Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States

By: Sister Helen Prejean

Star Rating:



Spoiler Disclaimer


In 1982, Sister Helen Prejean, a Roman Catholic nun, was asked by a friend to become a pen pal to Patrick Sonnier, a death row inmate at Angola State Prison in Louisiana. She began writing letters to him and eventually petitioned the prison to allow her to become his spiritual advisor. Mr. Sonnier, she came to learn, had been involved in the murder of two teenagers, and while she most certainly couldn't condone what he'd done, she still found the humanity in this man who was now facing a death sentence in the electric chair. Sister Prejean also became acquainted with the victims' family members and sympathized with their anger and grief. In addition, she got to know the men whose job it would be to take Mr. Sonnier's life when the time came and was surprised to find that some of them questioned the rightness of what they were being asked to do. Eventually she shepherded Mr. Sonnier all the way to the death chamber and witnessed his execution. Although never a proponent of the death penalty, after this experience, she became even more convinced that it needed to be abolished. Dead Man Walking recounts Sister Prejean's work with Patrick Sonnier, as well as Robert Lee Willie, another death row inmate, her spiritual journey alongside them, and how her Christian faith informed her decision to became one of the most vocal opponents of the death penalty in America.


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.


Sister Helen Prejean @ Wikipedia

Sister Helen Prejean @ GoodReads