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.
About the Author
Helen Prejean, C. S. J., is a writer, lecturer, and community organizer who was born in Baton Rouge and has lived and worked in Louisiana all her life. Her groundbreaking firsthand account of the death penalty, Dead Man Walking, has been adapted into a movie, an opera, and a play for high schools and colleges. She is also the author of The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions. She has lectured extensively on the subject of capital punishment and has appeared on 60 Minutes, NBC’s Today Show, NPR’s Weekend Edition and Fresh Air, PBS’s Frontline, BBC World Service radio, and an NBC special series on the death penalty. She has received honorary degrees from colleges and universities across the United States. She is a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph.
Read an Excerpt
When Chava Colon from the Prison Coalition asks me one January day in 1982 to become a pen pal to a death-row inmate, I say, Sure. The invitation seems to fit with my work in St. Thomas, a New Orleans housing project of poor black residents. Not death row exactly, but close. Death is rampant here-from guns, disease, addiction. Medical care scarcely exists.
I've come to St. Thomas to serve the poor, and I assume that someone occupying a cell on Louisiana's death row fits that category. I had learned that back in 1977 at a lecture by John Vodicka, one of the founders of the Louisiana Coalition on Jails and Prisons where Chava now works. I had also learned that the death penalty in the United States has always been most rigorously applied in Southern states-mostly toward those who kill whites. The Prison Coalition office is near Hope House, where I teach high-school dropouts, and Chava and I run into each other fairly often.
After he has written the name of the death-row inmate he says, "Maybe I ought to give you someone else. This guy is a loner and doesn't write. Maybe you want someone who will answer your letters."
But he's already written the name and I say, "Don't change it. Give me his name." I don't know yet that the name on this tiny slip of white paper will be my passport into an eerie land that so far I've only read about in books.
I look at the name and address that Chava gave me: Elmo Patrick Sonnier, number 95281, Death Row, Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola.
Almost all the killings here in St. Thomas seem to erupt from the explosive mixture of dead-end futures, drugs, and guns. But when Chava describes what Sonnier has done, my blood chills. On November 4, 1977, he and his younger brother, Eddie, abducted from a lovers' lane a teenage couple, David LeBlanc and Loretta Bourque. They raped the girl, forced the young people to lie face down, and shot them in the head.
I look down at the name in horror. Do I really want to know such a man?
"He's a Cajun from St. Martinville, Louisiana," Chava says.
Which makes the murders all the more vicious, because St. Martinville, at the center of Acadiana, is one of the friendliest, most hospitable places on earth. Here and in the surrounding towns French-speaking people, mostly farmers and fishermen, cook good food, swap stories and recipes, and dance the two-step and the zydeco. They love to talk, even to strangers. If murders are prone to happen anywhere on the face of the earth, this is the place one would least expect.
I wonder what I can say to this man. What will he have to say to me?
"We have files at the office," Chava says, "if you want to read about the case."
I take the piece of paper with the name on it back to the apartment in the project where I live with five other nuns.
A year ago, in June of 1981, I had driven a small brown truck loaded with my personal possessions to the apartment on 519 St. Andrew Street and hoped to high heaven I wouldn't be shot. We were practically the only whites-all women-among one thousand five hundred residents in the six square blocks of beige brick buildings tucked between the central business district and the garden district. After my first night in the project apartment, I wrote in my journal:
"Didn't sleep much. Noisy until about 3:00 A.M. People standing on the corner talking and drinking. Feel nervous, unsettled. Heard a gunshot. Had checked when I got into bed to make sure my bed was under the windowsill in case a bullet came through.
"Is this New Orleans? I feel like I'm in another country."
I came to St. Thomas as part of a reform movement in the Catholic Church, seeking to harness religious faith to social justice. In 1971, the worldwide synod of bishops had declared justice a "constitutive" part of the Christian gospel. When you dig way back into Church teachings, you find that this focus on justice has been tucked in there all along in "social encyclicals." Not exactly coffee-table literature. The documents have been called the best-kept secret of the Catholic Church. And with good reason. The mandate to practice social justice is unsettling because taking on the struggles of the poor invariably means challenging the wealthy and those who serve their interests. "Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable"-that's what Dorothy Day, a Catholic social activist said is the heart of the Christian gospel.1
In 1980 my religious community, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille, had made a commitment to "stand on the side of the poor," and I had assented, but reluctantly. I resisted this recasting of the faith of my childhood, where what counted was a personal relationship with God, inner peace, kindness to others, and heaven when this life was done. I didn't want to struggle with politics and economics. We were nuns, after all, not social workers, and some realities in life were, for better or worse, rather fixed-like the gap between rich and poor. Even Jesus Christ himself had said, "The poor you will always have with you." Besides, it was all so complex and confusing-the mess the world was in-with one social problem meshed with other problems. If you tried to get a handle, say, on improving housing for poor people, you found yourself in a morass of bureaucracy and waste in government programs, racist real estate and banking policies, unemployment-a mess.
