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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the September 27,
2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Tales of Dead Men Walking
When Sister Helen Prejean arrives in Princeton this
week to speak at Princeton University Chapel, don’t expect her to
look quite as good as Susan Sarandon did in the movie, "Dead Man
Walking." But even an Oscar-winning actress like Sarandon never
came close to capturing the astonishing mixture of dedication and
irreverence that suffuses Sister Helen’s thought and speech.
In a hasty telephone interview from her home in New Orleans, Sister
Helen’s voice is boisterous and betrays not an ounce of fatigue. At
age 62, her September speaking schedule has taken her to Vermont,
Seattle, California, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Indiana. Still to come:
Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New Jersey. Our
is scheduled for right after she returns from her talk at New Orleans’
Cabrini High School.
"It’s what I do and have been doing since April 5, 1983, since
the day I walked into the execution chamber in Angola State Prison
in Louisiana, and watched a man die," she says forcefully.
the same work. It’s talking to people, talking to victims, talking
to guards. It’s telling the story about what I learned about the death
On Tuesday she was in Washington, D.C., to attend a Kennedy Center
reception to launch Kerry Cuomo Kennedy’s new book about human rights
activists, "Speaking Truth to Power," which includes her among
its subjects. And the trip has proved more than just another talk
at another school or church or club.
"I just met with President Clinton," she announces, and her
voice takes on a mischievous tone as she adds, "and there was
no way I was going to be in a room with him and not do something about
it. I’ve dreamed about this for years, I’ve dreamed about getting
into a room with Reagan, with Bush. And in my dreams I have made some
very persuasive arguments. This time I took his hand and I said, `I
have accompanied five human beings to execution. This is not right.
We need you to stand up on this issue. I urge you to do something
about it, and I urge you to help Al Gore do the right thing.’"
Sister Helen’s tone has swung from the lighthearted to the deadly
serious. And then there’s a measure of calm and accomplishment in
her voice as she finishes the story: "I know he heard me, because
when he spoke at the Kennedy Center, and talked about all the things
America has done for human rights in places like East Timor, he added,
`and I’ve been nudged again tonight behind stage to do more.’"
"Dilemmas on the Death Penalty," a conference designed by
Interfaith Communities of the Greater Princeton Area, takes place
Saturday, September 30. Sister Helen Prejean gives the conference
keynote at 2 p.m. in the Princeton University Chapel: "Dead Man
Walking: A Journey."
"The death penalty is a poor person’s issue," is one of the
first things Sister Helen will tell you. "After all the rhetoric
that goes on in the legislative assemblies, in the end, when the deck
is cast out, it is the poor who are selected to die in this
Prejean is America’s most visible activist to abolish the death
in the United States. Campaigning tirelessly since 1982, she published
her first book in 1993, "Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account
of the Death Penalty in the United States," a chronicle of how
she became intimately familiar with the death penalty in her home
state of Louisiana.
Nominated twice before for the Nobel Peace Prize, Sister Helen is
emerging as a front runner again this year, the British press are
reporting, for her increasingly effective campaign against the death
penalty. Her third nomination is by members of the Inter Parliamentary
Union, backed by David Trimble and John Hume, the Northern Ireland
leaders who won the prize two years ago.
Sister Helen began this work, the work of a lifetime, in January,
1982, when Chava Colon of the Louisiana Prison Coalition asked her
to become a pen pal to a death row inmate. The name he gave her, the
man who would become the first of five death row inmates she has both
counseled and accompanied to their death, was Elmo Patrick Sonnier,
inmate number 95281, at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.
He was executed in 1983 at age 34.
Her book, "Dead Man Walking," was on the New York Times
list for 31 weeks and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. It has
since been translated into 10 languages. Actress Susan Sarandon, after
meeting Sister Helen during a filming job in New Orleans, purchased
film rights to the book, which was adapted and directed by her
partner Tim Robbins and released in 1995.
Susan Sarandon portrayed Sister Helen and won the Academy Award for
what most would say was a rather dewy-eyed performance. The unsavory
condemned prisoner, convicted for taking part in the brutal and
murder of a teenage couple, is played by Sean Penn. Penn’s character
is actually a composite of the many men Prejean has come to know on
Death Row, including Patrick Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie, both of
are described closely in "Dead Man Walking."
