little worried that I may be giving up too soon on them.

Really wanted to like this and was so excited to read this since I had loved the movie with Sean Penn. The book is so dry though and reads like the reports they had us do back in high school, so in that sense it also made the book seemed outdated for me. The author jumps around a lot so there's not a linear storyline that made me focus on the story. I kept feeling like she missed chunks of story before she would jump onto another part of the story. For example, Sister Helen's recounting of her first encounter with Pat was so brief I felt like she didn't want to tell me everything that had happened. It made me start to lose interest every time she jumped around storylines.

Highly disappointed that I did not like this more. A little part of me does not want to give up on this as I find a story about a nun befriending a man on death row so fascinating. I may have to come back to this book at some other time.
Profile Image for Kathleen Basi.
Author 10 books107 followers
October 23, 2021
I don't know how to put words to how engrossing, shocking, and passion-inspiring a book "Dead Man Walking" is. I heard Sr. Prejean speak at a convention and her humor endeared and her conviction electrified. Picking up this book, I expected a hard read; instead, I found myself ripping through the pages. The narrative voice is gripping and tackles the subject of death row with all the electrifying conviction of her speaking presence, but in so much more depth. The story and the argument it suggests are woven so seamlessly together, you forget you're being taken to school. It is coherent and well-referenced.

I aspire to the courage of this woman who seems to have no fear. She will speak truth to a murderer facing death in a way that allows him to hear it, and she'll speak truth to Christians who are unable to see the intrinsic conflict between what they claim to be their faith and their embrace of the death penalty. She is Catholic in the best sense, speaking to both sides of a debate in a way that they can hear, and advocating for victims and perpetrators alike. It is a breathtaking example for me to follow as a Catholic Christian.
Profile Image for James Carter.
590 reviews7 followers
August 6, 2019
Dead Man Walking pretends to take a look at both sides of capital punishment but does not tell the full story of what actually happened to the victims.

Having absolutely no clue what the heck she is involved with, Sister Helen Prejean is idealistic and naïve simply because she wasn't there or didn't see the evil in the men she was supposed to act as their "spirital adviser." If one day she is raped or violently dealt with or has lost her loved one, somebody that she actually has years of emotional connection with, in a similar manner, let's see if she changes her tune. If the traumatic event doesn't convince her enough, I guess she should get the sainthood after all, and it will be just another example of how silly religion is.

For a change, how about coming into contact with death-row inmates who can barely speak English or put together a comprehensible string of words, have soulless eyes, and like to throw feces at people? Is she going to rationalize their behavior as something simplistic like "misunderstood children trapped in men's bodies?" The fact is that these people had thousands of chances all their lives to change for better and had consistently turned them down. Yes, low IQ and/or poor environment play a role but shouldn't be used as an excuse because there are millions of examples of people overcoming either or both to be decent citizens.

There are flaws with Prejean's logic whenever she tries to make an argument using scriptures from the bible or quoting crime statistics. By rationalizing her stand from the biblical viewpoint, she makes the classic mistake in terms of how words from the book must not be taken so literally because society has evolved over time. That's exactly the point why religion is nothing but a man-made, money making enterprise because the Bible is meant to be the true word of God, yet there are so many mistakes, contradictions, logical problems, inconsistencies, etc., within the book that the only question left to be asked: how can an all-knowing God be so stupid? Hence, the whole religion thing falls apart right in its face and must be therefore discarded.

Moving on to quoting crime statistics, Prejean points out some cases when an innocent person (I don't mean the ones who got off on technical grounds such as improper trial proceedings or had their sentences commuted to life) is put to death, but what percent is that of all death-row cases: 1% or what? That means justice in 99% of the cases was correctly administered. As a result, she fudged the presentation by withholding that important statistic. No system is ever going to be perfect, and there will be mistakes; the most important thing to do is learn from them and not to repeat them. It's the government's responsibility to make the necessary corrections and refine the system more, hence the countless of appeals in state and federal courts to ensure due process.

As far as captial punishment goes, it's the just thing to do. What bothers me is that the process takes too long to get moving. To fix it is to create a separate court system that exclusively deals with death-row appeals and just speed them all up to be completed within several, not 20 to 30, years. Yes, all people, regardless of their race and income, should feel the brunt of it. State- and federal-sponsored execution for crimes committed should be the truth of how real it is and needs to be promptly administered. People who kill may will kill again if they are allowed to live. To put them down prevents any further murders, even if they occur in prisons. Otherwise, capital punishment will have lost all of its meaning. Victims may feel relief from the final resolution, but nothing will erase their loss or pain; at any rate, it's ultimately disappointing that life has dealt them a harsh blow like this.

