She has accompanied six men through the final months, days and hours of their lives, lending counsel and prayer and a final look or gesture of comfort before their executions by electric chair or lethal injection.
What sticks with her, Sister Helen Prejean says, is the unsettling civility of it all.
“It’s all so … polite in the death house,” the 77-year-old nun says. “The psychiatrist coming in and saying, ‘Do you need something to take the edge off?’ The chef fixing the last meal: ‘Was it good? Did you enjoy it?’ People being polite to each other as they kill each other.
“It was amazing to me. The whole thing is so surreal.”
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Prejean has been shining a light on capital punishment — on the condemned, their families and those of their victims, and the process of legally taking a life in retribution — for nearly a quarter of a century now.
From her experiences as a spiritual adviser to two executed killers in Louisiana in the 1980s, she wrote the best-selling “Dead Man Walking: The Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty That Sparked a National Debate.” Released in 1993, the book balances the emotions stirred by the men’s ghastly crimes, the suffering of the victims’ families and the innate desire for revenge with what Prejean and other opponents deem the cruelty and inhumanity of capital punishment.
That was only the beginning. The book became a 1995 film featuring Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Prejean. The soundtrack was released as an album the following year.
Tim Robbins, who directed the movie, converted “Dead Man Walking” into a stage play expressly for high schools and colleges in 2002. By then, Prejean’s story also was morphing into a remarkably successful contemporary American opera. Composed by Jake Heggie, it has been seen in more than 40 productions worldwide since premiering in San Francisco in 2000, including notable performances starring Prairie Village native Joyce DiDonato as Prejean.
Kansas City audiences can take it in soon. The Lyric Opera will stage four performances March 4, 8, 10 and 12 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.
What it all has done — the book, the movie and the stage productions atop Prejean’s countless speaking appearances and other activism — is keep the question of capital punishment in front of the masses. There may be no one on either side of the issue who’s more visible than Prejean.
“I think it tills the soil,” she says of her book and its iterations. “ ‘Dead Man Walking’ started getting into the (popular) language as soon as the film came out. And when you have something in the vernacular, it’s in the collective consciousness. It begins to seep in.
“I can tell you this from my experience: If somebody has read the book and they have seen the film, hardly anybody gets through unscathed.”
Has it had an impact? Missouri was one of only five states that carried out the death penalty in 2016, and the total of 20 executions nationwide was the lowest in any year since 1991, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center. A study by the Pew Research Center found 49 percent of Americans in favor of capital punishment, the first time in 45 years that it was fewer than half. Gallup registered public support at 60 percent, but that reading was its lowest since 1972.
Brian Stull, a senior staff attorney with American Civil Liberties Union’s Capital Punishment Project, gives Prejean at least some due. “Her book is nonfiction. … It’s compelling because people can see it’s based on her true experience and she believes in it,” he says. “I think they find her a credible spokesperson.”
Prejean, who lives in New Orleans and now is counseling two death row inmates in Louisiana and Oklahoma, recently discussed “Dead Man Walking,” her prison ministry and her continued push for the abolition of capital punishment (excerpts are edited for length):
Q: So you’ve witnessed six executions.
A: Right. Three electric chairs and three lethal injections.
Q: I’m guessing you never grow inured to something like that.
A: Oh no. What you do, though, is take that horror and that energy and do something with it. It gets poured into my activism.
Victims’ families go through this, too. What do they do with their grief? The ones who heal the best, you see them getting involved. Like, if they had a young child who was kidnapped and killed, they go to schools and talk to children about safety.
You’ve got to find an outlet for your love for that person and honor their life. I do that.
Q: Were you even thinking about impact when you wrote “Dead Man Walking”?
A: To walk with a human being and see him killed in front of your very eyes is something not too many people get to experience. It changed my life forever. …
You have no idea where your words are going to go, just that you want to be truthful because it’s so wrong, and we have to help people know it’s wrong and we have to change. That commitment was just a fire in me by the time I came out of that first execution. “I’ve got to write. I’ve got to speak. I’ve got to do whatever I can.”
Q: You predicted in the book that the death penalty would be abolished — sooner if you and other opponents did your job well, more slowly if you didn’t. How do you think it has played out?
A: Slowly. Very, very slowly.
But you’ve got to know what we were up against. When Pat Sonnier (one of the two condemned men at the center of “Dead Man Walking”) was executed in ’84, support for the death penalty in Louisiana was something like 85 percent. Maybe closer to 90 percent.
