Helen Prejean, C.S.J. (born Baton Rouge, LA, USA, April 21, 1939 in ) is a Roman Catholic nun, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph and a leading American advocate for the abolition of the death penalty.
Prejean joined the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Medaille in 1957. Her efforts in the fight for the abolition of capital punishment began in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1981. In 1982 an acquaintance asked her to correspond with convicted murderer Elmo Patrick Sonnier, located in the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Sonnier 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 execution. 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 counseling 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.
Dead Man Walking, a biographical account of her relationship with Sonnier and other inmates on death row, served as the basis for a feature film, an opera, and a play. In the film, she was portrayed by Susan Sarandon, who won an Academy Award for Best Actress. Although Prejean herself was uncredited, she made a minor cameo as a woman in a candlelit vigil scene outside the Louisiana State Penitentiary.
In addition to Sonnier, the account is based on the inmate Robert Lee Willie who, with his friend Joseph Jesse Vaccaro, raped and killed 18-year-old Faith Hathaway on May 28, 1980, eight days later kidnapping a Madisonville couple from alongside the Tchefuncte River in Louisiana 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 and then stabbed and shot her boyfriend, 20-year-old Mark Brewster, leaving him tied to a tree paralyzed from the waist down.
In 1999, Prejean formed Moratorium 2000, a petition drive that eventually grew into a national education campaign, The Moratorium Campaign, initially staffed by Robert Jones, Theresa Meisz, and Jené O’Keefe. The organization Witness to Innocence, composed of death row survivors who were convicted for crimes they did not commit, started under The Moratorium Campaign.
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 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 given the Pacem in Terris Award, named after a 1963 encyclical letter by Pope John XXIII that calls on all people of good will to secure peace among all nations. Pacem in terris is Latin for “Peace on Earth.” – In December 2010, Prejean donated all of her archival papers to DePaul University. 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.
Major Awards and Honors
Catholic Church / Varioius Catholic Organizations
- 1998: World Pacem in Terris Award
Pax Christi USA
- 1996: Pope Paul VI Teacher of Peace Award
Ignatian Solidarity Network (USA)
- 2013: Robert M. Holstein ‘Faith Doing Justice’ Award
- Dead Man Walking (1993)
- The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions (2004)
- Romero’s Legacy: The Call to Peace and Justice (2007)
A Selection of Quotes
Dead Man Walking
“In sorting out my feelings and beliefs, there is, however, one piece of moral ground of which I am absolutely certain: if I were to be murdered I would not want my murderer executed. I would not want my death avenged. Especially by government – which can’t be trusted to control its own bureaucrats or collect taxes equitably or fill a pothole, much less decide which of its citizens to kill.”
“Patrick had asked why people wanted to kill Mr. Sonnier.
“Because they say he killed people,” Bill had answered.
“But, Dad”,” Patrick had asked, “then who is going to kill them for killing him?”
“No government is ever innocent enough or wise enough or just enough to lay claim to so absolute a power as death.”
“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. And I end by challenging people to ask themselves whether we can continue to allow the government, subject as it is to every imaginable form of inefficiency and corruption, to have such power to kill.”
“I realize that I cannot stand by silently as my government executes its citizens. If I do not speak out and resist, I am an accomplice.”
“The death penalty costs too much. Allowing our government to kill citizens compromises the deepest moral values upon which this country was conceived: the inviolable dignity of human persons.
“I have no doubt that we will one day abolish the death penalty in America. It will come sooner if people like me who know the truth about executions do our work well and educate the public. It will come slowly if we do not. Because, finally, I know that it is not a question of malice or ill will or meanness of spirit that prompts our citizens to support executions. It is, quite simply, that people don’t know the truth of what is going on. That is not by accident. The secrecy surrounding executions makes it possible for executions to continue. I am convinced that if executions were made public, the torture and violence would be unmasked, and we would be shamed into abolishing executions. We would be embarrassed at the brutalization of the crowds that would gather to watch a man or woman be killed. And we would be humiliated to know that visitors from other countries – Japan, Russia, Latina America, Europe – were watching us kill our own citizens – we, who take pride in being the flagship of democracy in the world.”
PBS Frontline: Angel on Death Row
“[T]here are some human rights that are so deep that we can’t negotiate them away. I mean people do heinous, terrible things. But there are basic human rights I believe that every human being has. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the United Nations says it for me. And it says there are two basic rights that can’t be negotiated that government doesn’t give for good behavior and doesn’t take away for bad behavior. And it’s the right not to be tortured and not to be killed. Because the flip side of this is that then when you say OK we’re gonna turn over — they truly have done heinous things, so now we will turn over to the government now the right to take their life. It involves other people in doing essentially the same kind of act.”
- Sister Helen Prejean’s official website
- Sister Helen Prejean’s appearances on C-SPAN
- Interview with Sister Helen Prejean
- John Bookser Feister, Sister Helen Prejean: The Real Woman Behind “Dead Man Walking” (American Catholic, 1996)
- ‘Dead Man Walking’ nun: ‘Botched’ executions unmask a botched system (CNN Aug. 6, 2014)
- PBS Frontline: Angel on Death Row – Newspaper accounts of the crimes and executions of Patrick Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie
- Themis-Athena’s review of the movie adaptation of Dead Man Walking
- Witness to Innocence
- Cornell Legal Information Institute (LII): Death Penalty
- U.S. Department of Justice / Bureau of Justice Statistics: Capital Punishment
- Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC)
- Anmesty International: Death Penalty
- Death Penalty Focus
- American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU): Capital Punishment
- Equal Justice Initiative: Death Penalty
- The Death Penalty Project
- National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty
- The Innocence Project
- BBC Ethics Guide: Capital Punishment
- European Union Policy on Death Penalty
- World Coalition Against the Death Penalty
- United Nations General Assembly: Moratorium on the use of the death penalty
- United Nations: Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aiming at the abolitionof the death penalty
- United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights: Death Penalty
- Themis-Athena’s select annotated filmography of courtroom dramas