Sister Helen Prejean: “What I Saw Set My Soul On Fire”

Sister Helen Prejean

Sister Helen Prejean



hen a country’s morality is decided less by wisdom of the soul than by fear and political maneuvering, where does justice leave off and cynicism take over?

How much room do we allow for individual redemption?


Stanley Tookie Williams Vigil

Left: Stanley Tookie Williams, Crips gang co-founder executed by lethal injection at San Quentin State Prison, despite arguments that Williams’ sentence should be commuted to life in prison because he had made amends by writing children’s books about the dangers of gangs and violence.
Right: Derrel Myers, whose 23-year-old son was shot in 1996, walked from San Francisco to San Quentin to protest the death penalty by appearing at Tookie Williams’ vigil.



Dead Man Walking, the opera

Dead Man Walking, the opera


ister Helen Prejean is sitting across the table from my daughter, Faith, and me. The three of us have just come from a forum featuring Jake Heggie, composer of Dead Man Walking, the opera, based on the Sister’s experience befriending a man put to death for the rape and murder of a Louisiana teenager and the killing of her young boyfriend.



Jake Heggie, composer of the opera, Dead Man Walking

As Heggie tells us in his remarks, Sister Helen was in full support of any creative tweakings the composer wanted to make to her story of Patrick Sonnier‘s journey to the electric chair — so long as one thing remained constant:

This was to be first and foremost a tale of redemption.


Sister Helen Prejean's book (cover)


Robert Lee Willie, inmate for whom Sister Helen Prejean was spiritual adviser and upon whom, together with Patrick Sonnier, the character, “Matthew Poncelett,” was based. When this photo was taken, Willie had just learned his appeal had been denied.

For those who have not read her book or seen the film, know this: Sister Helen Prejean is neither cloistered nor naive. What she is: Deeply committed to the belief that there is inherent worth in every human being.

Even when the path to uncovering a person’s humanity is thorny or densely overgrown. Even when the way becomes twisted and more than once doubles back on itself. Even when advocating for the humanity of one is deeply entangled with the very real pain of another.

Sister Helen Prejean: “It’s horrible what people do. The terrible crimes committed. Innocent people hurt, family’s lives torn apart. But now what do we do with that feeling? Are we going to trust our state governments to decide who dies?”

Although America likes to perceive its method for carrying out the death penalty as “more civilized” than countries like China who kill their convicted in public stadiums, the reality is that the U.S. court system, especially when it comes to the death penalty, is far from fair or impartial, and, as Sister Helen argues, a very long cry as well from humane.

Sister Helen Prejean: “You have this evaluation of the court that enters into it. Starting with the district attorneys, who have discretionary power, whether they’ll go for death or not. So a judge is killed? No hesitation. They’ll go for the death penalty. In New Orleans, 90% of the killings are Black kids killing other Black kids. Or killing Hispanic kids. Are you going to go for the death penalty for them? I mean, who really is outraged over their deaths? It’s unseen by most people anyway.

Since 1979, there have been over a thousand executions, and three thousand more on death row. And we begin to see that there are actual patterns. They’re supposed to be the worst of the worst. Well, how are you gonna decide? If somebody kills my Mama, that’s the worst of the worst! Because I’ve lost my mother. She’s irreplaceable, all human beings are. And so how do you decide? Well, if you kill a policeman. How ’bout if you kill a fireman? How do you decide worst versus worst?

Jeffrey Dahmer

American serial killer and sex offender, Jeffrey Dahmer, who murdered 17 men and boys between 1978 and 1991. His murders involved rape, dismemberment, necrophilia and cannibalism. Dahmer did not receive the death penalty.

So the pattern that’s become very clear, is, first of all: Was the person who committed the crime poor enough? Because what prosecuting attorneys are most considering is: Is the accused gonna get a cracker jack attorney to defend them? If so, they know that they are then going to have to be on trial for weeks. They’re gonna have juries, they’re gonna have pre-trial motions, the defense is gonna fight them every step. The prosecutor might not win. They might go for the death penalty and they might not win. And they never want to lose.

But the main thing is, who’d ya kill? Were they White enough? Because the majority of the people in the criminal justice system–the judges and the juries, are people of European decent. If it’s a person of color who was killed, there’s not that identification. It’s hard to feel outrage about it. So 8 out of every 10 people on death row are people who kill White people. Sometimes it’s White people who kill other White people. But especially if it’s a person of color who kills a White person, then you really get jumped up in the lottery in your chances of getting death. And there’s empirical studies that verify this.

So, are you poor, did you kill a White person, and the other big factor is: In what geographical location did you do it? Did you do it in Texas? Or did you do it in Michigan, which doesn’t have a death penalty? Remember Jeffrey Dahmer? Who killed all those people and put them in the freezer and ate them? He didn’t get the death penalty. Why? He committed his crimes in Michigan.

And so all those factors come into play. And what you are left with is a practice that is very capricious, arbitrary, and definitely weighted against a very specific population: people who are poor, people who kill Whites, and those who live in certain geographic areas.”