Sister Helen Prejean should learn to refrain from filling in words of what other people might be thinking. That's just a big no-no, especially in something serious that deals with victims of death-row cases. As for the facts of the case, when you read her account of what happened, the words won't really hit you; it's just impactless retelling of the case. When you read Detective Michael Varnado's book Victims of Dead Man Walking, you will truly feel the words as if you were there and understand why the death penalty was sought. The pictures of deceased Faith Hathaway tell an overpowering tale of how brutally raped and murdered she was. Elsewhere, Sister Helen Prejean failed to mention that the vote was 11 to 1 in favor of death for the other accomplice which is why he got life instead. Ever the classic liberal, she is merely interested in using political rhetoric, away from the brutality of crimes so to present her side through a narrow viewpoint, to make a case against capital punishment because they are, after all, human beings who made mistakes.

Note: I just finished reading Dead Family Walking. There are shocking revelations from that book which weren't mentioned anywhere else. Sister Helen Prejean was planning to ditch her faith and marry Elmo Sonnier who later admitted that he was using her to escape the death penalty. Also, she went behind her Mother Superior's back by forcing the church to open up a plot for him and having all the necessary papers signed; when this was found out, it became too late to reverse the process. During Sonnier's execution, Millard Farmer provoked Mr. Borque to get him angry by claiming that he didn't want Sonnier dead, which wasn't true in the first place, in the hopes of rendering the ongoing execution null and void on technical grounds. Sister Helen Prejean was making so much noise during the proceeding that she was ordered by the warden to immediately leave the premises afterwards. As for the last night, when Sonnier was claimed to have said something like "the whole thing stinks bad," Sister Helen Prejean's account of how it went down in her book never happened, and she made it all up; she was actually at the governor's office in Baton Rouge with Farmer, not Angola with Sonnier.

All in all, before or after you read Dead Man Walking, be sure to read Victims of Dead Man Walking and Dead Family Walking and judge for yourself who is really telling the full, truthful story of what really happened.
Profile Image for Katherine Addison.
Author 12 books2,677 followers
March 26, 2016
Sr. Helen Prejean, C.S.J., is a polemicist.

I don't say this as a condemnation, just as something I was never able to forget while reading Dead Man Walking. This is a woman making an argument; her goal is to persuade. As a reader, I was always able to feel her persuading me as I read, and even though I agree with her--the death penalty as practiced in the American criminal justice system is an abomination and a farce--I had to keep reminding myself not to dig in my heels just because I don't like being persuaded of things.

Which is also not to say that she is not extremely persuasive. Sister Helen is an excellent storyteller, and she is always careful to keep the other side of her story in mind: the Bourques and the LeBlancs as well as Pat Sonnier, the Harveys as well as Robert Lee Willie. She's perfectly open about her own rhetorical purpose, and she's willing to show the people who don't agree with her as being good and morally upright people who are able to turn their daughter's horrible death into purpose that is not simply about supporting the death penalty, but about advocating for the rights of the families of murder victims. She's sometimes a little disingenuous, but I never felt she was dishonest.

The movie conflates Pat Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie, which I think does a disservice to the moral complexity of the book. Sonnier, who expresses remorse and accepts responsibility for his terrible crime, who loves his brother fiercely enough to forgive him and (in a sense) to die for him, who is open to and accepting of Sister Helen's message. Who is enough of a man (unlike Willie, the narrative suggests) to drop his machismo and admit his emotions. Sonnier, who thanks Sister Helen for loving him, is just about the perfect poster child for her purpose.

Willie is not. He is not remorseful; he shifts responsibility to the other guy. (Willie & Sonnier are interesting mirrors of each other; both had a partner in crime, and both received the death penalty while their partner got life. Sonnier, in something that was either a clusterfuck or a very shrewd manipulation on Eddie Sonnier's part, confessed; Willie says consistently that it was all Vaccaro's fault, that Vaccaro did it. The closest he gets to admitting culpability is saying that he shouldn't have followed Vaccaro's lead.) He clearly likes Sister Helen, but he's resistant to being molded and he maintains his exaggerated machismo to the end. No confessions, no mention of love (except of course for his mother), no sign that there's anything in him that could be salvaged or rehabilitated or that is even capable of recognizing the idea.

