Sister Helen Prejean, author of ‘Dead Man Walking,’ to speak at Stonehill

NORTH EASTON, Mass. — Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J., author of “Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States” and “Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions,” will be speaking at Stonehill College in North Easton on March 3 beginning at 7 p.m. in the school’s Martin Auditorium.

The presentation, entitled “Dead Man Walking: The Journey Continues,” is part of the college’s 2015 Andre Lecture Series and is free and open to the public. A reception will follow and refreshments will be served.

A member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Sister Helen began working in prison ministry in 1981 when she dedicated her life to the poor of New Orleans. While living in the St. Thomas housing project, she became pen pals with Patrick Sonnier, the convicted killer of two teen-agers who was sentenced to die in the electric chair of Louisiana’s Angola State Prison.

Upon Sonnier’s request, Sister Helen repeatedly visited him as his Spiritual advisor. In doing so, her eyes were opened to the Louisiana execution process. Sister Helen turned her experiences into a book that not only made the 1994 American Library Associates Notable Book List, but also became number one on the New York Times’ best-seller list for 31 weeks.

In January 1996, “Dead Man Walking” was developed into a major motion picture starring Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen and Sean Penn as a death row inmate. The movie received four Oscar nominations including Tim Robbins for Best Director, Sean Penn for Best Actor, Susan Sarandon for Best Actress, and Bruce Springsteen’s “Dead Man Walking” for Best Song. Susan Sarandon won the award for Best Actress.

Sister Helen’s second book, “The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions,” was published in December 2004. In it, she tells the story of two men, Dobie Gillis Williams and Joseph O’Dell, whom she accompanied to their executions. She believes both were innocent. In the book she takes the reader through all the evidence, including evidence the juries never heard either due to the incompetence of the defense lawyers or the rigid formalities of court procedure. Sister Helen examines how flaws inextricably entwined in the death penalty system inevitably lead to innocent people being executed and render the system unworkable.

As the founder of “Survive,” a victim’s advocacy group in New Orleans, Sister Helen continues to counsel not only inmates on death row, but the families of murder victims as well.

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