‘Dead Man Walking’ icon Sister Helen Prejean: ‘I came alive on Death Row’
The Daily Beast
October 4, 2023
The world’s most famous living nun on fighting the death penalty for over 40 years, “Dead Man Walking,” faith, compassion for killers, regret, fame, Taylor Swift, opera—and Scotch.
There was a moment of silence as Sister Helen Prejean pondered being described as a pop culture icon. Then she let out a hoot of laughter. “What does that even mean?” she said in her raspy Southern drawl. “I don’t know what that means!”
Well, it means the fame that her 1993 book and 1995 movie Dead Man Walking has brought her (Susan Sarandon won an Oscar for her role as Prejean); Jake Heggie’s opera of the same name now playing at the Met in New York (until Oct. 21); the fact she, a nun at 84, is still fighting determinedly—after accompanying six felons to the execution chamber—to rid America of the death penalty.
“Yeah, OK,” Prejean said, in a warily conceding tone. “You know what ‘pop culture icon’ means to nuns? It means you do more work!”
For Prejean, it is always, proudly, about the work. She was in New York City to see the Metropolitan Opera production, which premiered in 2000 in San Francisco and whose New York presentation was delayed by the pandemic. The opera is, for her, a work of art for sure—but it is also another vehicle to spread her message and attract supporters. In Ivo van Hove’s stylistically spare staging, Prejean, played by mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, becomes the spiritual adviser at “Angola”—the Louisiana State Penitentiary—to violent murderer Joseph De Rocher (bass-baritone Ryan McKinny), who is based on a composite of real-life killers Elmo Patrick “Pat” Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie.
Born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille since her late teens, Prejean trained as a schoolteacher and became involved in the advocacy work that has made her famous after working with the residents of a New Orleans housing project in the early 1980s.
“Opera is the purest art form,” said Prejean. “I’ve been no fan of opera, I mean I’ve seen a couple. It’s live drama. Here, the opera darkens, and the audience has a shared community experience of coming close to a reality. The drama and music shake your heart, and it captures the tension and the agony of the victims’ families, and the mother of the Death Row inmate.”
“They got me right on stage,” Prejean said of the production. “Joyce and I are very good friends. I sent her an email afterward saying, ‘Joyce, you get me.’ It’s so good we took the show to Sing Sing.” (The company went to the upstate New York correctional facility to perform excerpts, featuring a chorus of incarcerated men.)
As well as Dead Man Walking, which has become a set text in schools, Prejean—probably the most famous anti-death penalty campaigner in the world—has written two other books, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions (2004), and her memoir, River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey (2019). She bases her work at the Ministry Against the Death Penalty in New Orleans.
At the opening night performance at the Met, after DiDonato had taken her bows, the loudest cheers erupted for the real-life Prejean. She accepted the rousing ovation with a steely-looking humility.
“I’ve seen six human beings executed, a punishment which many people support,” she told The Daily Beast a few days later. “It’s a secret ritual, and I’m the witness. The tsunami of consciousness that the opera unleashes and the consciences it unleashes, means I ask myself, ‘What do I do now to continue the work?’ It’s all about changing minds and hearts, and bringing people close to a reality that they never think about—because the penal system keeps people in exile, and the death penalty really keeps torture and the killings hidden.
“When I am asked about the adulation, the congratulations, what it’s like to be on a red carpet with Tim Robbins [who wrote the screenplay and directed and co-produced the movie]—all of that—I’m thinking of the suffering of those on death row. There is so much suffering—of people counting down their last days, the agony, and it’s unseen. So, my job is to make it seen, to bring it close to people—by persuasion; not by statistics, or condemning people or scolding them—that’s not what nuns are known for—but to bring people close.
“The applause for me is because I’m a servant of the story. I know why I’m getting it. I don’t feel completely at ease with it, with all the ‘Oh Helen, look at what you did.’ We’ve still got over 2,000 people on death row waiting to be killed. That’s the reality that grounds me, it inspires me.” She paused. “Here’s how I think of myself: I’m a prism. The audience is applauding me, but I’m well aware of what I’m doing. I’m clear on my mission.”
