From the February 8th, 2005 edition of USA Today
By Jacqueline Blais

Innocents: Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, has written another anti-death-penalty book.


Photo by H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY

Photo by H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY

During the summers of the 5½ years it took Sister Helen Prejean to write The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions (Random House, $25.95), she sought refuge in a place called Prayer Lodge on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana.

The 65-year-old nun gave herself the playful nickname Prarie Dog Woman. “I had to be in my burrow,” she says, referring to her writing quarters, a three-bedroom, one-bath apartment with a spectacular view of ponderosa pines and the Rosebud Mountain range.

“She could rent a house overlooking the beach in Oregon, but it’s the world that’s here,” says Sister Marya Grathwohl, one of the Sisters of St. Franics nuns who runs Prayer Lodge for Cheyenne and Crowe Native American women. “There is a deeper awareness of the depth of the universe. That’s what this is about.”

As Prejean observes in her book: “Writing is like praying, because you stop all other activities, descend into silence, and listen patiently to the depths of your soul, waiting for the true words to come. When they do, you thank God because you know the words are a gift, and you write them down as honestly and as cleanly as you can.”

The Death of Innocents is about the death penalty and justice, a subject sha also visited in Dead Man Walking, her first book, which was published in 1993. Two years later, it became the bases fr a major film with the same title. Susan Sarandon, who played Prejean in the movie, won an Oscar.

Prejean, a nun with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille in New Orleans, joined the convent at 18 and taught English and religion for 11 years, four in the classroom and seven in adult education. It was in the 1980s that she began working with prisoners on death row.

Her job now, she says, is to “get people reflecting. … It’s about discourse.” Originally, she planned to title her new book “Impossible Burden” because, she says, when it comes to the death penalty, “who has the wisdom to say who should live and who should die?”

Prejean is, at heart, still a teacher. In Innocents, she says she wants to bring the readers to a place where they can emotionally experience the executions of two men: Dobie Gillis Williams in Lousiana and Joseph O’Dell in Virginia, both of whom she believes were innocent. She then wants to bring readers to the logic of the death penalty itself, to study the arguments.

The judicial system, she writes, is filled with flaws, citing the “astonishing admissions of errors by state and federal courts forced to free 117 people from death row since 1973.” She points out the disparity in meting out the death penalty in the 38 states where it is allowed - especially in the South.

Race, she says, is on factor: “Overwhelmingly, when people are selected for the death penalty, it is because they killed a white person.”

Another factor, she says, is politics: Winning the death penalty is a way to further a legal career.

Poverty, too, plays a role. Prejean, in her work in the St. Thomas Housing Project in New Orleans, recalls an axiom there: “Capital punishment means ‘Them without the capital get the punishment.'”

“The Supreme Court can tinker with the death penalty guidelines all it wants,” she writes, “but patterns of implementation clearly show that who is killed and who is spared is determined largely by local culture - ‘our way of doing things’ - and not by the law.”

Life story: Robbins, Sarandon draw inspiration from Prejean.

Friends in high places


Albert Ferreira, Startraksphoto/Reuters

Albert Ferreira, Startraksphoto/Reuters

Sister Helen Prejean remains a freind of the two people who brought her into the spotlight: actress Susan Sarandon, who won an Oscar for playing Prejean in 1995’s Dead Man Walking, and Sarandon’s partner, Tim Robbins, who was the film’s screenwriter, producer and director.

“I’m really lucky to have her in my life,” Robbins says of the nun. “She is a tremendous force and, in a wonderful way, unrelenting.”

Sarandon concurs, saying Prejean is “someone who is committed and celebratory and loyal and really there if you need her.”

All three are strong opponents of capital punishment, the subject of Prejean’s Dead Man Walking and her more recent The Death of Innocents.

Sarandon just appeared in Court TV’s The Exonerated, profiles of six wrongly convicted prisoners on death row. And Robbins has written a play of Dead Man Walking, which is being produced at colleges with the stipulation that students be offered courses examining social justice and the death penalty.