There's a really weird moment where Sister Helen tells him, while they're waiting for his execution, that when she first met him she thought he was a sociopath. And I said (I think even out loud), "You mean you think he's not?" She fails in her project there with me, in the sense that her project is to persuade readers that even the most hardened criminals are still, as her abolitionist lawyer friend says of Willie, "a child sitting inside [a] tough, macho dude" (119). I don't believe that about Willie--Willie makes my skin crawl, first to last--and in any case, that's not why I believe the death penalty is wrong.

I believe the death penalty is wrong for many of the same reasons Sister Helen does. E.g.:

(1) Our government, corrupt, inefficient, and even incompetent as it so often is, should not have the power of life or death over its citizens.

(2) The imposition of the death penalty in America is grossly skewed toward African-Americans, the lower classes, (reprehensibly) the mentally disabled, and towards criminals who murder whites. If we're going to claim it's justice, then it has to be administered justly.

(3) It is absolutely cruel and unusual punishment, despite the fancy footwork the Supreme Court tried to hide behind in Gregg vs. Georgia. Towards the end of the book, the father of one of Willie's victims says, "Know what they should've done with Willie? [...] They should've strapped him in that chair, counted to ten, then at the count of nine taken him out of the chair and let him sit in his cell for a day or two and then strapped him in the chair again. It was too easy for him. He went too quick" (235). What Vernon Harvey doesn't recognize, and what the narrative doesn't point out, is that that's what the torturous system of appeals and retrials and more appeals already does. Stays of execution, temporary reprieves, courts considering appeals only to reject them, the awful, awful cruelty of the power the governor has to commute the prisoner's sentence up until the literal moment the switch is thrown . . . these are torture just as much as the strappado or the rack. It shows more clearly, actually, with Sonnier, because we see more of the process and because Sister Helen (Helen-Prejean-the-author painting Sister-Helen-the-character as the raw naive newbie) doesn't truly believe Sonnier's going to die, that nothing she can do can save him, until 8:40 on the night of his execution (Sonnier officially died at fifteen minutes past midnight). This tug o'war with hope as the prize is dreadful, excruciating for the victim's family and excruciating for the man waiting to die. It's not justice.

There are any number of ethical questions that neither this book nor this review have touched, infinite delicate delineations of gray between Sister Helen and Vernon Harvey (shades of black between Pat Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie), and I do in fact applaud this book for not shutting any of those down.
Profile Image for booklady.
2,170 reviews65 followers
April 29, 2011
Compelling read. I am somewhat suspicious of her statistics but only based on the age of the book and how quickly things change in the world of criminal/penal justice.

That aside, it is a well-written first person account by an intelligent, sensitive Roman Catholic sister of her experiences as the spiritual advisor to two death row inmates. Her frank reactions to the very different personalities of the men allow us, the readers, to sit back and form our own opinions, while examining the crimes, victims, and legal process in late 20th Century Louisiana.

Whatever your political sympathies before beginning Dead Man Walking, they will scarcely be simplified after reading it. Sr. Prejean's book looks at the administrative and judicial problems created by violent crime from several perspectives. Although she initially became involved as spiritual advisor to the 'dead man walking', her compassion as a person led her to be as fully committed to their crime victims, since they could no longer speak for themselves. Eventually, her relationship with the inmates led to contact with the parents and family members of those murdered by the inmates as well as the state, which in turn led to greater awareness of the ripple effects of each crime.

An unforgettable read. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Alberto Delgado.
574 reviews103 followers
March 6, 2017
El otro día me encontré de nuevo con este libro mientras buscaba en la biblioteca futuras lecturas, lo leí hace ya casi 20 años pero es tan estremecedor que te marca y a pesar del tiempo recuerdo lo que me hizo sentir el leerlo. Lo escribió una monja católica que ha dedicado su vida a dar consuelo a los condenados a muerte y a sus familiares y que dejó en este libro el testimonio desgarrador que le ha producido esa experiencia. Un alegato contra la pena de muerte con argumentos demoledores difíciles de rebatir. Su historia fue llevada al cine con las interpretaciones inolvidables de susan sarandon y sean penn.
Profile Image for Tova.
628 reviews
March 6, 2018
Actually 2.5/5 This was okay. I do really appreciate the message, but due to my mental health state at the moment this book made me super uncomfortable and made me feel kind of shitty. That ending was really good, and I almost started crying. Mini RTC
Profile Image for Jenifer.
995 reviews29 followers
October 27, 2014
Sister Prejean is a woman whose moral compass seems to be set. There is no wavering here. She believes what she believes and it extends across the board. She never seems to act rashly or contradict herself. I wonder how that would be? She extends her love and understanding to all whom she meets; the convicted as well as those who have to carry out the sentence, whether they believe in it or not; the victims and their families, and those who are actively in opposition to her.

