A Wrench in the Machinery of Death: Sr. Helen Prejean

She’s short. Maybe 5’2. But her voice, her Louisiana to the core drawl fills up a room. She likes her beer cold, and to spin stories so long they would make anyone’s grandma proud.

This is not a woman one easily imagines accompanying a convicted murder to death. She herself will be the first to tell you that she never could have imagined her life would look like this on that day in 1957 when she took her vows and entered the Congregation of St. Joseph, as it is now known.

This journey that would lead her to testify before congreess, to live among the urban poor, and to accompany five men to their state executions began in 1981 when Sr. Helen entered into the world of prision ministry.
While living amongst the poor in a New Orleans housing project, she met the mother of convicted killer Patrick Sonnier. At her request, Sr. Helen began to correspond with Sonnier. This pen pal would change the trajectory of her life.

She became Sonnier’s spiritual advisor, and when the time came, she accompanied him to, and witnessed his execution. She wrote of that experience in the bestselling work Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in America, which was turned into a film starting Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. As a result of the experiences that she recounts in Dead Man Walking, Sr. Helen began a support group for murder victims family members. She realized that she reached out too late to the family of the victims of Patrick Sonnier, and they took her to task for it. Now, she recounts, she always reaches out to the family of the vicitms of those she is advising. They rarely want to engage with her, but she always offers spiritual support to them as well, leaving the invitation open.

In 2005, Sr. Helen published  The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Execution in which she makes a very compelling case that two of the five men she accompanied to their death were in fact innocent of the crime for which they were killed. In the second part of the book, she takes on the Christian arguments in favor of the death penalty, and makes a strong argument that our government has executed innocent people.

The stories she profiles in Death of Innocents will make your heart ache. The first man, Dobie Gillis Williams, was mentally retarded, with an IQ of 65, well below the standard measure of 70.  In fact, if Mr. Williams had been convicted in 2011 rather than 1985, he would have been ineligible for capital punishment, the Supreme Court of the US ruling recently that it is unconstitutional to execute those with mental retardation.

Sr. Helen takes on, in particular, the reasoning of Justice Anton Scalia, another well-known Catholic, and firm advocate of capital punishment. Scalia, in fact, is from Prejean’s home state of Louisiana and is good friends with her brother, Louis. There’s a feeling of the surreal when one reads of the exchange between them at the New Orleans airport which in some measure precipitated the book.

Perhaps because the argument from innocence is so much more compelling and attractive, even to someone like me, who is staunchly anti-death penalty, I found Death of Innocents to be the better of the two books, despite the national and international fame of Dead Man Walking. For sure, both are excellent, and well worth reading, but I enjoyed Death of Innocents more, perhaps because of her treatment of Christian arguments in favor of capital punishment, which were well researched and presented.

From meeting Sr. Helen and through reading her books, I know that she differs slightly from the official teaching of the Church when it comes to capital punishment. While the Church teaches, in a nutshell, that the State may reserve the use of capital punishment, they are only morally justified in using it when there is no other alternative to keep society safe.(See CCC 2267)
Rather, Sr. Helen would fall more to the side of thinking that use of the death penalty is never morally justifiable. While I can see where she is coming from, I ultimately believe the Church’s official position is the correct one. It reaches that important balance of defense of society and innocent people versus opportnities for mercy, redemption and compassion. It fits with the teaching on respect for human dignity which demands that we not kill someone unless doing so is the only way to prevent them from actively harming an innocent person.

While I uphold the Church’s teaching on capital punishment, and believe that Sr. Helen’s interpretation is lacking in some ways, I have so much respect for the work that she has spent her life doing, and surely calling for an end to the current, broken capital punishment system is not contrary to Church teaching.

How many of us could walk with someone to their death, hold the hand of a convicted killer, and try to see the spark of Jesus that exists in them, just as it exists in all of us? For sure she is not perfect, and she’d probably be the first to agree, but the work she does is very important in our world where people are desensitized to the reality of both human dignity and death.

But don’t take my word for it; read the books! In fact, after a generous gift of both books from Sr. Helen’s publisher, Random House, I am hosting a giveaway of both Dead Man Walking and Death of Innocents.

