Interview by Rosie Hoban for Madonna magazine. 

Many of us know the award-winning film, Dead Man Walking. In August, the opera based on the story had its Australian premiere, and Sr Helen Prejean, author of the original book, attended the opening. Rosie Hoban spoke with her.

Catholic nun Helen Prejean says walking alongside a man to his execution breaks your heart and weakens the spiritc for a while. It can paralyse or galvanise a person, she says. After witnessing the legal execution of convicted murderer Patrick Sonnier in the 1980s she vomited, but knew at that moment that she had to do more than just feel sickened by the injustice of capital punishment.

Fortunately for many Americans on death row, Sr Helen’s walk to the execution room has strengthened her for the long fight. Since 1981, when she first befriended Patrick Sonnier, a man on death row, she has walked beside five men, comforting and befriending them and offering spiritual guidance in the weeks before their execution and in the hour of their greatest need. As well, she has supported the families of the victims who were murdered by the death row inmates.

Sister Helen, who joined the Sisters of St Joseph of Medaille in Louisiana in 1957, 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 began writing to Patrick Sonnier, the convicted killer of two teenagers, sentenced to die in the electric chair of Louisiana’s Angola State Prison. Upon Sonnier’s request, Sister Helen visited him many times as his spiritual advisor. During this time she witnessed the agony and brutality of the Louisiana execution process and wrote Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States.

The book is Sr Helen’s account of men sentenced to death in the United States. It explores the issue from every angle, including the brutality of the convicted man’s crime, the suffering of the victims, the agony of the victims’ family and the brutality of the judicial system in the 38 American states which still use the death penalty.

Importantly, the book follows the spiritual journey of Sonnier and Sr Helen herself. Dead Man Walking became a bestseller, and in 1993 it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. It was number one on the New York Times Best Seller List for 31 weeks and has been translated into ten different languages. In 1996. Dead Man Walking was made into an Academy Award-winning film, starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn

Sr Helen was in Australia in August to attend the Australian premiere of the opera, Dead Man Walking, based on the novel. The State Opera of South Australia performed the opera its first performance outside the United States where it had been a great success.

Since the overwhelming success of the book and the film Sr Helen has become a human rights campaigner, speaking out not just against the death penalty, but on a range of issues including the detention of asylum seekers in Australia and reconciliation with Aborigines. The common element in all social injustice, she says, is the loss of a person’s human dignity.

Sr Helen was in Australia when one of the men accused of the Bali bombings received the death penalty. She watched on television as people in Australia raised champagne glasses to celebrate the sentencing. She also read Australian newspapers where polls showed some support for the death penalty.

‘Australians must reject the mutterings by politicians about the death penalty’, she warns. ‘People around the world must strive to uphold the dignity of life of the guilty as well as the rights of the innocent and there is no dignity in executing a person. ‘It is a struggle working out what to do with the guilty, but once you begin to discuss who should get the death sentence, then as a society you descend into a moral quagmire.’

Sr Helen cited one US state which has the death penalty for those who commit heinous crimes. This has caused outrage among some parents who say their child’s murder was heinous - sufficient for the death penalty - and yet the killer was not sentenced to death. People are comparing how horrendous various murders are, weighing up their own pain and suffering against someone else’s in order to get the killer executed.

Sr Helen is also sceptical of the role of politicians in debates about the death penalty. In the US, when governors and district attorneys are running for office, the death penalty rates increase as it become a subject of political argy bargy.

‘We place ourselves in a God-like position of saying who should get killed and then someone has to do the killing. The guards on death row, the strap-down team in the execution room, what happens to all these people?

‘Jesus said it all when he said “The last shall be first”, and that is at the heart of why I oppose the death penalty. It degrades life to the maximum. Just imaginec - you are put in a very small room and told that at such and such a date someone will come and take you to a room and kill you’, she says.

For years, Sr Helen has listened as people berate her for taking the side of the murderer and ignoring the victim. They could not be more wrong. She founded Survive, a victim’s advocacy group in New Orleans, and she is an honorary member of the US-based Murder Victim Families for Reconciliation and much of her time is spent supporting these families and praying with them.
While Sr Helen spends much of her time travelling the world, she is still dedicated to her prison work. During a visit to Adelaide she visited a prisoner at the request of one of the man’s supporters. She also visited the father of a young person killed by the bombings in Bali. It is a ministry that continues to enrich her life, and her energy to travel the world speaking comes from a deep sense that she is doing what God wants her to do.

‘I am sustained by prayer and by listening to the Spirit of God and God’s capacity to be present in love. I spend time in prayer and I celebrate liturgy each Sunday with an Afro-American community. And, importantly, I live in a faith community in New Orleans with other sisters’, Sr Helen says.

‘One of the other great opportunities of this work is that I get to travel and talk to people and hopefully to awaken something in them. I see them responding to the truth because a lot of people do not have the real information told to them - they get sound bites from the media and political lines from politicians looking for votes. And in some cases I get to help people deal with their outrage. When I hear about something horrible that a person has done to another person, I feel that outrage too. If I didn’t feel it I wouldn’t be able to sit with the victim’s family and help them with their pain.

‘For me it is a privilege to be working in prisons with these men. It is a privilege to be with a human being as they face the most difficult time of their life. It is then that I say to my God, “Of all the things I could have done, this is the thing that is making a difference”.’

Sr Helen’s second book, The Machinery of Death, will be published in early 2004. She plans to visit Australia again in September next year.