And religion wasn’t helping. One of the statistics was that the more people went to church, the more they believed in the death penalty. I’d hear people say, “Well, Jesus died for our sins. These men committed their sins and died for them, and so they’re going to get salvation.” … So there was a lot of work that needed to be done.
Q: You were initially resistant to a film version of “Dead Man Walking.” But you wound up pushing for the play, and I assume you have no qualms about the opera.
A: My literary agent called me one day and said, “Helen, guess what? They want to do an opera.” Terrence McNally, the librettist, he was trustworthy. I knew he was a wonderful dramatist and playwright.
I didn’t know (composer) Jake Heggie, but you meet these people. You talk. I said to Jake, “Can I trust you that the theme of redemption will be in there? And please give us music we can hum or sing and not that atonal stuff.” He said, “Oh, yeah, I promise you.” And he began to send me snatches of the music.
Q: How many times have you seen it?
A: I would guess, by now, 12 or 15.
Q: And your 10-second review?
A: My (character’s) aria is my journey. But those on the biggest journey of all are the audience sitting in those seats. It’s a fantastic, fantastic piece of artistry.
Q: This is something of a sensitive question. A best-selling book, a movie, an opera … what have you done with the proceeds?
A: You know about nuns taking vows? I own nothing personally. All of this has gone to the community (her Roman Catholic religious order, the Congregation of St. Joseph) to support our ministries and what we do. …
Nuns’ work has really changed from strictly institutions in the Catholic Church like hospitals and schools. We’re more now into social justice, things like prisons and the death penalty, human trafficking, immigration rights. You name it.
Q: When you went into the religious order at 18, you intended to teach religion. Diverting to death row ministry and the debate over capital punishment, is that a case of God working in mysterious ways?
A: I think of it like the blooming of a rose. I wanted to be a teacher because our sisters did mostly teaching then, and they were great at it. Then Vatican II happened, and nuns … you could go out and do other work.
It was the community that called me to work for justice, to get out of the privileged suburbs where I’d spent all my life and go into the inner city. And that’s what took me to death row.
Q: You have another book, “River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey,” due to be released next year. A memoir?
A: “It’s about the spiritual journey that got me to death row. And awakening to the gospel, which is more than praying to God to solve the problems of the world but also rolling up your sleeves and being a part of helping it to happen.
I had a lot of waking up to do. My daddy was a successful lawyer, so I came from money. It’s privilege. And it’s white privilege. It wasn’t until I got into the inner city and saw the suffering of people that I understood.
People say, “Well, why don’t those people just get a job? Don’t they know to educate their children? What’s wrong with them?” We white people, we have no idea about the legacy of slavery and how it continues. I’m going to write about that.
Steve Wieberg, a former reporter for USA Today, is a writer and editor for the Kansas City Public Library.
Join the discussion
The Kansas City Star partners with the Kansas City Public Library to present a book-of-the-moment selection every six to eight weeks. We invite the community to read along. Kaite Mediatore Stover, the library’s director of readers’ services, will lead a discussion of “Dead Man Walking” by Sister Helen Prejean at 7 p.m. Feb. 9 in the Lyric Opera’s Michael and Ginger Frost Production Arts Building, 712 E. 18th St. Prejean, who lives in New Orleans, will join the conversation via videoconferencing. If you would like to attend, email Stover at firstname.lastname@example.org.
From Chapter 9 of “Dead Man Walking” by Sister Helen Prejean, published by Vintage Books. Prejean is witness to her second execution — of convicted rapist and murderer Robert Lee Willie — on Dec. 28, 1984.
“As we approach the death chamber the guards direct me to a chair with the other witnesses. I see Vernon and Elizabeth Harvey on the front row. They are serious, silent, looking straight ahead. The lights are very bright, the dark oak chair gleams, the big clock on the wall behind the chair says 12:07.
“Robert says his last words:
“ ‘I would just like to say, Mr. and Mrs. Harvey, that I hope you get some relief from my death. Killing people is wrong. That’s why you’ve put me to death. It makes no difference whether it’s citizens, countries, or governments. Killing is wrong.’
“He sits in the chair and the guards begin to strap him in. He watches as they strap his arms and legs. They put the metal cap on his head and the electrode on the calf of his left leg, and they are ready to put on the chin strap and the mask over his face when Robert takes one more look around the room at the world he is leaving. He looks at me and winks, and they strap his chin, lower the mask, and kill him. This time, I do not close my eyes. I watch everything.”