Enlightenment had come in June 1980. I can remember the moment because it changed my life. My community had assembled at Terre Haute, Indiana, to grapple with directions of our ministries for the 1980s, and the chief speaker was Sister Marie Augusta Neal, S.N.D.deN. A sociologist, she described glaring inequities in the world: two thirds of the peoples of the world live at or below subsistence level while one third live in affluence. Did we know, she asked, that the United States, which comprises about 6 percent of the world's population, consumed 48 percent of the world's goods? What were we to do about such glaring injustices? She knew her facts and I found myself mentally pitting my arguments against her challenge-we were nuns, not social workers, not political. But it's as if she knew what I was thinking. She pointed out that to claim to be apolitical or neutral in the face of such injustices would be, in actuality, to uphold the status quo-a very political position to take, and on the side of the oppressors.
But it was the way she presented the message of Jesus that caused the most radical shift in my perspective.
"The Gospels record that Jesus preached good news to the poor," she said, "and an essential part of that good news was that they were to be poor no longer." Which meant they were not to meekly accept their poverty and suffering as God's will, but, instead, struggle to obtain the necessities of life which were rightfully theirs. And Jesus' challenge to the nonpoor, she emphasized, was to relinquish their affluence and to share their resources with the dispossessed.
Something in me must have been building toward this moment because there was a flash and I realized that my spiritual life had been too ethereal, too disconnected. I left the meeting and began seeking out the poor. This brought me one year later to the St. Thomas housing development.
I had grown up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in the 1940s and 1950s in as solid and loving a family as one could hope for-a mother and father who lavished attention and affection on their children and a brother, Louie, and sister, Mary Ann, whom I could spar with and tease and argue with and love. We grew up in a spacious two-story house, were educated in Catholic schools, and traveled extensively across the United States, Canada, and Europe.
As a child, at Mama's urging, I knelt by my bed at night for prayers and always included "poor people who have no place to sleep tonight." But poor people occupied a land somewhere out there with Cinderella and Hansel and Gretel. I did not have any direct experience with poor people.
I did not then consider the "colored" people who worked for us as poor. They were just, well, "colored" people doing what "colored" people did, which was working for white people, and living where "colored" people lived, which was usually in shacks out in the country or, in "nigger town" in the city. In my early childhood a black couple lived in the "servants' quarters," a small house behind ours. The man took care of the yard, the woman in a white uniform helped in the house. They never used the family bathrooms and they always ate in the kitchen. Only whites went to the elementary and high school I attended, and in our church blacks could sit only in a niche of pews over to the side and had to wait until last to receive communion. They had to sit at the back of the bus, and it was a great dare for a white kid to go to the back of the bus and sit with the blacks for five seconds. I had taken on the dare more than once, then rushed back to the front of the bus to amused, giggling friends.
Yet, even when I was a child there was something in black people that drew me to them. Once, when I was five years old, I remember making my way over to the group of black men Daddy had hired to remove a stump from our front yard, and I watched and listened as they swung axes in fluid motion and moaned bluesy songs and swapped stories about women and drinking and going to jail. This was life so raw, so earthy, so uncushioned, yet so vibrant, so tenacious, so enduring. I was fascinated. Mama was not. She spotted me and told me to get inside.
I was twelve years old the first time I witnessed physical violence against a black person. Elise Gauthier, my friend and classmate, and I rode the bus one December day in 1952 to Third Street to do our Christmas shopping. We were in seventh grade; everything was funny that year, and we had a great time on the bus, teasing and laughing uproariously over twelve-year-olds' jokes. The bus stopped at the end of Third Street and everyone on the bus was getting out when Elise and I heard the bus driver shout an obscenity to a young black woman and saw him kick her with his foot off the bus and onto the sidewalk. She landed on her hands and knees and her purse flew open and coins rolled all over. She didn't say a word, did not even look at the bus driver, just picked herself up and walked away.
