Biographical information about the author
\"Dead Man Walking\" is written by Sister Helen Prejean who fights against capital punishment in the U.S.A. She was born in Baton Rouge in the 1940s and has lived and worked in Louisiana all her life. As an abolitionist of death penalty, she published lectures about her experiences working with death-row inmates. She is a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille, an order that she joined in 1957.
Helen Prejean had a happy childhood. When she was young she saw the world without any violence and racism- without differences between black and white people.
But one day she saw physical violence against a black person and felt awful. Eventually she noticed various problems, - drugs, violence and so on- in her society. Even friends of hers- \"coloured\" friends were treated badly. So she decided to help the poor and to improve their treatment.
The Plot and Viewpoints
She started to work as a nun, not a social worker, at a place called Hope House in St. Thomas in 1981. One day while she was doing her job, her friend asked her to become a pen-pal to a prisoner on death-row named Elmo Patrick Sonnier, who with his brother Eddie had shot Loretta Bourque and David LeBlanque.
The man scares her but in spite of that she feels some sort of compassion and decides to write him without knowing how much it will change her life. They soon become steady correspondents and Helen begins to think as a fellow human being. It seems to me that she even forgets his crime for a moment by reading his thoughtful letters. She visits him at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola.
I think nobody can imagine what human beings go through when they are sentenced to death. What feelings of helplessness must they have knowing that they are going to die. What pain, sorrow and rage must they feel waiting for the poison to flow through their veins.
There are questions like:\"Maybe violence is natural to him? Maybe he is desperate and needs help?\" Helen says:\"The problem is, we have images of death-row inmates -wild-eyed-people who have killed once and will kill again.\"
But when Sister Prejean meets Pat the first time she is surprised how human, even likable, he is. Eventually she becomes his spiritual adviser and finally a close friend.
But she doesn't forget the fact that Pat has committed a terrible crime for what the parents of the victims want to see him pay. They want to get peace with the death of their children's murderer.
Still Sister Helen feels compassion with the victim's parents and understands their rage. She believes that executions are murder, worse than murder because they are committed in the name of \"civilized\" society.
Page 77/78: \"The people want Patrick Sonnier to be dead. But then who is going to kill them for killing him?"
Eventually Sister Helen is convinced she is doing the right thing. At the Death House where the electric chair is located she stays with Pat during his final days and supports him by showing love and reading from the Bible right up to his execution. She decides to be with Pat every minute that she can. Prejean´s duty is to help Patrick die.
The last days are described in such a depressive way in the book that I almost started to cry. Patrick and Sister Helen talk about life that seems so short, about God and love. All she has to do is listen.
Page 105: Patrick: \"´I have never known real love,\" he says, \"never loved women or anybody all that well myself. I gave Mama a lot of trouble and Eddie was always her baby and it's not that I blame her. It's a shame a man has to come to prison to find love.\" He looks up at me and says, \"Thanks for loving me.\"
Helen Prejean is a strong woman who bears evil with God on her side. She wishes to have the power for giving encouragement to Patrick and to the parents of the young victims.
In the opinion of most people first-degree-murderers should pay with their life; for example the chaplain of the prison claims that these people are the \"scum of the earth\"; - isn't that intolerant and childish? They are the same that say \"We should avoid violence as far as possible\". What are Jesus´ messages about? Jesus, whose way of life we all should follow, refused to meet hate with hate and violence with violence. Everybody should pray for the strength to be a bit like him.
Walking to the electric chair, Patrick asks the Warden if Sister Helen was allowed to touch his arm. Then she walks behind him, reading from the Bible.
Only, after Pat's execution it becomes clear that Pat helped Eddie raping the teenagers but only Eddie killed them.
Nevertheless, that means that an innocent man died because of his love for his brother and of course because of the state that didn't notice the mistake. For Prejean it's obvious: \"Patrick Sonnier died as a hero.\"
While I was reading \"Dead Man Walking\" I felt as if Sister Helen Prejean was taking me along walking down death row.
In my point of view the death penalty isn't human. I can understand that people suffer terribly when a person, a murderer, kills their children. The murderer has committed a crime and he has to be punished for what he did and some people say, it's justice to kill that person the same way he or she has killed the victims, but I ask myself \"What about forgiveness?\"
Isn't it enough to lock someone up in prison all his life?
I'm not in the situation of someone who has lost his child. Perhaps I would also like to see the murderer die - of course I would.
A friend of Prejean: \"...it satisfies a deeply felt moral intuition that there are some crimes for which death is the only proportionate punishment, and this murder certainly seems to be one of those crimes. That is what the American people feel...\"
After Patrick's execution Helen Prejean becomes the spiritual adviser of her second death-row inmate Robert Willie whom she also watches die.
Prejean´s successful story was turned into a Hollywood Film with Jean Penn and Susan Sarandon with the same title as Helen's book \"Dead Man Walking\".