Sister Helen Prejean once again last fall spent several days with us at America House. She was in New York in November to consult with the actor-playwright Tim Robbins about the stage version of her book Dead Man Walking. She found time to stop by my office to speak about this latest reincarnation of her book and the related one-year workshop project with the play that will begin next fall at Jesuit high schools, colleges and universities around the country.
“They will have the option of performing the whole play or doing readings from it, or even excerpts in class,” she said. “The only requirement for participating in the project is that one other academic discipline be involved, such as sociology, psychology or theology.” This, she explained, stems from her belief that the project should promote informed discourse on the death penalty issue—“a deep, seminal, social justice matter,” as she put it, “because it hits at the soul of our society,” dealing as it does with racism, poverty and related justice issues.
The project will also involve a letter-writing campaign by students, who will contact their legislators to tell them, in effect, “I’m a young person concerned about what capital punishment is doing to our society, and would like to hear from you about this.” In other words, Sister Prejean said, a response from legislators is expected. This will put them on the spot to explain their continued support for the death penalty in states that retain it—especially in the southern and southwestern states, where most executions take place. Overall, the play project is intended to serve as a call to action for students.
It was journalism students at Northwestern University, she pointed out, who—through careful investigation of overlooked evidence—were responsible for the release from death row of a number of prisoners in Illinois. Their work was one of the factors that led then-governor George Ryan to impose a moratorium on executions there. “It’s the young people of the country who are intervening and saving the lives of people on death row,” she said. “So far 112 innocent people have been released, many of them through their efforts and those of the various innocence projects that have come into existence around the country.”
A moratorium on all executions is Sister Prejean’s goal. She rejects the argument that the death penalty can be “fixed” and thereby made more equitable. “Some people say, for instance, that we should give everybody on death row DNA tests.” But in three-fourths of the cases, DNA testing would not apply, she explained, because there is no biological evidence.
In the course of our conversation, Sister Prejean also spoke of her forthcoming book, tentatively entitled Life, Liberty and the Machinery of Death, to be published by Random House. The latter part of the title is a phrase used by the late Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, who, in referring to his own opposition to capital punishment, said “I will no longer tinker with the machinery of death.” The book is divided into three parts, with the first two sections dealing with her story of accompanying two men who have since been executed and whom Sister Prejean believes to have been innocent. She has continued in her role of spiritual advisor to another—the sixth whom she has accompanied on Louisiana’s death row. She visits him once a month, and keeps in touch between visits with phone calls and letters.
Because her forthcoming book was still not finished at the time of her visit, Sister Prejean has had to cut back on her travels and lecturing. But just before her visit to America House, she spent a day speaking with students at the University of Maryland. The university had decided to distribute copies of Dead Man Walking to all incoming freshmen and faculty—over 5,000 in all. “So it’s still out there, doing good,” she said. Over half a million copies have been printed, with translations into 12 languages. It has clearly struck a nerve, not just here but around the world.