Prejean is also extremely funny. If there is one thing she wishes the opera had shown, it is more of her humor—it does show her mugging to be Elvis Presley as a little signpost. “I don’t know why I can’t get life into this phone,” she said, struggling with the technology during our Zoom call. “It is plugged in, and I’m definitely plugged in!”
Prejean may be the world’s most famous living nun, with her “daggone picture and bio in Times Square” as she puts it, but she consistently demurs when asked about that celebrity. “I want to bring you back to see a man strapped down and killed, and you’re with them in their last hours and you say to them, ‘Look at my face. I’ll be your face of love and dignity.’ Their dignity is completely stripped away.”
In the opera, the moment of death—the lethal injection—is portrayed graphically and in silence. “All you hear is the machinery of death, so people just hear their own heartbeats,” Prejean said. “Here are the last moments of this man’s life. I think it’s the most powerful minute and a half’s silence. I don’t know much about opera, but I know you don’t often hear silence in an opera.”
“The death penalty is legalized hatred”
Each of the six executions Prejean has witnessed has been different, she says. “You know how every human person is a person in the universe that’s unique? Each of them was a unique individual who is about to be extinguished from this life. It’s a momentous thing, and I don’t completely understand it of course. It’s overwhelming to me, all this stuff. But I’ve learned some of the intricacies of the machinery of death, and how it works. I realize to make something moral and justified those in power legalize it. As Thomas Merton, one of the great mystics of the Catholic Church, said, ‘The end of the world will be legal.’ That kind of thinking that ‘If it’s a law it must be right.’ But the death penalty is just using law to torture and kill human beings.”
The Supreme Court’s Gregg vs. Georgia decision in 1976, which reaffirmed the death penalty as constitutional, set in stone “impossible criteria,” said Prejean—laying out the punishment should only be used in “the worst of the worst” crimes. “But who knows what that means, it’s a definition that could be used to fit anything? It also gave prosecutors complete discretion. Trump had 13 people killed in the last six months of his presidency. How did he get that power? By the way, the Supreme Court set up the death penalty.”
Since 1973, at least 190 people have been exonerated from death row in the U.S., according to the Death Penalty Information Center. A 2014 study estimated that at least 4 percent of those sentenced to death are innocent. Prosecutors, Prejean says, “hide evidence and police reports. They’re supposed to turn over anything that may point to the possible innocence of the defendant.”
Prejean said her next book, Beneath Our Dignity, is about the case of a current client, Manuel Ortiz, who has been on death row in Louisiana “for 30 bloomin’ years, and he’s innocent.” (Ortiz was originally charged and jailed for hiring someone to murder his wife.)
Asked if she was ever traumatized by observing people die, Prejean recalled the death of her first death row inmate, Sonnier.
“I came out of that execution chamber and took sleeping pills for a week to keep the images out of my mind. But when you see something terrible it either galvanizes you or paralyzes you—and it galvanized me. I stood there in the dark outside the gates of Angola, and said to myself, ‘What am I going to do?’ As a person of faith, this is a God thing. I think God is the energy of love. The death penalty is legalized hatred, worked out in the protocols of death. I didn’t know what I was going to do.
“My first thought was ‘I’m never going back there again.’ But, after giving me six months to heal, this pro bono lawyer, Millard Farmer, said, ‘We have two clients. They have nobody, you may be of help to them.’ I knew I was only trying to protect myself, see, and I looked into his eyes, and could see he was standing in the fire with the clients.
“These defense lawyers are my heroes. He wasn’t sparing himself, so I joined with him. Then I kept taking people because these prisoners get a thousand signals a day that they are nothing but disposable waste. To get to be there and be able to say, ‘Everybody is worth more than the worst thing they did in their life,’ is so important.”
