Prejan, Helen 1939–
Prejan, Helen 1939–
PERSONAL: Born April 21, 1939, in Baton Rouge, LA; daughter of Louis (an attorney) and Gusta Mae (a nurse) Prejean. Education: St. Mary's Dominican College, New Orleans, LA, B.A., 1962; St. Paul's University, Ottawa, Canada, M.A., 1973.
CAREER: Writer, Roman Catholic nun, educator, public speaker, and social activist. Entered Order of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille, 1957; taught English in various Catholic schools during early career; Hope House (community service organization), New Orleans, LA, cofounder and codirector, beginning 1980s. Served as the religious director at St. Francis Cabrini Parish, New Orleans, LA. Frequent guest on television programs and news shows on NBC, ABC, CNBC, PBS, and the BBC, including 60 Minutes, Today Show, ABC World News Tonight, Larry King Live, Phil Donahue Show, Prime Time Live, Frontline, Everyman, Weekend Edition, Fresh Air, and the Tom Snyder Show. Cofounder of victims' assistance program in Louisiana.
MEMBER: Amnesty International, National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (chair of board, 1993–95), Murder Victim Families for Reconciliation (honorary member), Louisiana Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (cofounder).
AWARDS, HONORS: Abolitionist Award, Louisiana Capital Defense Project, 1986; Sanctity of Life Award, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Mike McGough Award, Convocation of Jail and Prison Ministers, both 1990; National Abolitionist Award, National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, 1992; Catholic Press Association Journalism Award for best short story, 1992, for "Beloved Sons"; Christopher Award, 1993, for Dead Man Walking; Herbert and Sara Ehrmann Award, Massachusetts Citizens against the Death Penalty, 1993; Champion of Liberty Award, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, 1994; Isaac Hecker Award for Social Justice, Paulist Center (Boston, MA), 1994; Lifelines Book of the Year award, Lifelines Association (United Kingdom), 1994; Abolitionist Award, Death Penalty Focus, 1994; "Esse no Videre" Award, St. Joseph's College, 1994; National Civil Liberties Award, American Civil Liberties Union, 1994; Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights Award, 1994; Citizen of the Year Award, Louisiana Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, 1995; Justice Albert Take Jr. Award, National Association of Defense Lawyers, 1995; Guggenheim Fellowship, 1995; Christopher Spirit Award, 1995; Torchbearer Award, Dominican College, 1996; Laetare Medal, Notre Dame University, 1996; St. Thomas More Award, St. Mary's School of Law, 1996; Vision 2000 Courage Award, Catholic Charities U.S.A., 1996; Roger Baldwin Award, American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Massachusetts, 1996; Eyewitness Award, Illinois Coalition against the Death Penalty, 1996; Adele Dewyer-St. Thomas of Villanova Peace Award, Villanova University Center for Peace and Justice, 1996; Florida Lasker Civil Liberties Award, New York Civil Liberties Union, 1996; Pope Paul VI Teacher of Peace Award, Pax Christi USA, 1996; Carondelet Medal, Mt. St. Mary College, 1997; Louisiana Legends Award, Louisiana Public Broadcasting, 1997; Ben Smith Award, American Civil Liberties Union, 1998; Robert O. Cooper Fellowship in Peace and Justice Award and the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award, both St. Ambrose University, both 1998; Abolitionist of the Year Award, 1998; Woman of Achievement Award, College of St. Elizabeth, 1999; U.S. Catholic Award, U.S. Catholic magazine, 1999; Pope John XXII Award, Viterbo College, 1999; Alumna of the Year Award, St. Paul University, 1999; Distinguished Service Award, National Council of Catholic Women, 1999; Centennial Catholic Woman of Achievement Award, Lourdes College, 1999; Centennial Catholic Woman of Achievement Award, St. Norbert College, 1999; Bishop Dingman Peace Award, Catholic Peace Ministry, 2000; Bishop Caroll Dozier Peace and Justice Award, Christian Brothers University, 2000; Human Rights Ward, St. Anthony Messenger (Padua, Italy), 2000; Harry F. Fagan Roundtable Award, 2001; Ut Diligatis Invicem Award, Gannon University, 2002; Caritas Award, Catholic Charities in Paterson, NJ, 2002; Dignitas Humana Award, St. John's School of Theology and Seminary, 2002; Franciscan International Award, Franciscan Retreats, 2003; Cardinal Suenens Award, John Carroll University, 2004; Death Penalty Focus Award, Peace Prize, 2005; nominated numerous times for the Nobel Peace Prize. Recipient of honorary degrees from the University of Glasgow, Regis College, Seton Hall University, Chestnut Hill College, St. John's University, Georgetown University, Mt. St. Vincent College, Amherst College, Gonzaga University, Notre Dame College, St. Ambrose College, St. Joseph College, Briar Cliff College, Maryville University, Barry University, Avila College, Cabrini College, University of San Francisco, Holy Cross College, University of Western Ontario, DePaul University, Northeastern University, St. Thomas University, St. Mary of the Woods, Wheeling Jesuit University, University of Scranton, Hendrix College, St. Rose College, Mary-grove College, Governors State University, University of Dayton, National University of Ireland, Ball State University, Spring Hill College, Catholic Theological Union, City University of New York Law School, Anna Maria College, Neumann College, Regis University, St. Francis University, and Loyola University.
Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States, Random House (New York, NY), 1993.
The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions, Random House (New York, NY), 2005.
Contributor to the Pacific News Service. Prejean's works have been translated into ten languages.
ADAPTATIONS: Dead Man Walking was adapted for film, directed and written by Tim Robbins, Gramercy Pictures, 1995; Dead Man Walking was also adapted as an opera, with music by Jake Heggie and libretto by Terrence McNally, produced at the San Francisco Opera, 2000.
SIDELIGHTS: Louisiana native and Roman Catholic nun Helen Prejean garnered national media attention with the publication of her first book, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States. The 1993 work is an outgrowth of Prejean's experiences in counseling Louisiana prisoners on death row. The author soon became an opponent of capital punishment as a result of this work and was a founding member of a group dedicated to its abolition. Later Prejean became an advocate of victims' rights, and it was in this capacity that she befriended the families of the victims of those on death row—families who are sometimes the most vociferous supporters of state-sponsored executions.
Prejean entered the Order of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille in 1957, when she was eighteen. She taught school for many years before her order refocused its mission to serving the needy. She then moved into a New Orleans housing project and cofounded a community service agency there. When a friend requested that Prejean correspond with an inmate on death row, Prejean's letters to the man, Elmo Patrick Sonnier, evolved into prison visits, and she undertook the role of spiritual advisor to him while fighting unsuccessfully to get his sentence overturned. In 1984, as Prejean looked on, Sonnier was electrocuted for the murder of a young couple seven years earlier.
Prejean had for years been an inveterate diarist, and her reflections about the inhumane nature of capital punishment and the moral debate surrounding it grew into the book Dead Man Walking. Here she explains that statistics show the majority of the American public is opposed to the death penalty, and other data irrefutably proves that in tax dollars it is far more expensive to kill someone than it is to keep a person in prison for life. Yet in a society where citizens feel helpless against the onslaught of violent crime, and politicians find it more and more difficult to distinguish their record of public service, a death penalty serves as a cathartic symbol. In an interview with Julia Reed for Vogue, Prejean noted that "politicians do not want to deal with the real crime problem, which is complex, costly—you gotta do some thinking and planning and go in-depth. It's so much easier just to whip out that death penalty." One of the main ideas Prejean presents in the work is that the American public should fully comprehend the gruesome reality involved in state-sponsored executions. She feels public opinion would then become galvanized against it. The book takes the reader into the death chamber and describes in great detail the procedure that is shrouded in secrecy and noir ritual. Dead Man Walking profiles prisoners awaiting execution, who are likely to be young, black, and poor, and who were probably defended by the public defenders office. Prejean quotes statistics showing that such criminals are more likely to receive the death penalty if their victim was white.
