Unveiling the secret
In 1982, Sister Helen Prejean became the spiritual advisor to Patrick Sonnier, the convicted killer of two teenagers who was sentenced to die in the electric chair of Louisiana’s Angola State Prison. In the months before Sonnier’s death, the Roman Catholic nun came to know a man who was as terrified as he had once been terrifying. At the same time, she came to know the families of the victims and the men whose job it was to execute him — men who often harbored doubts about the rightness of what they were doing.
The night of Sonnier’s execution, as Sister Helen was leaving the prison, Millard Farmer, Sonnier’s lawyer, said to her, “Look how shamefully secret this whole thing is. A few select witnesses brought deep inside this prison in the dead of night to watch a man be killed. If most people in Louisiana would see what the state did tonight, they would throw up.”
Sister Helen realized she could not witness this act and remain silent. She determined to shine a spotlight on executions, to let people know what the state did in their name. She started marching, writing letters and protesting. She formed a support group for victims’ families. And she wrote a book.
When it was first published in 1993 Dead Man Walking sparked a national debate that brought to focus the dreadful details of how human choices and consequences are interwoven in our system of capital punishment. It entered the New York Times Best Sellers list and stayed there for 31 weeks.
Actress Susan Sarandon read the book and urged her partner, Tim Robbins, to turn it into a film. That film, with a screenplay written by Robbins, won Susan Sarandon the Academy Award for Best Actress and garnered three other Academy nominations. It also put a global spotlight on the practice of the death penalty in the USA.
The stage play
In 1998, after reading a New Yorker magazine article that said Arthur Miller’s play, Death of a Salesman, had been performed a million times, Sister Helen realized that if Dead Man Walking could be made into a play, it could also be reproduced endlessly, thereby expanding its impact.
She called Tim Robbins and asked him to write a stage play of her story. Tim accepted the challenge, soon crafting a powerful stage adaptation. Instead of taking the play to Broadway, however, Tim decided to use the play as a tool to create deeper reflections on the death penalty in our nation’s high schools and colleges. He required that any school producing the play must also agree to involve at least two other academic departments to provide courses related to the death penalty and Dead Man Walking. Art and music departments were also encouraged to develop related creative projects. Discussion groups, prison visitation, and other activities were soon added to the mix.
Since the launch of the project in the fall of 2004, more than 235 high schools and colleges across the country have produced the play, conducted academic courses on the death penalty, and brought the issue to life on their campuses through art, music, and public education and action events.
Dead Man Walking today
Twenty years later and with capital punishment still a legal sentence in 32 states, Sister Helen Prejean’s account of both the plight of the condemned and the rage of the bereaved is as enlightening and devastating as it ever has been. Her book has sold over 560,000 copies and to mark its 20th anniversary, Random House re-issued the book, adding new forewords by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins and a new afterword by Sister Helen.
This year marks the 10th season of the Dead Man Walking School Theatre Project.
Although the term ‘dead man walking’ has entered our lexicon, there is a generation of young people who have neither read the book nor seen the film.