Death of Innocents, (cover)In Sister Helen Prejean’s subsequent book, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions, the nun relates her experience serving as spiritual adviser to two Black men who were put to death for crimes it later turns out they did not commit.

Dobie Gillis Williams, an indigent black man with an IQ of 65, and Joseph Roger O’Dell were put to death by the U.S. court system despite flimsy evidence (O’Dell’s principal accuser was a jailhouse informant who later recanted his testimony) and numerous appeals.


Sister Helen Prejean and Dobie Gillis Williams at Louisiana State Penitentiary, ca. 1991

Sister Helen Prejean and Dobie Gillis Williams at Louisiana State Penitentiary, ca. 1991


We know that this is not an isolated case, that innocent men have been put to death.

But what if a person is in fact guilty? Are there nonetheless certain unalienable rights every human being possesses? Rights which can never be taken away?

“Absolutely,” says Sister Helen Prejean. “And so we come to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”


Sister Helen Prejean:

“Human rights are unalienable to people. Simply because they are persons. Governments don’t give human rights for good behavior. Nor can governments take them away.”

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights


Sister Helen Prejean: “So what would core human rights be? Well, they’re delineated in the Declaration. Article Three: ‘Everybody’s got a right to life.’ And Eleanor Roosevelt was very much engaged in the 1948 crafting of the Universal Declaration, which was created after the second World War, when we’d seen huge abuses in human rights.”


Former U.S. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, with a post of the  United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights


Sister Helen Prejean: “But when they came to the ‘Right to Life,’ right away people wanted to make exceptions. They wanted it to read, ‘Except for those who have been sentenced to death by the criminal justice system.’

But Eleanor Roosevelt stood firm. She said, ‘If we’re going to make a Declaration for Human Rights, the Right to Life has to remain a core human right. That’s none negotiable.’

The second unalienable right that everybody has that really rises out of your dignity as a person is Article Five: ‘No one should be subjected to cruel and degrading punishment. Or torture.’

But of course you gotta define it. You could say anything is torture. You could say it’s torture to condemn a man to life in prison. But it has been defined, in the UN Convention on Torture, which was signed by George Bush Sr., when we were getting into the Persian Gulf, because he wanted to make sure Americans weren’t tortured when they were captured. It’s also backed up by Amnesty International.

And this is the definition:

‘Torture is an extreme mental assault or physical assault on a human being who’s been rendered defenseless.’

So when we saw the pictures coming out of Abu Ghraib — they were defenseless — it wasn’t hard to see the minute you looked at those people that this was torture.

And right now there is a hunger strike going on in Guantanamo, where detainees are saying that their conditions also qualify as torture, as they are being held indefinitely and without charge. They’re separated from their loved ones and they don’t know when, if ever, they’re going to see them again. Just like those who disappeared in Argentina. That’s mental torture.

So you gotta ask the question: ‘Is the death penalty torture?’

When you’re on death row, you know you are condemned to die, but you don’t know when — if it will be this time or the next time, if they give you a temporary stay of execution, or the time after that.

And all-the-while, you have to watch other people led before you to their death. Because the killing chamber is right there. It’s right next to you.

And it’s really hard to comprehend that even though you’re fully alive now, soon they’re going to come and take you and strap you down, and they’re gonna kill you. It’s incomprehensible.


So we need to look at why we’re doing this. Yes, we need to put criminals away who are a threat to society, and give them no opportunity for parole. But why do we need to kill them? That is the question.

But this is a question that most people do not reflect upon. Because this is not a moral issue that affects most people. You don’t know people on death row. You’re not close to this process. And so, you hear about a terrible crime, and the political rhetoric that goes with this — ‘We’re only going to reserve it for the worst of the worst’ — and you buy into it.


But when you look at the statistics, when you compare those states that have the death penalty with those states that don’t, you see that the homicide rates double under the death penalty. So it’s not adding any practical effect.

And we know that the ten states that practiced slavery do 80% of the death penalty killings.

But people don’t know, I didn’t know until I got pulled into all of this. So how to you educate people? You gotta do it through story.

You know, I resisted writing a book because I said, ‘Oh, there are already plenty of books on the subject.’ But they were all scholarly books. There is a special power that goes with story.”
An important part of the Dead Man Walking story is the lesson taught by Lloyd LeBranc, the father of the murdered boy, David. It was he, Sister Helen tells me, even more than her Catholic faith, who showed her the true face of forgiveness.
Sister Helen Prejean: “His anger, his pain was destroying him. It was becoming who he was. And he realized what was happening to him — all that bitterness and unhappiness. So he made the choice to go down another road, which was, while not to condone the crime, to also not let his anger about it capture him, to take his own life away. And he was the one to teach me that forgiveness was first and foremost not to relieve the guilt of somebody else, but to preserve the integrity of your own humanity.”
The sister is now working on a new book which she refers to as her “spiritual memoir.” River of Fire takes the reader through the nun’s own journey from a “Catholic girl growing up in a protected environment” to that “spiritual current” that eventually carried her to the “killing chamber” that night.
Sister Helen Prejean: “Here’s the fire.” (She grins.) “Here’s the combustible: I was there. And what I saw set my soul on fire. A fire that burns in me still.”
The sister leans back, smiles. “Now that’s an exclusive. One I’m giving first to you.”


