Sister Helen Prejean inspired the Hollywood film Dead Man Walking. Here, she gives a progress report on the anti-death penalty campaign in the United States, and the role Catholics play in the cause.
- John Feister, for St Anthony Messenger
In her 1991 article: Victims and Murderers: A Rosary Reflection, Sister Helen, a New Orleanian, wrote of how she drove out to the Louisiana countryside to pray the rosary with Lloyd LeBlanc, whose son, David, had been murdered. Patrick Sonnier, whom she had accompanied to Louisiana’s electric chair, was convicted of the murder, although his brother might have committed the crime.
The rosary story ended up as the closing scene in her now-famous book, Dead Man Walking. The book, in turn, became the basis of a film by the same name, which propelled actress Susan Sarandon to the Academy Awards in 1996, where she won the Oscar for Best Actress.
The experience launched a new career for Sister Helen, who was a teacher and novice mistress in the past. She became a globetrotter, moving constantly from one rally, one speaking appearance, to the next, all devoted toward ending capital punishment.
She was influential in getting Pope John Paul II - through a personal conversation - to address capital punishment more effectively in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. More than a half-million copies of her book have made it into at least as many hands, and the film has had an even larger impact. ‘We are seeing a diminishment of the death penalty in the United States,’ she observes matter-of-factly.
It’s a diminishment that her work has helped to fuel.
‘I know the statistics,’ she says. And the spunky sister starts reciting them, rapid-fire, from memory: ‘1999 was the apex of execution,’ she says. ‘And you look now, and they’re at an all-time low.’ She notes that in 2001 prosecutors’ requests for the death penalty began to drop, as did jury rulings calling for execution.
She stops mid-sentence and interjects: ‘The biggest change in attitude, the most dramatic, has happened in the Catholic population in the United States.’
‘And [statistically] the more people went to Church, the less they believed in the death penalty,’ she notes.
Why the difference? ‘We’ve been doing our work,’ says Helen. ‘Catholic journalists, people giving talks, people leading RCIA, Catholic teachers in schools teaching social justice; all of the pro-life groups are really now beginning to pick up that the death penalty is a prolife issue.’
She credits that to a turning point, Pope John Paul II’s visit to St Louis in 1999. In a dramatic moment, the pope, onstage turned to Missouri governor Mel Carnahan and pleaded for the life of convicted killer Darrell Mease. ‘Have mercy on Mr. Mease,’ he said. (Governor Carnahan changed Mease’s sentence to life imprisonment.)
In his historic homily that day—the feast of the Sacred Heart, a celebration of God’s mercy - the Pope clearly put the death penalty into the context of all of the life issues which the Gospel compels Christians to defend.
Full interview: Sister Helen Prejean: 20 Years after 'Dead Man Walking (St. Anthony Messenger)
Trailer: Dead Man Walking (YouTube)
Conversation with Sr Helen Prejean - Daniel Pawlus and Lydia Talbot in conversation with Sr Helen Prejean (YouTube)
A Life Against Death: The Work of Sister Helen Prejean - A short film by University of Oregon student, Michelle Bagoyo (YouTube).