It’s simple to enter the giveaway; leave a comment. If you leave a comment on the post, I’ll enter you once into the giveaway. If you become an email subscriber to Fumbling Toward Grace, another enter. If you “like” FTG on Facebook, another enter. Just come back here and leave a comment letting me know you subscribed or liked. The giveaway will cose at midnight on Thursday, October 4. I will choose two winners at random and announce them here next week.

It was not my intention with this post to begin a debate on capital punishment, rather to profile a woman who has spent her life doing the works of mercy, visiting those in prision (see Matthew 25), and doing all that she is able to respect the dignity of children of God, regardless of how prodigal they have become.

I think the best way to end this post is with a prayer for an end to capital punishment written by Sr. Helen:

God of Compassion
You let your rain fall on the just and the unjust.
Expand and deepen our hearts
so that we may love as You love,
even those among us
who have caused the greatest pain by taking life.
For there is in our land a great cry for vengeance
as we fill up death row and kill the killers
in the name of justice, in the name of peace.
Jesus, our brother,
you suffered execution at the hands of the state
but you did not let hatred overcome you
Help us to reach out to victims of violence
so that our enduring love may help them heal.
Holy Spirit of God,
You strengthen us in the struggle for justice,
Help us to work tirelessly
for the abolition of state-sanctioned death
and to renew our society in its very heart
so that violence will be no more.

10 thoughts on “A Wrench in the Machinery of Death: Sr. Helen Prejean

  1. Oh man, these sound like books I definitely want to read! I’m also interested in learning more about what the CCC says. For some reason, I thought the Church’s stance was that it is never morally permissible. When my husband went through RCIA they went through a whole thing on the Catholic belief of sin and the idea was that you can never use evil to obtain a good- so I wonder how capital punishment fits into that. It seems that the evil (killing the person) obtains a good (safety of society) and that would be a sin. I also wonder how someone in prison the rest of their life (even in solitary confinement if they are a risk to other inmates) would still be unsafe to society. Just thinking out loud here :). I definitely need to learn more about this topic! Thanks for the info packed post!

  2. I don’t like the death penalty, and it doesn’t make me feel any safer in the light of the prison systems that we have now, but I do still stand with the Church’s teaching on this. I think it’s overused here in the US. Hmm, I guess I’m getting pretty opinionated there. I’d definitely be interested in reading the books!

  3. Awesome post! I was so happy to see the giveaway at the end. I’m already an email subscriber-does that count me for two? 🙂

  4. Stacy-Pope John Paul II said something along the lines of-“the death penalty could almost never be justified in civilized society…” meaning, that our prisons today CAN keep people safe and you are correct, it would not be ok to kill someone to keep society safe. I always heard that this “caveat” could refer to nations without adequate jail systems. If someone is going to be kept in a prison that he could easily escape from, I think that’s when the death penalty can be justified. But don’t quote me!

  5. We actually did the play Dead Man Walking in high school and I read the book. I’m glad you shared this story. Although I’d love to win the book because I don’t own it. Thanks for sharing this, more people definitely need to hear about it!

  6. Thank you for the posting and for including that beautiful prayer.
    I think that respect for life means that we should totally abolish the death penalty. We have prisons that keep society safe from a dangerous person. So, for me, it makes no sense to say we kill someone who is in prison to keep the rest of us safe. (I realize that no prison system is totally and always 100% secure. We take that small risk.)
    How can someone be against abortion yet be in favor of the death penalty?
    But it also is not true justice to have people poorly defended and then relegated to life in prison. I remember that you commented once on that. That is also unjust.
    Sr. Helen is a role model.

  7. Sarah, we may share views on this topic. Though I personally oppose the death penalty, I get the Church’s position in that there may be extreme circumstances that justifies it, but as Bl. JPII said, now a days they are almost inexistent. “How can someone be against abortion yet be in favor of the death penalty?” Pat, that question always gets to me because it compares a tiny innocent baby with someone who is probably guilty of horrible crimes and has had his/her shot with a jury, unlike the baby, not to mention the reasons behind the 2 acts are different as well.

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