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Sister Helen Prejean

Sister Helen Prejean is an anti-death penalty advocate in New Orleans and the author of "Dead Man Walking."

Sister Helen Prejean

Sister Helen Prejean is a Catholic nun from New Orleans who is famous for her outspoken stance against capital punishment. Her crusade began in 1984, when she first witnessed a state execution after ministering to a death-row inmate at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. The 1995 Hollywood feature film Dead Man Walking, based on Prejean’s 1993 memoir of the same name, sparked a national debate about the death penalty. She is a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, a ministry of more than seven hundred Catholic women who take vows dedicating themselves to improving poor and underserved communities. She has toured the world as an esteemed lecturer and has become a globally recognized opponent of prisoner executions.

Early Life

Prejean was born in Baton Rouge on April 21, 1939, the second of three children born to Louis Prejean, a lawyer, and Gusta Mae Prejean, a nurse. Prejean has said that although she grew up in the segregated South during a time of racial tension, she was oblivious to the injustices in her society. Her earliest memory of racism dates from 1952, when she was twelve: she saw a bus driver literally kick a black woman off his bus. Although Prejean says she was horrified at the time, it wasn’t until much later that she would confront racism directly, when she devoted her life to working for the poor.

Catholicism was always an important part of Prejean’s life. Both of her parents were devout members of the church; they had each considered a religious vocation before they married. In 1957, at just eighteen years old, Prejean became what she called “a child bride of Christ,” entering the convent of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille (which later merged with other orders to form the Congregation of St. Joseph). When she became a nun, convent life had changed little in the previous hundred years, so she expected to live in seclusion. In 1962, however, Pope John XXIII opened Vatican II, a series of councils that were intended to modernize the Catholic Church. At the same time, the feminist movement was opening new roles for women.

By this time, Prejean was already pursuing higher education. In 1962 she received a bachelor’s degree in English and education from St. Mary’s Dominican College in New Orleans; in 1973 she earned a master’s degree in religious education from St. Paul’s University in Ottawa, Canada.

Helping the Poor

In 1971, spurred by Vatican II, the worldwide synod of bishops declared justice a constitutive part of the Christian gospel and urged the church to address the struggles of the poor. As a result, in 1980, the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Medaille made a commitment to help the needy. That same year, Prejean heard a speech by nun and sociologist Sister Marie Augusta Neal. Neal argued that the Gospels preached that the poor had a right to the same necessities in life as everyone else. Inspired, Prejean decided to devote her life to the economically disadvantaged.

In 1981, when Prejean was in her forties, she moved to the St. Thomas Housing Project, a New Orleans public housing complex located between the Central Business District and the Garden District in one of the city’s most dangerous areas. At the time, the residents brought home an average annual income of $10,890, and the violent crime rate was the ninth highest in the nation. Half of the population had not completed high school. While working with St. Thomas residents, Prejean witnessed firsthand the struggles of the working poor.

Visiting Death Row

One year after moving to the St. Thomas community, the Prison Coalition asked Prejean to correspond with death-row inmates. Viewing it as part of her mission to help the poor, she agreed.

Prejean’s first correspondent on death row was Elmo Patrick Sonnier, a St. Martinville man who had abducted a teenage couple parked on a remote road on November 4, 1977. Sonnier and his brother, Eddie, were convicted of raping Loretta Bourque, then fatally shooting her and her boyfriend, David LeBlanc, in the head. Both Sonnier brothers were sentenced to death in 1978, but their sentences were appealed. Eddie then recanted his story, saying he was the murderer, but the prosecution attacked his credibility and eventually convicted Elmo of first-degree murder as the more dominant participant. He was again sentenced to death.

Over the next few months, Prejean and Sonnier began writing regularly. She eventually learned more brutal details of the Sonniers’ crimes, but when she found out that Elmo received no visitors, she began making trips to see him in the Angola penitentiary. In July 1983, when Sonnier received a warrant for his execution, Prejean increased the visits to once a week. As he prepared to die, she pushed him to take responsibility for what he had done to his victims and their families. On one occasion, Sonnier told Prejean he had not killed either of the victims. Later, his brother Eddie corroborated this statement.

Through her interaction with Sonnier, Prejean was disturbed by many injustices that she saw in the legal system, and she worked to get Sonnier proper representation for his federal appeals. Millard Farmer, an attorney who defends death-row inmates, appealed to Gov. Edwin Edwards to grant Sonnier another hearing, but Edwards refused. Ultimately, Prejean attended Sonnier’s execution by electrocution on April 5, 1984.

The Bourques and the LeBlancs, the parents of the victims, had rebuked Prejean for not reaching out to them as well as to Sonnier. Prejean learned from their outrage, and while she continued to support death-row inmates, she found ways to help their victims’ families, too.

Activism against the Death Penalty

After her experience with Sonnier, Prejean began lecturing about the legal, social, and spiritual problems she saw in capital punishment; later she began writing opinion pieces for newspapers and magazines. In 1993 she published Dead Man Walking, describing how befriending Sonnier and visiting death row had inspired her to pursue her new vocation of death penalty abolition and education. The book also discusses Prejean’s role as spiritual adviser to a second death-row inmate, Robert Lee Willie, who was convicted of the 1980 rape and murder of Faith Hathaway near Franklinton.

The book drew the attention of the actress Susan Sarandon and her partner, the director and actor Tim Robbins. They made a feature film of Prejean’s story, condensing details of Sonnier’s and Willie’s lives into a single character played by Sean Penn. Sarandon played the role of Sister Helen Prejean and won an Academy Award for Best Actress. After the movie was released, Prejean’s book spent thirty-one weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and was translated into twelve languages. Prejean was thrust into fame as she began to travel the world, taking as many invitations to speak on camera and before audiences as she could.

Prejean has said that when she first started visiting death-row inmates in 1982, she presumed that everyone sentenced to death was guilty. By 2005, when she wrote her second book, twenty-three years of working with those inmates and their attorneys had convinced her that innocent people could end up on death row simply because of the way the criminal justice system operates. In her second book, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions, she tells the story of death-row inmates Dobie Gillis Williams and Joseph O’Dell. Prejean, who accompanied them to their executions, believes they were innocent. She describes in the book all the evidence, including some that juries never heard.

When she first began her crusade, Prejean’s audiences were small—as few as ten or twelve people at a time. By the time her second book was published, the activist nun was giving up to 140 lectures a year. In 2007 she joined a delegation representing groups opposed to capital punishment and presented a petition to the United Nations in New York City. Five million people from around the world signed the petition, which called for a moratorium on the death penalty. As the founder of Survive, a victim’s advocacy group in New Orleans, Prejean continues to counsel inmates on death row and families of murder victims.

Honors and Awards

Prejean has received more than one hundred honors and awards since 1986, when she won the Abolitionist Award from the Louisiana Capital Defense Project. Among many other honors, she has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Otis Social Justice Award, the Chief Justice Earl Warren Civil Liberties Award from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and honorary degrees from universities and colleges from around the country.