November 2006 Volume 3, Issue 3

Dead Man Walking Author Sister helen Prejean speaks of death and humanity

Critically acclaimed author and activist Sister Helen Prejean visited the College on November 2 to discuss the experiences that influenced her renowned book, Dead Man Walking. Her compelling story was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film starring Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon.

In her two-hour long talk (visit to listen) at the College, which recollected her experiences with both prisoners and victims’ families, Prejean delivered her message that the death penalty is morally wrong and does not provide effective emotional healing for victims’ families.

Sister Helen PrejeanA native of New Orleans, Prejean attended an all-girls, mainly white, private Catholic school which, she admits, did not expose her to the realities of poverty, prejudice, and inequality that existed right there in her own city. Her commitment to the social justice movement first came about after she did service in the housing projects of New Orleans.

It was in the housing projects of New Orleans that Prejean discovered how inequality works.

"I finally saw the great ‘American Dream’ from the backside of the tapestry,” she said. “Poor people are hidden in this country,” she contends.

After her work in the housing projects, Prejean went on to serve the New Orlean’s Adult Learning Center and, during this time, she became a pen pal to an inmate on death row, Patrick Sonnier.

Sonnier asked Prejean to visit him in prison in 1981, and she agreed, unaware of how influential this decision would be in shaping her future.

"He looked so human," she said of Sonnier. "I couldn’t believe his humanness."

Prejean offered spiritual advisement to Sonnier until his execution in Louisiana’s Angola Penitentiary in 1984. Additionally, she became a spiritual adviser to three other inmates who were sentenced to death.

Prejean recalls that, while advising Sonnier, the biggest mistake she made was not reaching out immediately to the victims’ families. This mistake became a very important point of discussion in her book and may have cost her an opportunity to gain their trust.

Prejean first met the parents of Sonnier’s victims at the pardon board hearing, which was, according to her, "the worst possible moment." This was where she requested that Sonnier’s sentence be change from the death sentence to life in prison. While one family walked past Prejean in dismay, the father of one of the victims approached her and invited her to pray with him.

That man, Lloyd LeBlanc, is the hero of Dead Man Walking, says Prejean. LeBlanc explained to her that, while he had mourned greatly for the death of his son, he had forgiven Sonnier and did not want to see him die.

Prejean noted that the initial reaction of victims’ families is often to want capital punishment to be served.  However, she argues, attitudes change.

Families, she says, do not need capital punishment to heal. Instead, she argues, they need counseling and support for healing.

Prejean urged students, faculty, and staff to take a stand against the death penalty and passed out petition cards to send to legislators.