One thing that made me rethink the death penalty; she asserts that putting a prisoner to death is actually more expensive than keeping them incarcerated for life. I thought that was really interesting, because one of my main beliefs was that it was probably cheaper to put a prisoner to death than to keep him for the rest of his life. Sister Prejean says; "Public surveys indicate that support for the death penally drops significantly when the public is assured that murderers will remain behind bars for life."

Another couple of things that made me think;

"I wonder whether his death sentence makes his own repentance even more difficult. Someone is trying to kill him and this must rivet his energies on his own survival, not the pain of others."

"The tragedy for the victims family will be confounded because the murderer of their daughter, about to undergo a dramatic death at the hands of the state, is certain to draw media attention, which will carefully note what the condemned man eats at his last meal and his farewell words to the world - far more attention than his victim received."

Fascinating and fun to read something that makes you think of things a different way.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
3,508 reviews2,510 followers
April 20, 2014
No matter your current thoughts on the death penalty, you owe it to yourself to read this book with an open mind. I read it in the run-up to Easter 2007, and would recommend it as perfect reading for the season. As I truly engaged with themes of guilt and retribution, I felt the reality of death row was brought home to me for the first time. Many of the men Prejean deals with in this book we would tend to dismiss as monsters, yet Jesus is the God who comes for the lost and the discounted, the God who faces execution himself.

(The film, which conflates some of the characters and events of the book, is equally affecting. I saw it first, but it does not ruin the reading experience in any way.)
Profile Image for Iola.
176 reviews
February 8, 2022
A very good, powerful book, considering the contents. I believe more of us should acquaint ourselves with the pitfalls of capital punishment.
Profile Image for Nan Tolson.
2 reviews1 follower
January 24, 2023
Extremely heavy and powerful book, I had to put it down and step away a few times. Sister Helen Prejean does a wonderful job of storytelling throughout — humanizing both the perpetrators and the victims of the cases she discusses in her book.

I felt that her inclusion of her work on victims rights towards the end was rushed and I wish she fleshed it out — it almost seemed like she threw that in there to abate the accusation of being overly sympathetic towards those on death row and not sympathetic enough towards victims….a common critique that abolitionists often face, often unfairly.