Prejean says she is supported by the Sisters of St. Joseph, close friends, and the communities of activists and human rights lawyers she works with. The sisters are particularly important (they are represented by the character of Sister Rose played by Latonia Moore on stage). “I am nothing without my community,” Prejean said. “They taught me to reflect. Also, I’m part-Cajun. I know how to relax. I live in the Big Easy. We know what to do to relax!”
The most piercing moments of the opera see the parents of the murdered young people confront Sister Helen about her lack of support for them. Why, they want to know, is she supporting their loved ones’ killer?
In the opera, Sister Helen has no substantial answer for them, and in real life she said it was one of her major regrets.
“I made a big mistake in the beginning,” she told The Daily Beast. “I didn’t reach out to victims’ families. I thought I would be the last person in the world they would want to see. I stayed away from them. They were right in all they said. Lloyd LeBlanc, whose son David was killed, said to me, ‘Have you ever thought about us and our pain?’ Later, he said of the murderers, ‘They killed my boy, but I’m not going to let them kill me.’ It’s about maintaining the integrity of love in your soul so you maintain your own integrity—so you don’t let hatred kill you.”
Her book editor, the legendary Jason Epstein, said Prejean was letting herself off “easy” in an early draft of Dead Man Walking. “He said, ‘It’s a terrible mistake on your part not to have reached out to those families. It was cowardice, wasn’t it? You were scared of their anger and rejection.’ He was right, so I showed people how I made that mistake. Since then, I have always reached out to the families.” She also founded Survive, an organization devoted to counseling the families of victims of violence.
The opera shows Prejean’s desire to get De Rocher to confess to what he did before he dies.
“Getting to that confession, getting to that point, is my agenda,” she said of her real-life intentions. “It’s about accountability and acknowledging what they have done. It’s about their integrity as a person—the truth will set you free. The integrity of being honest before you die—that’s what it’s about. I have never accompanied anyone to death who doesn’t say it.
“One man was so blacked out on drugs he had no memory of raping and strangling and killing an elderly woman in her apartment—yet he did ask for the forgiveness of the victim’s family because he knew he had done something. ‘So this is what dying is like,’ he said. That’s the journey for them. My job, Tim, is to be faithful, to visit them, and let them know they’re loved.”
Prejean recalled Robbins being asked at a film festival press conference whether the character would have been so remorseful had he not been facing death—didn’t the film show that, in this sense, the death penalty worked? “Tim said that we simply don’t know if he would have acknowledged what he had done if he were just serving a life sentence. What had really happened to this man was that for the first time in his life, he was in the presence of a person who unconditionally loved him, who he could be vulnerable with and acknowledge what he had done.”
Robert Lee Willie had more of a swagger, Prejean recalled. “The prospect of death made him tougher. ‘They think they’re gonna break me? I ain’t scared of the electric chair, man.’ He actually walked to the chair with a bounce in his step, and he winked at me before he died. Robert Lee Willie is the tough part of Joseph de Rocher in the film and opera. He used his last words to curse out the victim’s family. He had a tough boundary around him. That was hard work with him, but we came to a point where he said, ‘I hope my death gives them (the family) some peace. I knew that was an act of love.”
This work, and the killers she has spent so much intense time with, have confirmed Prejean’s faith, rather than detonated it.
“Tim, what is faith?” Prejean said. “Religion is so perverted in so many ways. The god in the litmus test image of God is the Holy One and divine, is also, for many, the punisher-in-chief. Some people invoke the wrath of God to justify the wrath they want to invoke. What does faith mean? My faith is my work, and my work is about a fundamental belief that all human beings have dignity. The love energy in the world, which I believe is the heart of God or what you call the Divine, means we not only accompany people to death but work to change the death penalty.
“Faith unleashes energy, and it is very connected to hope. When you watch all the problems of society it can make you cynical and without hope, jaded. But hope means you are taking even the smallest action towards changing things, and then life flows through you. Faith for me is very connected to hope.” She laughed. “I don’t understand all this stuff. In the screenplay, Tim wrote, ‘The nun’s in over her head.” She laughed again. “I am so in over my head! I don’t understand all these things any more than you do.”
