Sister Helen Prejean (b. April 21, 1939, Baton Rouge, Louisiana) is a Roman Catholic nun, one of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille, who has become a leading American advocate for the abolition of the death penalty.
Her crusade began in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1981, through a correspondence she maintained with a convicted murderer, Elmo Patrick Sonnier, who was sentenced to death by electrocution. She visited Sonnier in prison and agreed to be his spiritual adviser in the months leading up to his death. The experience gave Prejean greater insight into the process involved in executions and she began speaking out against capital punishment. At the same time, she also founded Survive, an organization devoted to providing counselling to the families of victims of violence.
Prejean has since ministered to many other inmates on death row and witnessed several more executions. She served as National Chairperson of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty from 1993 to 1995.
An autobiographical account of her relationship with Sonnier and other inmates on death row served as the basis for the feature film and opera Dead Man Walking.
In addition to Sonnier, the account is also based on the inmate Robert Lee Willie who, with his friend Joseph Jesse Vaccaro, raped and killed 18-year-old Faith Hathaway May 28, 1980, eight days later kidnapping a Madisonville couple from a wooded lovers' lane and driving them to Alabama. They raped the 16-year-old girl, and then stabbed and shot her boyfriend, 20-year-old Mark Brewster, leaving him tied to a tree paralyzed from the waist down.
Prejean's second book, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions was published in December 2004. In it, she tells the story of two men, Dobie Gillis Williams and Joseph O'Dell, whom she accompanied to their executions. She believes that both of these men were innocent. The book also examines the recent history of death penalty decisions by the Supreme Court of the United States and looks at the track record of George W. Bush as Governor of Texas.
Prejean now bases her work at the Death Penalty Discourse Center in New Orleans and spends her time giving talks across the United States and around the world. She is also a pro-life activist : "The pope says we should be unconditionally pro-life; against abortion, against euthanasia, against suicide and (that means also) against the death penalty."
Awards and Recognition
She is quoted on Loung Ung's website: "Despite the tragedy all around her, this scrappy kid struggles for life and beats the odds. I thought young Ung’s story (First They Killed My Father) would make me sad. But this spunky child warrior carried me with her in her courageous quest for life. Reading these pages has strengthen me in my own struggle to disarm the powers of violence in this world."