Prejean also chronicles the opposition she has encountered from many sides in her crusade, including prison officials, the Catholic hierarchy, and the families of those murdered by death-row inmates. A secondary viewpoint is presented in Prejean's volume through the experiences of the families of those whom the inmates are accused of murdering, and she relates the ways in which these families have often been poorly served by the criminal justice system. Over the years the author has also become involved with counseling these grieving families, who are often publicly manipulated by politicians to garner support for keeping the death penalty on the books. Prejean has helped to implement a program in her state that serves these people in a more constructive way. With the publication of Dead Man Walking, she hoped that the public would begin to view state-sponsored executions as a politically motivated act of barbarism. As quoted in the New York Times Book Review, she wrote that if she herself were to become a victim of violence: "I would not want my death avenged. Especially by government—which can't be trusted to control its own bureaucrats or collect taxes equitably or fill a pothole, much less decide which of its citizens to kill."
Dead Man Walking elicited praise upon publication. In the Vogue article, Reed described the work as "a gripping narrative, driven above all by [Prejean's] conviction that if the public could be as close to this as she has been, we would no longer condone capital punishment in any form." A review of the volume in the New Yorker asserted that the author's "practical moral courage is heroic." New York Times Book Review critic Laura Shapiro called Prejean "an excellent writer, direct and honest and unsentimental; her accounts of crime and punishment are gripping, and her argument is persuasive. But it is her personality that makes this book so powerful."
Detesting the injustice that she sees as inherent in the death penalty system, Prejean wrote of an even more profound injustice, the execution of the innocent and wrongfully accused, in The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions. Prejean uses "well-researched arguments concerning the capriciousness of our capital punishment laws and their implementation," noted reviewer George M. Anderson in America, demonstrating that in the United States, "the criminal justice system as a whole is slanted against the poor and members of minority groups." Prejean provides thorough, detailed studies of the cases of two men who were executed but who were, in all probability, innocent. The first, Dobie Gillis Williams, who was executed in Louisiana in 1999, was an impoverished African American with an IQ of 65—anything below an IQ of 70 indicates mental retardation. Prejean describes how the legal proceedings unfolded: how the crime scenario put forth by the prosecution did not match the forensic evidence, how the prosecution failed to honestly present the case to the jury, and how Williams was represented by an incompetent lawyer who was later disbarred for unethical practices.
The second case study concerns Joseph Roger O'Dell, a man executed in Virginia in 1997. O'Dell's case was rife with prosecutorial misconduct, stymied by minute legal technicalities, and in general hampered by O'Dell's attempt to provide his own defense. She describes how she provided counseling and comfort to these men, up to and including acting as a witness to their executions. Prejean clearly explains her position that the legal system is unfairly weighted against defendants such as Williams and O'Dell, making her presentation of statistics and arguments "extremely compelling through her vivid accounts of these two men," according to Tobias Winright in Sojourners. Nor does she "shy away from naming names and speaking truth to power," Winright maintained, such as in her sharp criticism of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and of President (and former Texas governor) George Bush. "Prejean articulates an even more principled theological argument against the death penalty when she correlates Christian (mis)understandings of atonement with capital punishment," Winright stated.
"It is rare that the author of one extraordinary book should follow it a decade later with another of almost equal power. And yet this is what Helen Prejean, C.S. J., has done" with The Death of Innocents, Anderson asserted. Winright called the book "an important contribution" to the collection of literature against the death penalty. "Whatever one's views on capital punishment," concluded Library Journal reviewer Frances Sandiford, "this book provides food for thought."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Prejean, Helen, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States, Random House, 1993.
America, March 7, 2005, George M. Anderson, "Make No Mistake about It," review of The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions, p. 23.
Library Journal, February 15, 2005, Frances Sandiford, review of The Death of Innocents, p. 146.
New Yorker, June 28, 1993, review of Dead Man Walking, p. 103.
New York Times Book Review, July 4, 1993, Laura Shapiro, review of Dead Man Walking, p. 10.
Publishers Weekly, March 22, 1993, Russ Immarigeon, "On Crime and Punishment," p. 24.
Sojourners, August, 2005, Tobias Winright, review of The Death of Innocents, p. 42.
Vogue, June, 1993, Julia Reed, "Witness at the Execution," profile of Helen Prejean, p. 192.