Prejean said she had only ever doubted her faith when she sees how politicians exploit the death penalty for their own ends.
“My faith has deepened to understand that the gospel of Jesus is really very radical, because he aligned himself with people society had thrown away, and by being with those same people my own faith has deepened. If you really look at Jesus it’s what he was about, and what Pope Francis is about.”
Has she truly never felt anyone was beyond compassion or help, because the crime, or crimes, they had committed were so egregious?
“All those people who say that have never sat with that person and looked at that person, that monster, in the eyes. It’s when you meet a human being. There’s a transcendence in human beings. God lets rain fall on the just and the unjust.” It has been fulfilling to see prisoners considered monsters “transformed inside. I came alive on death row.”
“I came on fire. I realized I had to do something with my life”
Prejean grew up in the 1940s and ’50s, with Jim Crow laws still in place. “I didn’t understand anything about justice. I was living in white privilege. It was an unconsciousness. That’s why I believe now that if you change people’s consciousness, you can help achieve social change.”
She was a “very happy” child who in eighth grade announced she wanted to be president or pope. “I was over the top, active. At high school I learned public speaking. Our nuns were so dynamic. I knew I wanted to be a teacher. They were great teachers. They had faith, and they also had humor. Right down the street was Baton Rouge jail where portable electric chairs were being used to kill people, and I was unconscious about it. The traditional teaching of the church was, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ except the state was killing people in the name of justice.”
Prejean said she was glad she became a nun. “It would have been a mistake to get married to one person. There’s a wide range of love you can get. For me, close intimate friendship is really important, you can’t make it without that. Close friends, who you can be vulnerable with.”
Her parents—her father Louis Sebastian was a lawyer, her mother Augusta Mae was a nurse—came to accept their daughter’s work and controversial fame. “Oh lord, my poor mother, with her daughter on the evening news with a murderer. She would say, ‘What’s Helen doing now?’ She had to work through her feelings, but then she got it, and when I wrote the book she was so proud.”
Prejean’s “mission” began in the early 1980s. “Before I was involved with this work, faith meant being charitable to others, but it had never been about justice for me. I didn’t understand anything. I was privileged. When I first connected with African American people in New Orleans, when they became my neighbors and teachers, all the rules were different. They began to teach me. I came on fire. I realized I had to do something with my life. That to me is faith.”
Prejean became energized after hearing a speech by another sister, who said that poor people’s suffering was not God’s will but a defect of social systems—and that “if we are not engaged in changing that we’re supporting the status quo. It was the first time I had heard a talk connecting justice and the gospel. It was the first time hearing that and getting it. Until that time, I had been resistant to it, I believed if the poor had God they had everything. I was comfortable in my own spiritual world in my parish, and suspicious of those trying to turn us into social revolutionaries. That talk changed the spiritual trajectory of my life, and realizing poor people had the right to struggle for what was rightfully theirs.”
She volunteered in a poor New Orleans neighborhood, and just around the corner was the Coalition of Jails and Prisons, where a worker suggested she be a pen pal for someone on death row. “Sure,” I thought, “I can write letters. I was an English major!” She laughed. “I thought I was only going to write letters!” Then she visited Sonnier, and her work began—the opera shows her first car journey to Angola on an intensely hot day, where she is stopped for speeding by a cop.
“Is there a humane way to kill a conscious human being?”
Prejean is proud that the Catholic Church’s approach to the death penalty has evolved over the years. Previously the Catechism had stated the death penalty was justified “if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor,” while noting that “the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.’” In 2018, the Catechism was rewritten to a much stronger condemnation—“the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”
Botched executions, wrongful convictions, and the exorbitant cost of putting people to death have further undermined the pro-death penalty cause, Prejean believes. She is “optimistic” that Oklahoman Richard Glossip will ultimately be acquitted of the murder he has been on Death Row for (19 years and counting).