I felt awful. My parents never acted mean to black people, even though they never questioned the system of racial discrimination that permeated every aspect of life. Daddy, an attorney, represented a slew of black clients, charging them five dollars for his services, and he helped several families buy property and, eventually, own their own homes. It would take me a long time to understand how systems inflict pain and hardship in people's lives and to learn that being kind in an unjust system is not enough.
Now, here in St. Thomas, I am learning plenty about systems and what happens to the people in them, here in a state whose misery statistics are the highest in the nation-where residents bring home an average yearly income of $10,890, where half the adult population has not completed high school, where one in every six persons is a food-stamp recipient, one of every three babies born has an unwed mother, and the violent crime rate is ninth highest in the nation.2
I am meeting seventeen-year-old girls who have had one, sometimes two children. Without a chance for college, a senior trip to Florida, the possibility of a career, and the independence and mobility that a car gives, they are vulnerable to the first young man who looks at them. Sixteen-year-old Lily, swaying with the blanketed bundle in her arms as if she were holding a doll, tells me the familiar story that she wanted a baby so she could have "something of my very own."
With paper and pencil I am helping Shirley, a single mother, compute how to make ends meet for herself and her child on an AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) check of $138 a month and $123 in food stamps. I witness her agony of deciding if she should give up AFDC and get a job, which means losing medicaid, the only health insurance she has for her child. The cashier's job at a supermarket which she is considering pays minimum wages and is part-time-thirty-five hours a week (the policy of most supermarkets in the city), which means that she won't get medical or retirement benefits. The St. Thomas residents who do find full-time work usually receive minimum wages, which amounts to about thirty-five dollars a month above the AFDC income level. (1990 Census Bureau statistics reveal that full-time minimum-wage earners received $8,840 a year.) Plus, mothers like Shirley, who choose work instead of welfare, face additional costs of child care, medical bills, an increase in rent (proportionate to income), and transportation expenses. I had always thought that jobs were the way out of poverty. Now I'm learning the meaning of working poor. (In 1989 37.3 million working Americans, accounting for 39 percent of total tax returns, received incomes below $15,000.)3
At the supper table at night I am listening to the stories Sister Therese St. Pierre tells of the three- and four-year-olds in her preschool group who do not know words like "over" or "lettuce" or "sofa." Most of these children will hit the overpopulated, understaffed, ill-equipped public schools with "failure by third grade" stamped on their foreheads.
I am watching how easy it is for a teenage boy to "run a bag" of cocaine down the street for an easy twenty bucks. (If he gets an after-school or summer job, his income will be deducted from his mother's AFDC check.)
I am seeing, with my own eyes-shocked, disbelieving-bags of white powder peddled in the open with no police in sight. Sister Lory Schaff, who began Hope House in 1969, tells of meeting in 1972 with a high-ranking city official to express her concern about the freewheeling dope peddling in St. Thomas, and of being met with, "Well, now, Sister, we know drugs are going to pop up somewhere in every city. At least we know where they are."
I also notice that when residents of St. Thomas are killed, the newspaper barely takes notice, whereas when white citizens are killed, there is often a front-page story.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of Sister Helen Prejean's Dead Man Walking. We hope they will give you a number of interesting angles from which to consider this gripping story of two condemned men and the courageous nun who became their spiritual adviser.
1. Sister Helen Prejean looks back on the life and career of her father a good man who helped the black people in his segregated community and reflects that "systems inflict pain and hardship in people's lives and...being kind in an unjust system is not enough" [p. 7]. Do you find her judgment to be true?
2. Sister Helen believes that a nun, as a servant of God, should serve the poor, and she sees her political activism as a way of serving the poor. Does Sister Helen fit your own conception of a nun? While reading the book, did you find yourself looking upon Sister Helen as a heroine?
3. Lloyd Leblanc asks Sister Helen, "How can you present Elmo Patrick Sonnier's side like this without ever having come to visit with me and my wife or the Bourques to hear our side?" [p. 64] Why do you think it never occurred to Sister Helen to do this? When she eventually becomes friendly with the victims' families, how, if at all, does it affect her ideas about the killers?