"Dead Man Walking" makes another debut on October 7 —
as an opera for the San Francisco Opera. Composed by Jake Heggie,
the libretto is by playwright Terence McNally, author of such topical
and persuasive plays as "Love! Valour! Compassion!" and
For 16 years, from a mid-city neighborhood in New Orleans where she
moved to work with the poor, Sister Helen has campaigned to stop all
executions in America. The death penalty, held unconstitutional in
its application for four years in the 1970s, was reinstated by the
Supreme Court in 1977, and generally supported by a majority of
voters. Now her cause has found unprecedented resonance in the press
and among the public. We ask her why she thinks this is.
"For sure the movie, `Dead Man Walking,’" she quickly replies.
"I’m amazed, almost every one I’ve met, here in the U.S. and
else, too, they all saw the film." All that amazement hangs in
her voice. "And it definitely stirred reflection. You’ve probably
seen it, and you know — it’s not a polemic. It asks people to
make up their own mind."
Having her story told as a major motion picture has made a difference.
But so has the course of executions in America.
"I think, too, what has given the most dramatic emphasis is the
87 people who have come off death row. In England it only took one
— Timothy Evans — it only took one innocent person for the
English to express their outrage and abolish the death penalty. Here
it has taken 87. But I think it has done the most to wake people up
that the whole system is marred, that innocent people have been
And it’s not a fluke. When you’re poor and you don’t get a defense,
then you can expect that innocent people are going to be there."
Timothy Evans was hanged in England in 1950 for murder, but was
pardoned in 1966 because of new evidence. The case provoked public
outrage in Britain and was an important argument in the abolition
of the death penalty in that country in 1971.
"Then there was Governor Ryan of Illinois in January of this
continues Sister Helen. "Now they’re saying that 80 percent of
the people in Illinois are backing him up." Swayed by a series
of investigative articles in the Chicago Tribune, Governor Ryan
a moratorium on the death penalty after his state had exonerated more
death row inmates than it had executed.
Further evidence of the moratorium’s momentum could be found in the
New York Times on Friday, September 22. Weighing in on the question
of whether execution is a deterrent to murder, the front page story
reported on a survey showing that, during the last 20 years, the
rate in states with the death penalty has been 48 to 101 percent
than in states without the death penalty, and that fluctuations in
the homicide rate in states with and without the death penalty tends
to follow the same pattern.
Born in 1939, Sister Helen grew up in Baton Rouge,
in the 1940s and 1950s, the era of segregation, in a "comfortable,
middle-class family," with one brother and one sister.
"My daddy was a lawyer and he taught me how to argue and how to
speak in public," she says with pride. "My mother was a nurse,
she loved people and she had deep compassion. So from my father I
got my persuasive skills, and from my mother I got my compassion."
Although she notes that during her childhood years her father
a slew of black clients," charging them just $5 for much-needed
services like buying homes, she says the lesson she learned from those
days is that "being kind in an unjust system is not enough."
At age 19 she took her vows and joined the Sisters of St. Joseph of
Medaille. She went on to earn a B.A. in English at St. Mary’s
College in New Orleans in 1962, and in 1973, she earned her M.A. in
religious education from St. Paul’s University in Ottawa, Canada.
In 1980, the Sisters of St. Joseph made a commitment to "stand
on the side of the poor," something which, at the time, carried
little personal significance. Her faith at that time, she writes,
had more to do with a personal relationship to God than changing the
conditions of society. However, in 1981, she moved to, and began
with, poor inner-city residents of the St. Thomas Housing Project,
a neighborhood of some 1,500 residents. This community was almost
all black at the time. "I feel like I’ve entered a war zone or
a foreign country where the language and customs and rules are
from anything I have ever encountered," she wrote at the time.
This was also the time when she first accepted the role of spiritual
advisor to a death row inmate, so closely chronicled in "Dead
Sister Helen’s new-found activism came as a surprise, it seems, even
to herself. She describes her political awakening as a Catholic as
a matter of conscience: not to challenge the status quo, in matters
of civil rights, poverty, and justice, was to give support to the
actions of the government. "But I am out of joint with the
she notes in her book. "This is the ’80s, when social activists
from the ’60s are supposed to be experiencing the `big chill,’ and
here I am just warming up to the action."
Were the words Sister Helen wrote in 1983 simply prescient or a
Since then she been at the forefront of a new wave of grass roots
activism. As conference organizer Dorothy Moote of Trinity Episcopal
Church observes (see story, page 32), "The death penalty is the
civil rights issue of our decade."