This book is not preachy or self righteous — it is a straightforward account of her experiences with those on death row and the families, advocates, and law enforcement personnel who are affected by the system. I like that when she *does* blatantly argue against the death penalty, she draws from research, religion, philosophy, science, history, and more…there is something for everybody.
Profile Image for Luke Reynolds.
639 reviews
September 2, 2019
Although it did take me a bit to read this book, it was a quick read. I can see why the professor of the FYS class I'm mentoring through the Writing Center picked this piece. It's the perfect companion to Just Mercy, a snapshot of the death penalty in the 80s and 90s but from within the time period itself. It's a heavy book at points, especially with some graphic mention to death and how adamant pro-death penalty believers were, but Prejean pulls no punches at looking at a corrupt justice system that executed criminals but treats the victims just as horribly. Dead Man Walking is harrowing but ultimately hopeful that perhaps some light can be found at the end of a tunnel. It will just take time.
Profile Image for Koren .
835 reviews34 followers
March 6, 2018
The author has devoted her life to being a spiritual advisor to people on death row. I have also read two books by her that deal with men on death row that have been unjustly accused. Her books will make you re-think the death penalty. This book has been made into a movie, which I have not seen, but will look for it.
Profile Image for Valerie.
7 reviews
January 22, 2022
i think sister helen was trying to take my soul when i was reading it. gave up trying to finish it 🙄
Profile Image for Mark  Steadman.
4 reviews
November 27, 2021
Dead Man Walking
Set in Louisiana and inside the prison walls of ‘Angola’ the state penitentiary, Sister Helen Prejean became the spiritual adviser of convicted killers Elmo Patrick Sonnier and Robert Lee Williams in 1982. Wrestling with members of her own church as well as the families of the victims this is the story of the beginning of her campaign to abolish the death penalty. Through her eyes we witness the corruption and ruthlessness of governors taking bribes from witnesses, soon-to-be executed prisoners losing 30 pounds in two weeks. Helen tries to convince the convicts, “As terrified as they were once terrifying”, ask for forgiveness for their crimes, whilst also presenting her polemic for the abolishment for capital punishment. Arguing forcefully both on a moral as well as legal basis, describing the torture of the electric chair (frying its victims rather than electrocuting them) as well as the torment of seeing one’s own death coming, surely fall under the rubric of ‘cruel’ if not ‘unusual’ punishment. The ‘Angola’ nickname for the prison comes from the country of origin of many of the slaves who worked the land, a legacy that survives to this day in the disproportionate number of African-Americans fighting for their lives inside prison walls. “We will never see a rich man come before us” comments a parole board member when questioned by Helen. Patrick Sonnier’s attorney hadn’t even interviewed his client before he took the witness stand and taken by surprise when his client pleaded innocent. The Book concludes with a hopeful tone, she argues that the ignorance of Americans is partly to blame for their support for a punishment that no other country in the West upholds. 2 out of 3 Americans don’t know that the bill of rights is the first ten amendments to the constitution, let alone that some death row attorneys have 3 cases a day or the details of the horror of the execution process. The most interesting fact in the book is that before a lethal injection occurs doctors will sterilise the site where the needle penetrates as to prevent infection, perhaps this is just a force of habit but the irony seems to be lost on executioners.
Profile Image for Elisha Condie.
556 reviews22 followers
October 14, 2021
I heard Sister Helen Prejean on public radio this year talking about the death penalty and why she opposes it, and I was so impressed. I finally got around to reading her book. And it was really thought provoking and good.
She's a nun who gets turned towards social justice causes and ends up establishing a relationship with convicted killer Patrick Sonnier (he and his brother killed a young couple after sexually assaulting the woman). She becomes his "spiritual advisor" after writing letters back and forth and visiting him in prison. Prejean doesn't shy away or try to overlook Sonnier's crimes. What he did was terrible, but does he really deserve to die?
The families of the victims say yes. They were also very hurt and confused as to why this nun would befriend their children's killer. She says in the book she knows now to reach out to both sides - defendant and victims. She just wants to bring comfort and remind even the worst people that God loves them anyway. Prejean is opposed to the death sentence as it disproportionately punishes poor people and people of color. She ain't wrong about that.

But as I read this I just kept thinking how *I* would feel if this man had murdered my child or family member. I'd be so angry and hurt and want him to be punished. Why shouldn't he be? Prejean argues as a Christian person we are supposed to forgive and she wants REFORM for this system that spits out death penalties without seeking to solve the root problems these crimes come from. Which is a noble and compassionate idea and I love her commitment.

The last line of the book reads "Forgiveness is never going to be easy. Each day it must be prayed for and struggled for and won" - wow. That got me. Forgiveness is so hard and has to be fought for everyday.

I'm not sure Prejean totally changed my mind about the death penalty but this book was thought provoking and made me think about what we can do to change ourselves as well as the system that promotes this punishment.
Profile Image for Larry Bassett.
1,384 reviews292 followers
April 22, 2022
a modern classic of the anti-death penalty movement; must reading

I don’t actually know when I first read this novel but it must’ve been shortly after it was published in 1993. This audible book version which is of the 20th anniversary republishing of the book and evidently an audible version that was created in 2019 is an amazing listening experience with the book read by the author sister Helen Prejean. It also includes an introduction by Desmond Tutu and then afterword by Susan Sarandon who played sister Helen in the movie that came out amazingly soon after the book was published.

Abolishment of the death penalty has been one of the major issues on my laundry list of issues. Sometime during this past year I sold the paperback copy of this book that I had from my mothers library that I took possession of after she died. She went to an event in the Detroit area with sister Helen and got an autographed copy of the book from her with a personal message in the front. Sister Helen is an activist and my mother was a late blooming activist who became stronger and stronger in her determination in her later years.

