35 years ago, Sister Helen Prejean walked down the hall at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola with her unsteady hand on the quivering shoulder of Patrick Sonnier. His death by electrocution that night would have slid barely noticed, then and now—except Prejean was so outraged by what she saw that she wrote it down.
Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in America was a book so searing that it inspired a compelling film (with Susan Sarandon re-enacting that walk down the hall); a fierce soundtrack (with Bruce Springsteen growling the title song); and a profoundly moving opera by Jake Heggie.
For the past decade, I have studied Prejean’s work as part of research about women human rights leaders. I have read her personal papers and watched her work with prisoners and prison personnel, experts and celebrities. One of the most compelling perspectives came from Joyce DiDonato, the mezzo-soprano extraordinaire who often portrays the Sister Helen character in Dead Man Walking.
DiDonato said she was initially reluctant to accept the role, concerned that she would not be able to carry it—especially the closing, in which the nun, alone on stage save for the body of the executed man, walks toward the audience, bereft, and sings the closing aria.
“Helen is the best heroine I’ve ever sung, a character with fire and audacity,” DiDonato said. “It requires stamina, though. It’s exhausting. The emotional temperature changes every night—sometimes the anger rises, sometimes the sadness. I need to gauge it to be able to sing.”
Prejean never intended to be an abolitionist. She tells the thousands of people who come to hear her speak each year about how she entered the furor unexpectedly, when she jauntily accepted an invitation to correspond with a man on death row and came to know him as a human being. She explained to Bryan Stevenson that she had entered her middle years blithely assuming that justice exercised in the United States was fair—practiced by professionals like her principled father, an attorney, for whom the Constitution was sacrosanct.
What she came to see in the courts, prisons and homes of people affected by violent crime belied that view.
The third prisoner Prejean accompanied was a man she believed innocent of the crime for which he was executed. Walking with him forced her to confront dark systemic failings of which she had been unaware—police corruption, prosecutorial misconduct and judicial incompetence, particularly impacting the poor and persons of color. Her furious rendering of that second witnessing, Death of Innocents, further galvanized efforts against wrongful conviction.
Egregious violations of human rights provoke near-universal outrage, but when the odds against change are great and the forces aligned behind the status quo are powerful, citizens can feel overwhelmed and sink into a sense of powerlessness. In this age of citizens stepping forward to engage intractable issues, the now-80-year-old Prejean’s track record is instructive.
Prejean continues to immerse herself in a world of heartbreaking human need each month: helping a convict feel regret, advising a family, encouraging an attorney or a legislator to take a risk. She continues to work. She continues to teach the outraged to draw courage from individuals whose rights are being challenged, to develop expertise, to engage others in the fight, to take action—and to refuse to quit.
Her persistence has already paid dividends.
The chair in which Patrick Sonnier was executed is now in the museum at Angola Penitentiary; only one person has been executed in the past 15 years in Louisiana, and he “volunteered.” At-large, the number of executions in the United States is down almost 70 percent from its peak in 1999. Public support for death sentences has also declined nationwide, from 80 percent to 50 percent, and news of false convictions nudge even firm proponents of execution to reconsider.
Eventually and increasingly, major policy leaders—governors, legislators, even wardens—sought Prejean’s counsel and acted on her advice. Two popes, Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis, responded to her testimony by changing church doctrine. The recent decision by Governor Newsom to halt execution in California was doubtless also influenced by her work—and although it will likely stir resistance, it will also likely subside, as in the four other states in which the governor entered the debate by issuing a moratorium—Illinois, Colorado, Washington and Oregon—wherein the legislature eventually abolished the practice by law.
In addition to applause, Prejean’s work brings her hate mail and personal threat, but she flinches and carries on. She knows, as do all in the fight for human rights and especially in fractious times, that gains achieved over years can be reversed in days. Watching the gurney and electric chair being dragged from San Quentin in February must have been satisfying—but she knows they were going into storage, not the dump.
Further proof of the fragility of success is the announcement this week that the federal government will resume executions. Prejean, about to board a plane to Alaska to celebrate 62 years without execution when Attorney General Barr broke the news, called it “disheartening.” Within hours of landing, she launched an informed, detailed Twitter thread which rose to an adamant conclusion.
“To summarize—the death penalty is error-prone, it’s racially biased in several different ways, it’s arbitrary, it targets vulnerable people living with mental illnesses or intellectual disabilities,” she tweeted, “and it doesn’t deter crime. This is a failed public policy.”
Prejean is in the fight for good. In the preface to the re-release of Dead Man Walking, she erased any doubt: “I know, with God’s good grace,” she wrote, “until my dying breath, that I am going to work to put government killing machines in museums behind blue velvet ropes where they belong.”
Her third book, River of Fire, comes out this month.