The State Takes a Life

Since the 1976 Supreme Court Gregg decision opened the doors for states to revise death penalty statutes to conform with the U.S. Constitution, people opposed to the death penalty have longed for a vehicle to turn the tide of public opinion back against capital punishment. In Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen Prejean's painfully, wonderfully human and slyly informative new book, opponents of the death penalty may have found that vehicle.

Part personal memoir and part apologia for the abolition of the death penalty, Dead Man Walking tells the story of a white, middle-class Catholic sister's journey with those most affected by capital punishment - offenders, victims, and family members - and their confrontation with the criminal justice system that has dehumanized all.

Challenged by her religious community to do something about the glaring disparity of wealth between the poor and non-poor, Prejean leaves the protected world of the convent in 1981 to live in the St. Thomas Housing Project in New Orleans. A scant six months later she is asked by Chava Colon of the Louisiana Coalition on Jails and Prisons to become a pen pal for Pat Sonnier, a man on Louisiana's death row at Angola State prison. Prejean accepts, knowing instinctively that it is a short trip from St. Thomas to Angola. When Sonnier then agrees to allow her to become his spiritual adviser, Prejean begins a journey that will transform her life.

Along the way, Prejean meets lawyers, wardens, prison guards, chaplains, pardon board members, and the family members of both victims and offenders. Through the author's compassionate and empathetic eyes, the reader sees these people, though caught up in a very bad system, as essentially good. Each person Prejean encounters strips away her naivete, develops her empathy, and challenges her to do better, even though she admits that at times she wants to withdraw.

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Sojourners Magazine January 1994
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