Dead Man Walking | Study Guide

Sister Helen Prejean

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Dead Man Walking | 11 Things You Didn't Know


Sister Helen Prejean's Dead Man Walking is a poignant, thought-provoking study of the death penalty in the United States. Published in 1993 and told through the lens of her personal encounters with death row inmates, Dead Man Walking was the start of Prejean's career in activism against capital punishment. Prejean highlights the hypocrisy of condemning people to death for killing others and examines the lack of mercy inherent in the criminal justice system. By including the personal stories, backgrounds, and voiced regrets of the men she spent time with during their final hours, Prejean aimed to make capital punishment less abstract to the general public with the hope that, someday, the practice would be abolished altogether.

1. The phrase dead man walking was shouted in the grim hallways of American prisons.

Prejean took the title for her book from an established—and foreboding—phrase heard inside the walls of America's prisons. Although the exact origin of the phrase has been debated, "Dead man walking!" was often heard shouted by prisoners as they watched a condemned inmate escorted to his death down the long prison corridors. The saying dates back at least as far as the early 20th century, when English poet Thomas Hardy further popularized it in his 1909 poem "The Dead Man Walking."

2. Prejean first met a death row inmate through pen pal letters.

Prejean's interest in the lives and stories of death row inmates began when she corresponded with a condemned inmate as a pen pal. In 1981 Prejean was working with the poor in New Orleans when she began communicating through letters with Patrick Sonnier, who had been convicted in the murder of two teenagers. Sonnier was put to death in the electric chair in 1984. Prejean was serving as his spiritual adviser and subsequently witnessed the execution firsthand. It was this sight that inspired her decades-long research into and protest against the use of the death penalty in the United States.

3. Prejean believes in a broader meaning to the term pro-life.

As a Catholic nun, Prejean has often been questioned on issues of Catholic social thought, including her stance on abortion. While Prejean identifies as pro-life, taking a position against abortion, she insists that the term be broadened beyond pregnancy. She noted the hypocrisy of Catholics who claim to be pro-life but still support policies such as the death penalty which, in her opinion, is quite literally the opposite.

4. Prejean took a stand against the use of the death penalty against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in the Boston Marathon bombing case.

Prejean continued to reiterate her stance against the death penalty in many cases. She spoke out against the implementation of capital punishment in the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was arrested and tried for the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, which killed six people and left more than 200 injured. Prejean spoke at length with Tsarnaev before his trial, and she insisted to jurors that he felt genuine regret regarding his violent actions. Tsarnaev was on trial in Massachusetts, which had abolished the death penalty, but he was eligible for capital punishment due to his federal charges. Despite Prejean's public condemnation of the practice, Tsarnaev was eventually sentenced to death.

5. Prejean aimed to "bring people close" to the issue of the death penalty with Dead Man Walking.

Prejean was inspired to write Dead Man Walking because of the ambivalence she saw in people regarding the death penalty and incarceration in general. She noticed that few people passionately argued in favor of the death penalty but that many who didn't support it wouldn't go out of their way to protest it. With the publication of Dead Man Walking and the subsequent film adaptation, Prejean wanted to present capital punishment on a personal level. She explained,

The big difference is changing consciousness. On this issue people have not been reflecting about it very much. It's been like yeah people do terrible crimes. We hear the politicians tell us all the time we got to execute them, end of discussion. Most people are not affected directly personally by the death penalty. This is making them think about it and also to experience it through the film in a very visceral way. Not just rationally.

6. Prejean spent time visiting prisons with actor Sean Penn, who played Robert Lee Willie in the film adaptation.

Prejean was given a lot of input during the production of the 1995 film adaptation of Dead Man Walking. Sean Penn, who played the death-row inmate Robert Lee Willie, spent a great deal of time with Prejean while preparing for his role. The two even visited a prison together so that Penn could experience it from the inside, as Prejean originally had. Prejean noted:

When I met Sean, we spent a day together and went to the prison and so forth. And I would slip sometimes and call him Robert because he's a dead-ringer, if you'll excuse the expression, for Robert Lee Willie.

7. The filmmakers opted to use lethal injection in the film, even though the inmates Prejean counseled died in the electric chair.

In the film adaptation of Dead Man Walking, Robert Lee Willie is put to death with lethal injection, even though he was actually executed by electric chair in 1984. This decision was deliberate—Louisiana eliminated the electric chair as a method of execution in 1993, relying on lethal injection instead, which is generally considered to be more humane. Prejean agreed that the use of lethal injection in the film was a good idea, despite the historical inaccuracy, because she wanted the issue of capital punishment to be portrayed in the most contemporary light possible. Prejean explained:

We don't want to give people the moral (of the most humane death) out whereby people could say "Oh, well, we used to do electrocution but that's too barbaric so now we are humane and inject them."

8. Prejean was relieved when she found out she'd be portrayed by Susan Sarandon in the film adaptation of Dead Man Walking.

Prejean had a memorable and hilarious quip when she was told that Susan Sarandon was chosen to portray her in the 1995 film adaptation of Dead Man Walking. Prior to meeting Sarandon, Prejean was simply told that she'd be played by one of the actresses from the 1991 film Thelma & Louise. Upon meeting Sarandon, Prejean reportedly expressed her relief, saying, "Thank God, she's Louise." Apparently Prejean was not fond of Geena Davis, who played Thelma in the film.

9. Before his execution, Sonnier asked for forgiveness from the father of one of his victims—but not the other.

Patrick Sonnier, the first death row inmate Prejean worked with, was executed in 1984 in the presence of the fathers of both his victims. Sonnier reportedly asked one of the men, the father of victim David LeBlanc, for forgiveness before the execution. LeBlanc's father agreed to forgive Sonnier, but Sonnier oddly did not ask for forgiveness from the father of his other victim, Loretta Bourque. Bourque's father noted, simply, "He didn't ask me." Sonnier's final words were to Prejean, whom he told, "I love you."

10. In addition to the 1995 film, Dead Man Walking was adapted as an opera.

Although Prejean might not have anticipated that her novel would ever be set on stage, it was adapted as an opera in 2000 by Jake Heggie. The opera, which begins with the grisly murder of two teenagers at the hands of future death row inmates, traces Prejean's work in prisons and activism against capital punishment. Dead Man Walking first premiered at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, California, and has been staged by numerous theater companies and universities since.

11. Dead Man Walking was just the tip of the iceberg of Prejean's worldwide activism.

Prejean's publication of Dead Man Walking was the beginning of a lifetime dedicated to activism against capital punishment and to the raising awareness regarding prison conditions around the world. Prejean has also engaged in activism in Nicaragua against U.S. policy in the 1980s and 1990s of funding rebel "Contra" groups agains the left-wing Sandinista government there. Prejean likened economic and social oppression in Nicaragua to capital punishment, stating:

U.S. policy supporting the Contra war and present economic 'restructuring' programs demanded by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank put the majority of Nicaraguan people under another kind of death sentence: a life of impoverishment, disease, and early death. All with U.S. support.

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