“What’s horrible about these executions by lethal injection is that the drugs paralyze the inmates, so you can’t see what is happening within their bodies. Autopsies of lungs of people injected with fluids show those lungs drowning from the inside, and we can’t see it. The death penalty was supposed to be about finding a humane way to kill a human being. Ronald Reagan likened it to having a horse put down. But you don’t have any real doctors in there watching over it, or people who know how to inject people. With electrocutions, you can see what is happening. Lethal injection has always been about masking death right from when it was introduced.”
The real question, Prejean said, is, “Is there a humane way to kill a conscious human being?”
She hopes her work has helped inspire people and is especially heartened by the growing number of conservatives taking on an anti-death penalty view, angered by the cost implicit in keeping people incarcerated for 17 years (the average waiting time spent on Death Row).
“Will the death penalty’s fall happen in my lifetime?” she asked herself. “I don’t know. All I know is that I will press on. How do I harness the energy and consciousness raised by the opera? Maybe we get celebrities involved in the campaign. How do we use this burst of visibility and energy?”
Her proximity to so much death has affected Prejean’s view of her own mortality. “Oh yes, I’m 84, so how many years do I have left? I have accompanied six human beings to their own deaths. How do you make your legs work? How do you ask for forgiveness in these last moments of your life? I don’t know how I’m going to do it. I’m scared of death. I don’t know what that means. I have hope, of course. I have faith that I will end up in the arms of God. That’s what I believe—but I’m also human. When your brain goes, you go. What’s your brain but a bunch of chemicals?
“All I know is seeing the experiences of death in each of the lives of those six people is that it has been a privilege—and I use the word not lightly—to know them, people everybody else thought were monsters. I got to see the goodness in them. They gave me life. And now I am working for Manuel. He has been in his cell, protesting his innocence, for 30 years. Where does the courage come from to do that?
“I get life from my work. If they die, I will be with them. I have never felt so alive than in this work, to be immersed in the soul-sized activity of this mission, because I know I have been a witness.”
“I would love to get Taylor Swift involved in our campaign”
Prejean observes the present political moment gravely. “It is a critical time for democracy. We have watched media like Fox News and Trump pump out poison into the consciences of people. They say whatever they want. They spout lies, and it has confused people. It couldn’t be a more critical time.
“I can’t believe, knowing what we know now, that the majority of American people in the end will vote for someone like Trump over someone like Biden. The consciousness has changed so much in the minds of people—they’ll never buy into this, especially as they watch him go through his trials, and hear more stuff come out. You can’t change those who are so deep into his ideology and cult, but most people are more porous.
“When I wrote Dead Man Walking, Jason Epstein said to me, 20 percent of Americans know the death penalty is wrong and belong to Amnesty. At the other end of the spectrum are 20 percent who are impervious to conversation. The vast majority in the middle are ambivalent, and that’s where you do your work, and help try and get them to see the truth. I do believe that is most American people.”
Last year, Gallup found that 55 percent of Americans support the death penalty for murder. The organization wrote, “While this marks the sixth consecutive year that support for capital punishment is between 54 percent and 56 percent, it is below the 60 percent to 80 percent readings recorded in the four prior decades between 1976 and 2016… Partisans’ views of the death penalty differ sharply, with majorities of Republicans (77 percent) and independents (54 percent) favoring it but a majority of Democrats opposed (63 percent) and 35 percent in favor.”
Prejean is encouraged that California is in the process of getting rid of its death row and that public opinion is moving against the death penalty. “The people of America have good hearts, the death penalty only came in because politicians wanted to use ‘tough on crime’ slogans and demonize people who committed murder to make them not human.”
Prejean subscribes to the so-called “Marshall hypothesis,” as set forth by former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, that an informed American public would not support the death penalty. Prejean thinks the tide is moving in the anti-direction, noting that two-thirds of U.S. states—37 out of 50—have either abolished the death penalty or have not carried out an execution in at least 10 years.
“We killed eight people in eight and a half weeks in Louisiana in the ’80s, but we haven’t had an execution in the last 17 years,” she said, adding the state’s governor, John Bel Edwards, has vowed to commute the sentences of all those on the state’s death row before he leaves office in January. “We have a rabidly right-wing attorney general, Joe Landry, who wants to become governor, who if he wins will use his power to line people up and execute them,” said Prejean.
