The Defenders :: Sister Helen Prejean

Sister Helen Prejean. Photo by Eddie Adams
Sister Helen Prejean. Photo by Eddie Adams

“The death penalty legalizes the torture and killing of our own citizens and imitates their violence in order to deter or punish. I came to this realization only after my first witnessing of a state execution.” In 1982 Sister Helen Prejean had just moved into St. Thomas Housing Project, one of New Orleans' most violent neighborhoods, when a friend asked her to be a pen pal to death row inmate Pat Sonnier. Viewing the proposal as an extension of her ministry to the poor, she accompanied Sonnier through the next two years, until the day the state shaved his head for the electrodes, strapped him into the chair, and executed him. Thus began for Prejean a lifetime commitment to the abolition of the death penalty. She recorded her experiences in her deeply moving best-selling book, Dead Man Walking. Made into an acclaimed motion picture (for which Susan Sarandon won an Oscar in 1995 for her portrayal of Sister Helen), the book and movie's publicity propelled Prejean's worldwide campaign against capital punishment. The United States is the only Western country that still uses the death penalty: nearly 400 people currently await execution here. Meanwhile, also recognizing the needs of the families of victims of violent crimes, Prejean created Survive, an advocacy group with which she continues to work closely.


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