This book is a must read and this audible book read by the author is as good a way to experience this book as you will ever find. I have actually never seen the movie. But I understand that it is not quite a faithful rendition of the book. The book is the actual experience of the author in dealing with the first two cases in which she dealt with men on death row who were eventually electrocuted in Louisiana. The movie is a composite of the two characters into one so is slightly more fictional evidently.

Sister Helen is a dynamo. She started out that way when she began and still is today 30+ years later.
Profile Image for Susan.
847 reviews
November 22, 2021
I'm late to the party on this book, which has been around for a long time and which I have been meaning to read, particularly after reading Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy, Brittany K. Barnett's Knock at Midnight and Anthony Ray Hinton's The Sun Does Shine. I finally read it for my Catholic women's book club and now I want to read Sister Helen's memoir and see the movie as well. Sister Helen's premise is that if we believe that murder is wrong and a crime then it has to be wrong for everyone, not just individuals who commit but governments who carry out death sentences--thus no matter how horrific the crime the death penalty has no place in civil society.. Sister Helen, through examining closely two men convicted for heinous crimes and their families, also argues the death penalty is not fairly administered, but instead is influenced heavily by race, poverty, and geography (central to the writing Bryan Stephenson has done on the topic). She argues for abolishing the death penalty in addition because the death penalty does not deter violent crime, it costs taxpayers more than life in prison, and its administration is inherently cruel. Sister Helen details the cruelty of the administration of the death penalty itself and argues that if more people knew the details more people would be against the death penalty. Sister Helen is doing the Lord's work and she was an early opponent of the death penalty--her advocacy brought early attention to this issue that Bryan Stevenson and the EJI and the Innocence Project are expanding. truly an inspirational read.
Profile Image for Claire.
12 reviews1 follower
December 2, 2021
I think this is the most convicting book I’ve ever read. Accounts of the crimes committed by Sister Prejean’s spiritual advisees and the carrying out of the death penalty were both horrifying, but I couldn’t take my eyes away from the page. The author makes an incredible appeal to our humanity, to the idea that methodical, state-sanctioned, premeditated killing is not the answer. Not even for the guilty. I want to lay out every single anti-capital punishment argument in this review, but you should really just read the book and hear it from Sister Prejean. After reading this book, I am stunned that capital punishment continues to this day.

Critiques of the book - sometimes the timeline is confusing as the author jumps between past and present tense. The statistics should also be taken with a grain of salt because this book was written almost 30 years ago. This doesn’t detract from the truth of the points being made, but anyone who is interested in learning about the current status of capital punishment in the US should seek more recent sources in addition. That being said, I finished this book feeling so convicted and spurred to action against capital punishment that it CANNOT be anything less than 5 stars.
Profile Image for Julianna.
Author 5 books1,304 followers
July 17, 2022
Reviewed for THC Reviews
Dead Man Walking is the first-hand account of Sister Helen Prejean’s work with death row inmates, as well as her social justice campaign to end the death penalty. Prior to this, her focus had been working with the poor in New Orleans, but in the course of that work, she became aware of inequities in the justice system, namely that those on death row were disproportionately poor and had relied on public defenders who are notoriously overworked and underpaid. A friend asked her to become a pen pal to death-row inmate Patrick Sonnier, whom she later discovered had been involved in the murder of two teenagers. She agreed, and later she began visiting him in person, becoming his spiritual advisor throughout the final months prior to his execution. She also witnessed his death. Sister Prejean had never been an advocate of the death penalty, and after being a part of this process, she became even more convinced that it needed to be abolished. Following Mr. Sonnier’s execution, she started an organization dedicated to making that happen. She was also so affected by the experience of befriending a man and then watching him die that she swore she’d never do it again. But when the attorney who had represented Mr. Sonnier during his appeals asked her to become a spiritual advisor to another death row inmate, she couldn’t ignore the call. This time, she became acquainted with Robert Willie who had also murdered a teenage girl. She walked him through the process with much the same result, only this time, she was more attentive to the needs of the victim’s family members as well. Ultimately these experiences led Sister Prejean to become one of the most outspoken advocates against the death penalty and to make it’s abolishment her life’s work.

