Sister Helen Prejean is known around the world for her tireless work against the death penalty. She has been instrumental in sparking national dialogue on capital punishment and in shaping the Catholic Church’s vigorous opposition to all executions.
Sister Helen was born on April 21, 1939, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She joined the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille (now know as the Congregation of St. Joseph) in 1957 and received a B.A. in English and Education from St. Mary’s Dominican College, New Orleans in 1962. In 1973, she earned an M.A. in Religious Education from St. Paul’s University in Ottawa, Canada. She has been the Religious Education Director at St. Frances Cabrini Parish in New Orleans, the Formation Director for her religious community, and has taught junior and senior high school students.
Sister Helen began her prison ministry in 1981 when she dedicated her life to the poor of New Orleans. While living in the St. Thomas housing project, she started to correspond with Patrick Sonnier, who had been sentenced to death for the murder of two teenagers. In 1984, Elmo Patrick Sonnier was put to death in the electric chair. Sister Helen was there to witness his execution. In the following months, she became spiritual advisor to another death row inmate, Robert Lee Willie, who was to meet the same fate as Sonnier.
After witnessing these executions, Sister Helen realized that this lethal ritual would remain unchallenged unless its secrecy was stripped away. She came together with others to hold execution vigils and to march to draw attention to the issue. She founded a support group for victims’ family members. And she sat down and wrote a book, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States.
Dead Man Walking made the 1994 American Library Associates Notable Book List, spent 31 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List, became an international best seller and was translated into ten different languages. In January 1996, the book was developed into a major motion picture starring Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen and Sean Penn as a death row inmate. Produced by Polygram Pictures, the film was directed and written by Tim Robbins. The movie received four Oscar nominations including Tim Robbins for Best Director, Sean Penn for Best Actor, Susan Sarandon for Best Actress, and Bruce Springsteen’s “Dead Man Walking” for Best Song. Susan Sarandon won the award for Best Actress.
Dead Man Walking was also the basis for an opera of the same name, with music by Jake Heggie and libretto by Terrance McNally. It premiered with the San Francisco Opera in October 2000 and has since become one of the most performed operas of the modern repertoire.
Sr. Helen’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 both of them were innocent. In The Death of Innocents she takes the reader through all the evidence, including evidence the juries never heard either due to the incompetence of the defense lawyers or the rigid formalities of court procedure. Sr. Helen examines how flaws inextricably entwined in the death penalty system inevitably lead to innocent people being executed and render the system unworkable.
Currently, Sister Helen is spiritual advisor to two men on death row, Manuel Ortiz in Louisiana and Richard Glossip in Oklahoma. She believes, as do many others, that both of these men are innocent.
Today, with capital punishment still on the books in 31 states (although fallen into disuse in most of those states) Sister Helen divides her time between campaigning against the death penalty, counseling individual death row prisoners, and working with murder victims’ family members. Her third book, River of Fire, is due out early in 2019.