4. Each of the prisoners Pat, Eddie, and Robert expresses remorse. Is their remorse genuine? How do their feelings about their crimes appear to change during the course of their imprisonment? In what way does Pat's death affect Eddie? Do you believe that, by the time of his death, Robert has come to terms with himself and his crime?
5. Sister Helen accuses Edwin Edwards of condoning the death penalty so as not to risk his political career. Do you believe that Edwards is doing his job as governor by carrying out the will of the people, or should he act upon his own convictions? Robert says, "This whole death penalty ain't nothing but politics" [p. 162]. What does he mean by this, and do you think he has a point?
6. A greatly disproportionate number of the prisoners executed are black. Do you think the South's history contributed to this inequity, and, if so, how? How does that history continue to mold the lives of black and white citizens? How has it led to hellish environments like St. Thomas?
7. "Look how shamefully secret this whole thing is," says the lawyer Millard Farmer. "If most people in Louisiana would see what the state did tonight, they would throw up" [p. 94]. Both Farmer and Sister Helen believe that performing executions in public would turn opinion against capital punishment. Do you agree with them? Or do you think, like many, that witnessing executions would simply desensitize citizens about death?
8. Great pains are taken to prevent Death Row inmates from committing suicide. Do these precautions make sense to you?
9. Sister Helen quotes Albert Camus on the death penalty: "To assert...that a man must be absolutely cut off from society because he is absolutely evil amounts to saying that society is absolutely good, and no one in his right mind will believe this today" [p. 22]. Do you find this a persuasive argument? What about Camus's next assertion, that the death penalty is as evil as first degree murder because it is premeditated? Does that seem a reasonable comparison to you?
10. Sister Helen believes that "to claim to be apolitical or neutral in the face of...injustices would be, in actuality, to uphold the status quo a very political position to take, and on the side of the oppressors" [p. 5-6]. Do you agree with this assessment? Do you believe that there is in fact any such thing in today's world as being truly apolitical or above politics?
11. Sister Helen often speaks of "government" as though it were entirely separate and dissociated from the people themselves. Do you feel this is an accurate view of government, or do you feel that the government we have does reflect, at least in large part, the opinions of its citizens? If so, do you think that it is the government's job to educate and lead public opinion or to follow it?
12. The people responsible for carrying out executions rationalize their actions by saying that they are just doing their jobs. Are men like Phelps, Rabelais, and Blackburn justified in believing that they are doing the correct thing? What does the fact of the executioner's legal anonymity indicate to you? Is Sister Helen correct to compare this complicity in the execution of criminals with the obedience shown by the servants of the Nazi regime in carrying out their terrible murders?
13. Sister Helen asks Phelps his opinions on some questions that have been bothering her. "Aren't there, I argue, some rights fundamental to human beings such as the right not to be tortured or killed that everyone, including governments, must respect? Doesn't the moral foundation of a society erode if its government is allowed to treat these fundamental, nonnegotiable rights as some sort of privilege, which they take on themselves to dispense for good behavior or withdraw for bad behavior?" [p. 103] What are your opinions on these issues? Do you agree with Sister Helen that, according to Amnesty International's definition of torture, Pat Sonnier was tortured?
14. Sister Helen describes the legal system as "a system of gates that shut like one-way turnstiles, and you can't go back once you've come out" [p. 45]. The long appeals process would seem to ensure a fair trial for all, but in actuality the prisoner's success within it depends upon how good a lawyer he can afford to hire. Has the experience of reading Dead Man Walking changed your views of the American legal system, and, if so, in what way?
15. How do the lives, expectations, and attitudes of the members of Survive differ from those of the members of the group founded by the Harveys? What do these differences tell us about the lives of black Louisianans as opposed to white ones?
16. If you have seen the film of Dead Man Walking, how did its approach to the issue of capital punishment differ from that of the book? Did you feel that the filmmaker was taking sides on the issue, or did he treat both sides in a balanced way?
17. Has reading this book caused you to reexamine your position on the death penalty? Which arguments did you find more persuasive: Sister Helen's against the death penalty, or the Harveys' in favor of it? It is true that the Harveys' loss has hardened them against the idea of mercy; it is also true that Sister Helen has never lost a family member to a violent crime. If you were in the Harveys' position, do you think that you, too, would support the death penalty?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I am currently taking an English class that required me to read this book. At first I thought it would be a bad boring book, but I judged it from the cover. It is actually a very good book, it helps you question the justice system and hope for change.