Sister Helen cites these statistics: there are 3,682 inmates on Death
Row in America. This number includes 53 women and 71 male juveniles.
The number of insane or mentally retarded inmates is unknown.
Of the 645 prisoners executed under state laws since the Supreme Court
set out stricter guidelines in the 1970s, almost two thirds of them
were in Texas. Since 1994 Texas has carried out more than 130
it currently has 455 death row inmates. This week, from September
27 to October 4, inmates Ricky McGinn and Stacey Lawton are both
Recent revelations of unfair application of the death penalty,
convictions, and wrongful executions have dominated public debate
this year. Most recently, in September, the U.S. Justice Department
released its first comprehensive study of the federal death penalty
since it was reinstated in 1988. The study found "significant
racial and geographical disparities" in its application. The study
states that 80 percent of defendants whose cases were submitted to
the Attorney General by a federal prosecutor for death penalty review
were members of minority groups.
In response, on September 14, U.S. Senator Russ Feingold introduced
the Federal Death Penalty Moratorium Act of 2000. The bill would
executions of federal death row inmates while an independent
reviews the flaws in the system.
New Jersey reinstated a death penalty in 1982 and currently has 17
inmates on death row. Nevertheless, the last execution in New Jersey
took place in 1963, and a grassroots campaign is under way to keep
it that way. In January, New Jersey state assemblyman Alfred Steele
introduced a death penalty moratorium bill (A-1853) that would create
a bipartisan commission to study the death penalty. Persons convicted
of murder while the moratorium is in effect, would be sentenced to
imprisonment without possibility of parole. Supporting the bill’s
passage are New Jerseyans for a Death Penalty Moratorium
Now Sister Helen is spearheading Moratorium 2000, a
group running international petition drive for a worldwide moratorium
on the death penalty to be presented at the United Nations
in New York on International Human Rights Day, December 10. Bill
an attorney and former seminarian who figures prominently in "Dead
Man Walking," is director of the group, which opened a national
headquarters in New Orleans in July. It has a strong Internet presence
While many associate Sister Helen’s campaign with her Catholic faith,
in "Dead Man Walking" she cites French author and philosopher
Albert Camus as a pivotal influence, particularly his 1957 collection
"Resistance, Rebellion and Death."
"Albert Camus’ `Reflections on the Guillotine’ is for me a moral
compass on the issue of capital punishment," she writes. "One
of his cardinal points is that no government is ever innocent enough
or wise enough or just enough to lay claim to so absolute a power
Now she says that religious practice and a belief in the dignity of
every human life can exist independently.
"We’ve had some dramatic change in the Catholic Church,
its opposition to the death penalty, since this debate began,"
she says. "And this follows a longstanding support for execution.
The Christian church has had an accommodation to violence for a long,
long time. Ever since, you could say, the year 313, when the Emperor
Constantine entered the Christian church."
On this point Sister Helen is quoting, as she does in her book, from
Princeton University’s Elaine Pagels’ "Adam, Eve, and the
(She mentions, too, that she and Pagels share the same editor at
House.) This was the moment when the early Christians, instead of
living in opposition to their worldly emperors, became members of
the court, gaining new wealth, power, and prominence. Now, rather
than opposing the state, theologians provided the rationale to justify
the use of violence by church and state governments.
"The pope had come to the United States four times," says
Sister Helen. "But it was not until he came to St. Louis on
8, 1997, when the Catechism was changed, that he first spoke out
the death penalty." The church, she explains, took out the
that death might be just punishment for "grievous and grave
"The church took out that criteria in favor of the dignity of
all human life — not just the innocent, but also the guilty,"
she says. "That is a big change. And now we’re witnessing the
results of that change. Of course, for the past 20 years, there have
been statements from the leadership of all the mainline churches and
the synagogues. But it had not got to the people in the pews,"
Sister Helen’s next book, in process for three years, will be
Faith Takes Me." Her goal is to complete it by winter, 2001.
"It has chapters about where this journey has taken me, all the
traveling I’ve done, about the Northern Cheyenne and Nicaraguan women
striving for justice, and my experience as a woman in the Catholic
Church. So that’s a lot to get in there, and with my schedule it’s
kind of hard to write."
Faith is an abiding element in this nun’s life but she recognizes
that people may oppose the death penalty for many reasons. "When
I got into this, the first opposition to the death penalty came from
people who did not profess any religious belief. That was the group
with whom I stood on common ground," she says. "Religion can
get co-opted so easily."