Over the years, I’ve deeply considered the issue of the death penalty and had already come to the conclusion that I generally don’t support it. Reading Dead Man Walking has only solidified my opinion. I know it’s a difficult and complex subject, which Sister Prejean highlights throughout the book. She herself was repulsed by the brutal crimes that these men committed, but at the same time, she recognized the dignity and humanity within each of them as human beings themselves. I know for some people in her sphere, these seemingly competing feelings were a hard concept to grasp, but ones that I fully believe can be held in tension with one another. I like how she frames her opinions through the lens of her Christian faith, as do I. I also deeply admired her ability to befriend these men. It certainly can’t be easy to show love to someone who’s murdered another human being, and I don’t know that it would be something I could do. However, I fully support the idea that even death row inmates deserve spiritual counsel. It was clear that these men were mostly alone in their prison cells with little in the way of friendship, or in Mr. Sonnier’s case, even family. Sister Prejean provided some much needed kindness and compassion, which I believe they greatly appreciated, while also gently prompting them to look within themselves to find compassion for their victims and the family members who were left behind.

I also found the book fascinating because Sister Prejean looked at this controversial issue from multiple angles. Obviously first and foremost, it’s from the point of view of herself bearing witness to not only the executions themselves, but all the events leading up to those fateful nights. But she also took the time to get to know the victims’ families. One of the families basically celebrated the death of their daughter’s killer, but despite that, it didn’t seem to bring them any true peace. In spite of their differences, though, Sister Prejean was able to find common ground through supporting their efforts to help other victims’ families. However, on the flip side, she relates the story of one father, who initially supported the execution of his child’s murderer, but after witnessing the event, changed his mind and would have been fine with life imprisonment. Sister Prejean also explored the topic with prison guards, two prison wardens who’d presided over several executions, and others involved in the process. Many of them had mixed feelings about the death penalty as well.

Dead Man Walking wasn’t an easy book to read, and I often found myself feeling tense especially during the lead-up to the executions. It’s extremely difficult to imagine what it must be like to know the exact hour of one’s death, and perhaps even more excruciating if one is waiting for a possible reprieve, keeping hope alive while also preparing to leave this Earth. It may present a heavy topic but one that I feel is worthy of taking a closer look at. Many may think that the reasons for some wanting to abolish the death penalty are merely based on emotions, but there are many logical reasons that the death penalty doesn’t make sense either, from the inequities in the criminal justice system to the exorbitant cost of executing a person when compared to keeping them in prison for life. Also polling data suggests that a majority of Americans don’t support it when given other options such as mandatory minimum sentences and/or life without the possibility of parole. Of course, there’s also the problem of some people who are innocent of the crime of which they were convicted being subjected to a punishment from which there is no coming back. This isn’t a book that I would necessarily say I enjoyed because of its difficult subject matter, but it is one that really made me think, which is something that I do enjoy doing. I’d venture to say that most people don’t think much about what goes on behind the scenes during the execution process, but in Dead Man Walking, Sister Prejean gives readers a peek behind the curtain, so to speak. For anyone who’d like to know more about the death penalty, and get an interesting take on it from different perspectives, I highly recommend this book.
Profile Image for Jo Besser.
390 reviews3 followers
March 8, 2021
I picked this up after catching the film on TV. I've never in my own life been so glad I did that.

I honestly have no idea what to say about this book. It was more intense than any thriller I read and more frightening than any horror novel I will ever read. If anything it opened my eyes to the death penalty and made me take a harder look at it.

I also appreciate the fact that this book is written by a nun, but one that does not force her religion onto the reader. She uses it as facts to back up her beliefs. When religion is put to me in that sort of way I really cannot argue with it. It makes me see and understand their point of view better.

When discussing this book with my boyfriend, I was curious about Sister Helen Prejean's thoughts on other hot topics. I looked them up and was presently surprised!

I have a lot of respect by Sister Helen Prejean and what she has written. I plan on reading her second book and anything else she may publish.
Profile Image for Megan.
210 reviews
October 5, 2011
A truly fascinating book. Capital punishment is a topic I have long wrestled with and this book is a must-read for anyone who is interested in a thorough treatment of the multi-faceted issue, albeit one with a heavily religious slant. It is, after all, written by Helen Prejean, who is a Catholic nun who served as a spiritual advisor to several men on death row. While I don't share Prejean's religion, I do share many of her opinions on capital punishment. Specifically, that our current system of dispensing "justice," the death penalty in particular, is fundamentally flawed and, in many ways, broken.

Unlike some other readers, I don't feel that Prejean's religious views stifle the power of her story. The fact that the book is 18 years old and thus presents obviously out-of-date figures was more of an obstacle to me than the religious slant.
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