Dead Man Walking changed the conversation about the death penalty in the USA.
Before its publication in 1993, many dedicated people had been working to end executions. In the 1960s and early 1970s organizations such as Citizens Against Legalized Murder, the Ohio Committee to Abolish Capital Punishment, California’s People Against Capital Punishment and many other groups worked for abolition. In 1972, in Furman v. Georgia, the United States Supreme Court ruled the death penalty, as it was then practiced, unconstitutional. That decision caused a furor in death penalty states. In 1974, the American Civil Liberties Union established its Death Penalty Project (now the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project) to coordinate and encourage abolitionist activity, but by 1976 the push back from pro-death-penalty states had born fruit: the Supreme Court, in Gregg v. Georgia, reinstated the death penalty. A few days after the Court handed down this decision, the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP) was formed.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that Sister Helen Prejean became involved in the death penalty. She began visiting Elmo Patrick Sonnier on Louisiana’s death row in 1982 and accompanied him to his execution in 1984. It was an act performed at midnight in the remote heart of Louisiana. A secret act, and yet an act carried out on behalf of the citizens of Louisiana.
Sr. Helen decided that night to dedicate her life to shining a spotlight on the practice of state killing. She started writing letters, attending vigils, organizing with others, protesting, marching. And she wrote a book. A book which sparked a film and became a New York Times Best Seller, and then a stage play and an opera. Sr. Helen started traveling the country talking to thousands of groups and hundreds of thousands of people. And what she found is that although most people have an opinion about the death penalty, very few of them have thought deeply about it; but when they learn about it and take time to think about it, most of those who have embraced executions discover they can no longer support them.
- How the book became a film and then a play
- Meet the people behind the Dead Man Walking School Theatre Project