This book is one that is complex and vivid. It also tells how the justice system can be manipulated for different reasons. This can be for power, personal, and or political reasons, just to name a few. It is a very well written book and anyone can get emotional connected. It allowed me to look at individuals who are facing death differently although the crime they committed was one that is horrendous. The Num who played the part as the spiritual advisor opposed the death penalty but did not turn a blind eye to the victim's family. Although this is the case she was faced with backlashes form the family. I was not surprise by her behavior and the way she sympathized with the inmates given that she is a religious person. This book is one that can create serious discussision. I would recommend it to any book-club.
This book is about a nun named Helen that became up close and person with the murderer of two teenagers from that were kidnapped from lovers lane. The murderers name was Patrick; Helen became the spiritual advisor for him and Angola state prison where the priest of the prison had to interview her before she could come in and be helpful to him. Helen also became close with the officers who had to be the ones to execute him in the electric chair and they even had some doubt about it. Overall this book was a good book and I would recommend it to anyone who thinks capital punishment is wrong.
This book is incredible. The Death Penalty is an issue that most people don't realize affects them. Their taxes possibly go to funding prisons and thereby executions. In this story the reader's idea that 'eye for an eye' is always appropriate is challenged by the father of a murdered victim: the father of a murdered son immediately forgives the murderer (true act of Christian love).
This book not only presents an exceptional example of good writing, it also provides a truly personal approach to the thinking related to capital punishment. Whatever you own personal view were before you read this book, they will never be the same. An excellent weekend read!
An amazing book by an amazing lady. A moving and inspirational look at compassion and humanity. Additionally, so hideously depressing that my own problems seem like little piddly things in comparison; this book was very useful in becoming un-depressed.
I don¿t really know how to describe my experience reading Dead Man Walking. Draining? Sort of.Stunning? Yes.Informative? Certainly.This book explains Sister Helen Prejean¿s, a Catholic Nun, experiences with two different death row inmates in Louisiana. What begins as a simple pen pal exchange with one (Patrick Sonnier), turns into a life-altering experience for Prejean. Prejean, quite simply, learns not only about crime, but also the role that society has played in creating crime. She sees these prisoners not as violent offenders but as the people that they are. She grows to understand that the death penalty is not the best way to retaliate against their crimes, and that often justice in the name of religion isn¿t justice at all. I suppose Dead Man Walking managed to shock and horrify me. I read poverty and violence statistics that I had never seen before, and I was ashamed that a country like the United States could be that unjust. People need to know about this structural violence, and they need to take action. As Prejean proves, even small actions can create huge crescents of change. While heavy on information, this book is a quick read. I suggest that anyone with interest in social activism, Christianity, or criminal justice take the time to check this out.
I just saw the movie and it was beyond good, so I'll try the book out!
I plan on pursuing a career involved in law after i graduate high school and I am very oppinionated on capital punishment. I may only be in 9th grade, but I understand the pros and cons of our governments way of execution. I believe this book can open the eyes of the people on both sides those that believe in the death sentence, and those that don't and maybe they can all come to an understanding that there is a fine line between those that deserve death, and those that don't, but that line, nevertheless, is there and needs to be fully understood by evey American so that we, as citizens, can fully understand our job because one day, it could be any one of us that is on a jury to decide between someone's life or death and everyone should be prepared to make that desicion, no matter how hard it may be to decide if a human's life should be taken from them, and I believe Prejean was very brave to take in such a responsibility such as this. I am not sure if I would be able to converse with people on death row and not be scared out of my mind, whether they actually did it, or if they were just an accomplice. I recomend this book to anyone that can fully understand the complexities of the death penalty and how important it is that we have such a system in our government.
This book is worth reading if the topic of Capital punishment in the US interests you. It gets fairly statistical at times and even preachy at other times, but overall Sister Prejean does a good job of presenting both sides of the murderer/victim story. I would think anyone opposed to the death penalty would enjoy this more than someone who supports capital punishment.
Half of it is about the history of the death penalty and the other half is the story of the author, fighting to repeal the death penalty on some inmates.
This book is a real page stopper that any highschool student will be sure to hate, it gives up the plot before it happens, and before anything happens you know how its going to turn out.