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‘I know that it is not a question of malice or ill will or meanness of spirit that prompts our citizens to support executions. It is quite simply that people don’t know the truth about what is really going on’ (p. 197). This passage, found in the book “Dead Man Walking”, written by Sister Helen Prejean, speaks directly about the theme of this book: the morality of Capital Punishment.
Sister Helen Prejean has written an insightful book about the morality of killing a human being and a society and government that allows it. She makes you think of a death row inmate as a person and gives you the truth about what is actually taking place within our court system and society.
What is most intriguing is the intimate and personal account of Sr. Helen’s spiritual journey with Capital Punishment. Her life experiences and thoughts are weaved into the actual story of this remarkable journey. She allows the reader into to her thought process and then shows the reader, through the telling of the story, how and why she was compelled to write this informative book.
Sr. Helen Prejean’s purpose for writing this book is to create awareness about the humanness and morality of executing a human being in the form of Capital Punishment. Sr. Helen is certain through educating the public about the truth of executions; the death penalty will be abolished. She writes, “…we must persuade the American people that government killings are too costly for us, not only financially, but- more importantly- morally.’ (p. 197)
The story of her spiritual journey begins with Elmo Patrick Sonnier, a death row inmate that she has been asked to correspond with, who is put to death by electrocution.
Sr. Helen is a Catholic nun, part of the reform movement in the Catholic Church, seeking to unify religious faith and social justice by working with the poor and less fortunate in Louisiana. She writes, ‘ We soon became steady correspondents, and I begin to think of him as a fellow human being, though I can’t for a moment forget his crime, nor can I reconcile the easy going Cajun who writes to me, with the brutal murder of two helpless teenagers.’ (p. 13)
Through her correspondence with “Pat” she began to see him as a human being. This prompted her to delve into his case and take a closer look at the death penalty. She introduces the reader to the victim’s families, corrupt politicians, and the legal community. She further involves herself by befriending Robert E. Willey, another death row inmate, who is also executed. The reader will also find in this book a factual account of the history, statistics, and atrocities of government that surround the death penalty. She includes all of her sources at the end of the book for the reader to further educate him/herself.
After reading this book, I realized I was extremely uninformed and guilty of not questioning my own morality, as well as the morality of a government and society, when taking a human life in the form of Capital Punishment- legalized killing. Her description in Chapter Two of walking into “Death Row” for the first time to meet with Pat was incredibly unsettling and moving. It creates nervousness, in your stomach, as if you were really the one visiting “Death Row” for the first time. To be able to tell a story in such a way that evokes physical feeling as well as challenging you mentally, is a gift. This book is a must read before anyone claims to be for or against the death penalty. It will educate you and devastate you at the same time. Sister Helen’s quote to Robert Willey (from the Gospel of John) on page 198, “ You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free”, says it best.
“Dead Man Walking”, written by Sister Helen Prejean
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