Faith Piowaty Helen Prejean

Deanna Piowaty’s daughter, Faith, with Sister Helen Prejean



Further Notes:

To learn more about the sister’s work, please visit:

A preview of Jake Heggie’s opera, Dead Man Walking:

To visit Heggie’s website:

Look for this weekend’s upcoming Combustus interview: “A Woman Born in Prison,” profiling writer and one-time prison baby, Deborah Jiang Stein, who founded The unPrison Project, endorsed by Sister Helen Prejean.

Other articles that may be of interest to readers:


Combustus Managing Editor | + posts

My dream: to create a unique vehicle for artists and visionaries from all genres and all over the globe to inspire and learn from one another.


  1. Byron Cisneros on March 29, 2013 at 7:23 am

    I do not believe the death penalty works as a deterrent to violent crime. I also believe that the system is so “corrupt” that the death penalty imposition is clearly biased. As Sister Helen Prejean points out, there is a clear pattern. If you are poor and belong to a minority, you may end up dead by lethal injection. The sad reality is that we pride ourselves as the beacon of justice, liberty and fairness and yet we treat our own with contempt and with total disregard to the basic principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Bravo for the ones like Sister Prejean, we need millions more like her but in this land of milk and honey, we are lucky to have one.
    Thanks Deanna for bringing this to light.

    • Combustusmanagingeditor on March 29, 2013 at 8:34 am

      She is an amazing spirit, Byron. A five-foot-three dynamo who has dedicated her life to trying to stop these injustices to which she has become privy. Even now she is serving as spiritual adviser to a new man on death row, and she tells me she knows without a doubt he is innocent. The responsibility she has placed upon her own shoulders to help save his life and that of others is beyond words. Truly humbling. Yes, we need more like her. Sister Helen is a gift to humanity.

      Thanks so much for stopping by, Byron. Your words are lovely.

  2. dudleysharp on March 30, 2013 at 7:46 am

    “Sister Helen Prejean & the death penalty: A Critical Review”
    Dudley Sharp

    Start with the truth.

    From the parents of rape/torture/murder victim Loretta Bourque, a Dead Man Walking victim:

    ” . . .makes you realize the Dead Man Walking truly belongs on the shelf in the library in the Fiction category.”

    “Being devout Catholics, ‘the norm’ would be to look to the church for support and healing. Again, this need for spiritual stability was stolen by Sister Prejean.” (1)


    Case Detective Michael Vernado, in the rape/torture/murder of Faith Hathaway, a Dead Man Walking victim”

    “I wouldn’t have had as much trouble with (Prejean’s) views if she would have told the truth . . .”

    ” . . . (Sr. Prejean) based her book on what was in I guess a defense file and what (rapist/murderer) Robert Willie telling her.”

    ” . . . she’s trying to mislead people in the book. And that’s something that she’s going have to work out with herself.”

    “(Sr. Prejean’s) certainly not after giving anybody spiritual advice to try to save their soul.” (1)



    Did she consider the mental suffering of a parent who lost their innocent daughter to a rape/murder or, possibly, the mental (and physical) suffering of that girl, as she was being raped and murdered?

    Of course the sister considered it and she made her choice – the murderer.


    Book Review: “Sister Prejean’s Lack of Credibility: Review of “The Death of Innocents”, by Thomas M. McKenna (New Oxford Review, 12/05). www(DOT)

    “The book is moreover riddled with factual errors and misrepresentations.”

    “Williams had confessed to repeatedly stabbing his victim, Sonya Knippers.”

    “This DNA test was performed by an independent lab in Dallas, which concluded that there was a one in nearly four billion chance that the blood could have been someone’s other than Williams’s.”

    ” . . . despite repeated claims that (Prejean) cares about crime victims, implies that the victim’s husband was a more likely suspect but was overlooked because the authorities wanted to convict a black man.”

    ” . . . a Federal District Court . . . stated that ‘the evidence against Williams was overwhelming.’ ” “The same court also did “not find any evidence of racial bias specific to this case.”




    (1) “Sister Helen Prejean & the death penalty: A Critical Review”–the-death-penalty-a-critical-review.aspx

    (2) Prejean: Death penalty is torture, online, October 1, 2012,–Death-penalty-is-torture.html?nav=5010

  3. dudleysharp on March 30, 2013 at 9:24 am

    There are always more than two sides to any public policy debate. Understanding requires a critical look at any two opposing sides.

    Tookie Williams: Redemption? No. Contempt


    “The Death Penalty: Not a Human Rights Violation”

    “Killing Equals Killing: The Amoral Confusion of Death Penalty Opponents”–very-distinct-moral-differences–new-mexico.aspx

    “The Death Penalty: Neither Hatred nor Revenge”

    “Moral/ethical Death Penalty Support: Modern Catholic Scholars”

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