"And the politics is extremely important. The ones who are
the most are the politicians who have an easy — and an empty —
symbol there. All they have to do is say they support the death
to make people think that’s being tough on crime.
"Pataki campaigned on the issue and got elected. And he got the
death penalty reinstated in 1995. And what has it done for New York?
Now they’ve spent $80 million on death penalty cases. It’s a crime
to use those resources that way, instead of using them to work with
kids at risk, kids in the schools, any kids. Nowadays politicians,
when they run, they’re scared not to be against it."
"You have to give people a graceful way out," she concludes.
"They’re scared, they don’t have moral courage. But the polls
show a real shift, a real sea change. Now the mandate that they have
been quoting is gone."
of Greater Princeton , Nassau Presbyterian Church, Nassau Street;
and at Princeton University Chapel, 609-924-2277. Registration begins
at 8:30 a.m. at Nassau Presbyterian Church, on Nassau Street, followed
by three panel sessions, and a 12:30 lunch break. Sister Helen
keynote address, "Dead Man Walking: The Journey," is at 2
p.m. at the Princeton University Chapel. Walk-in registration, $20.
Saturday, September 30, 8:30 a.m. and 2 p.m.
The death penalty is the civil rights issue of our
says Dorothy Moote, a retired microbiologist and teacher who is
of the Princeton conference, "Dilemmas on the Death Penalty."
She herself is not a fence-sitter. "I have never known a time
in my life when I considered the death penalty anything other than
Dorothy Moote heads up a ministry group at Trinity Church that has
garnered the cooperation of over 40 denominations, including Muslim,
Jewish, Buddhist, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant,
to stage the one-day conference. "At Trinity Church," says
Moote, "we pray for those about to be executed and for the
On a single Sunday recently, we had three from Texas. They say that
reporters there don’t even have time to research and report each of
Sister Helen Prejean was her first choice for keynote speaker. Moote
says she read the book, and saw the movie, and retains great
for Sister Helen.
"Sister Helen was able to embrace both sides. She could show
for the victims. I think that’s a unique ability, to feel and show
compassion for those who have gone through the loss. We all would
side with the victim. Yet she wanted to tell the life stories of the
killers. She was hoping that the victims would find forgiveness in
general for people who killed."
Moote is retired from her career first as a medical
microbiologist for the California Department of Public Health and
UCLA. She later set up a science program at a medical magnet high
school in Los Angeles where she taught for 15 years. Her husband,
Lloyd Moote, is a historian, formerly on the faculty of U.S.C. in
Los Angeles. The couple, who retired here after a visiting fellowship
at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, are currently
on a book about London’s Great Plague of 1665.
"Most people from the Abrahamic religions believe there can be
reconciliation and forgiveness," she says. "Although there
are some murderers, we do know, who should never be let out. These
are sociopaths who belong in mental institutions."
Conspicuous in its absence from the conference is the area’s Jewish
community. This was Moote’s unfortunate misstep: she secured her
Sister Helen, in spring, 1999, without ever noting that Saturday,
September 30, is Rosh Hashanah, a Jewish high holiday.
"Eleven Jewish organizations initially expressed interest in the
conference," says Moote, who spent last fall trying and failing
to reschedule the event. "Unfortunately we lost an important
of the planning and the attendance." Rabbi Eric Wisnia, of
Junction’s Congregation Beth Chaim, has contributed Jewish prayers
for inclusion in the conference’s 64-page bound prayer book.
"By and large the Jewish community is against the imposition of
the death penalty, although it is a penalty that is legal according
to the Torah," says Wisnia, who says the prayers he contributed
are Jewish prayers in praise of life. "Although it may be a proper
legal punishment in certain cases, the way it is imposed is most often
not fair. It’s only the ignorant, the poor, minorities, and scapegoats
who get the death penalty."
"The Talmud itself says that any Sanhedrin (Rabbinic court) that
executes somebody once in seven years is considered a murdering court;
a court that executes once in 70 year is also a murdering court. We
go out of our way to see it is not imposed on anybody through the
fear that, God forbid, we should execute somebody who is
Moote has also helped arrange a screening of "Dead Man
on Thursday, September 28, at 9 p.m. at the Frist Campus Center,
Road, 609-258-3000. The student chapter of Amnesty International will
sponsor an after-screening discussion.
— Nicole Plett
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