She says she never thinks of her legacy. “We have to end this thing,” she said more than once of her determination to see the end of the death penalty. She is proud that Dead Man Walking has sold 800,000 copies and is used in schools. “I didn’t want to write that book. What am I gonna do? There are so many books out there, but the story has power, and if it helps people understand and join our fight, then it has done good work. It’s riding a curve of justice and raising conscience and consciousness.
“My mantra to Tim Robbins when we were making the movie was, ‘The movie plows the ground, and the book tills the soil of the soul.’ That’s what it’s about.” She laughed. “I’m so glad to have been awake for 40 bloomin’ years. When you wake up to big realities it gives you energy. Everybody always says, ‘You must be exhausted.’ I say, yeah, I’m tired, but you get energy back when you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing.”
As her turns of phrase and laughter throughout our interview testify, humor is important to Prejean. “My parents had a great sense of humor, so did the sisters at my school, and Cajun people, Southern people have great humor. I have great jokes to tell, many not appropriate to tell in this article! I love collecting good cartoons. I’m a junkie for humor. I know how to tell a really good joke.”
Has she missed marriage, or having sex, or having children? “At one level I have got to say ‘yeah.’ I have thought, what’s it like to be intimate with somebody, to have sex with somebody? In a religious life, desire is sublimated into something else. My love energy is my work. I have exchanged personal love in a good way for, I hope, a love for people, and a desire to end the death penalty. If there is no love in your life it can be lonely, and I’m not lonely.” She laughed. “I don’t think I would have made it with one person. I think maybe I would have killed them!”
Prejean genuinely sees her fame as leverage for her work, and nothing more self-aggrandizing. “My picture and bio are in Times Square, people say I’m the most famous nun after Mother Theresa. But for me it’s about how I can use this so I can continue the work—engaging celebrities and young people in the movement now for the final pulse of the wave to hit the shore, to end this thing.
“I would love to get Taylor Swift involved in our campaign. What if we connected energies with Taylor Swift? She has 272 million followers on Instagram. We’ve got work to do, and I am happy in it. There’s a deep spiritual joy when you’re doing what you need to do. I’m going to be talking to Manuel Ortiz on Monday when I get home. The work goes on.”
To relax, she plays cards, and hangs out with friends, goes to movies, reads “good books,” and listens to music. Meditation is vital to her, as a way of accessing her “deep soul and a journey of integrity, and getting out of the way of your ego, and moving towards other people and loving them.”
She also likes a tipple. Her favorite drink is Scotch. “It has less sugar than bourbon, I learned that about 30 years ago,” she said, emphasizing she does not want people to send her Scotch. “But I love drinking. I think drinking is a fantastic thing—those images in John’s gospel of Jesus turning water into wine—though I do really worry that a lot of people have trouble with it. If alcohol is an enhancer of life, it’s wonderful, but if it’s a substitute for feeling lonely or sad, it’s bad.”
In a follow-up text message, she wrote, “The motto of a nun who enjoys a good drink: ‘When I pray I pray. When I drink I drink.’ You know, the wholeheartedness of life.” Another message asked to treat her thoughts on alcohol “lightly,” adding, “People get distracted easily about nuns.”
Prejean knows nuns labor under a multitude of stereotypes. “We’re a fading breed,” she said. “We always have been and always will. In terms of a religious life, I don’t think we’re expecting young people to make a lifelong vow of celibacy as a way of living the gospel. Nuns will carry on, but I think not with the image of the habit, and hitting people with rulers, and all that stuff.”
Reflecting on the small but welcome evolution on LGBTQ issues from Pope Francis (spurred by the advocacy of Father James Martin), Prejean said, “The dialog rises up from the people. Too many people now have gay friends. Consciousness is changing. It’s the same thing for our democracy. I believe in people changing things. There is change in the Catholic Church too.”
Prejean paused, smiled, and said firmly, “All I know is I’ve still got work to do. I want to finish my work.”