Omaha, Nebraska
Spring 1994
Volume 5, Number 2

Nun Battles Death Penalty as Eyewitness

A Review of Helen Prejean, C.S.J., Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States. New York: Random House, 1993.

Roger Bergman
Director of the Justice and Peace Studies Program

"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." (197)

Sr. Helen Prejean knows the truth about executions. She knows, as an eyewitness to two executions in Louisiana's electric chair, that the impersonal professionalism of the procedure cannot mask the simple fact that defenseless men were killed in cold-blood by a government that cannot be trusted, in Helen's words, to fix potholes.

Sr. Helen knows the truth about Death Row guards who evade complicity by whispering to her that for them it's "just a job, a steady pay-check." She knows the prison administrator who took early retirement, because, he confessed to her, "I've been through five of these executions and I can't eat, I can't sleep . . . I can't square it with my conscience, putting them to death like that."

Knows the Truth

Sr. Helen knows the truth about the economics, the sociology, the politics of the death penalty: that the poor are its only recipients, that racial minorities are disproportionately represented on Death Row (especially when the victim is white), that it doesn't deter crime, that a D.A.'s upcoming election may have more to do with the decision to seek capital punishment than do the facts of the case itself.

But while the vivid immediacy of Prejean's truth-telling raises her Pulitzer-nominated book well above the level of moralistic and predictable tract, it is the other truths she tells that give her eyewitness account its built-on-rock credibility. Sr. Helen knows the truth not only about state-sponsored killings, but also about the brutal, wanton crimes that provoked them. She describes in unflinching detail not only the midnight-cloaked, almost clandestine electrocutions of two of her "spiritual advisees" from Death Row, but also their vicious rapes and murders.

Through Sr. Helen's intimate narrative, we get to know not only Pat Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie, but also their young victims, Loretta Bourque, David LeBlanc, Faith Hathaway--and their aggrieved, angry families, especially Elizabeth and Vernon Harvey, mother and stepfather of Faith. Not for one sentence does the author downplay, rationalize, or in any way excuse the horrible crimes of the men she befriends on Death Row and accompanies to the chair (while playing a tape of Creighton's Fr. Bob Dufford's popular anthem, "Be Not Afraid").

For the truth-seeking searchlight Sr. Helen shines on the death penalty in the United States she also turns on herself. She really does have a story to tell and not just a position to advance. And that story has to do with her failure, her sin of omission, in her first encounter with the death penalty, to offer the same compassion and friendship to the victims' families as she did to the murderer himself. Her attempts to rectify this moral blind-spot provide the narrative tension of the second half of Dead Man Walking.

It is particularly that tension, so expressive of the moral vision that informs every page of this book, that is most likely to grip even the reader who comes to it from the other side of the death penalty debate. Prejean is no sentimentalist. How could she be, the author herself might say, after seeing what she has seen? To convey that vision in close and sharp focus is the purpose of her book. I believe she succeeds magnificently.

Solid Research

Contributing to that success is her solid research on the arguments for and against the death penalty (although by no means an academic monograph, Dead Man Walking provides extensive notes and an index), her occasional literary allusions (frequently to Camus' classic "Reflections on the Guillotine," but also to Dostoyevski and Shaw), and by an occasional glimpse of a puckish sense of humor (as arrangements are being made to have Pat Sonnier buried in her convent's cemetery, Helen wonders how a deceased nun remembered for her aversion to masculine sexuality would feel about having a man lying next to her).

The Sunday before Helen Prejean was to speak October 12 at a Critical Issues Forum sponsored by Creighton's Center for the Study of Religion and Society and by its new Justice and Peace Studies Program, I made an announcement to that effect at the conclusion of our parish mass. Later that afternoon I received a memorable phone call. A woman had been a guest--providentially, she thought--at that service, had heard the announcement, and wanted to be sure she got the details right: she needed to hear what Sr. Helen had to say, for her son only two months earlier had been murdered here in Omaha.


Tuesday evening, accompanied by a friend, she joined eighty people who heard Prejean speak eloquently but without notes of her personal and faith-filled immersion in the land of both death and love. She was one of the first to raise her hand during the question-and-answer period. With trembling voice she spoke of her son's death, of trying to learn to forgive, and of her opposition to the death penalty. What do you say?

Helen spoke softly but directly: "I'm so sorry about your son. It's voices like yours that can make a difference." It was for me a darkly magical moment, one that symbolizes Helen Prejean's compassion and moral vision, both of which, to my mind, have been tested and found true in the fires of profound pain and societal opposition.

Also present at the Forum were representatives of two organizations with whom Prejean shares a deep affinity: Nebraskans Against the Death Penalty and PULSE ("People Uniting, Lending Support and Encouragement" to families of homicide victims). She has founded similar organizations in Louisiana. Dead Man Walking extends her moral witness through its painstakingly crafted eyewitness account to the rest of the nation.

Helen Prejean, C.S.J. is a remarkable woman, and has written a remarkable book. If the death penalty is one day abolished in the United States, I have no doubt it will be in part due to her good work.