Sister Helen Prejean Speaks On the Film Dead Man Walking

by Katie Daniels


Although Robsham Theater was packed with students and faculty, it was completely silent. Sr. Helen Prejean was unperturbed. “This happens every time we show the movie,” she explained softly. She surveyed the audience and asked, “Do you think the film brought you over to both sides? Do you think you saw both sides of the suffering?”

On Thursday, October 9, the Church in the 21st Century Center screened the powerful Oscar winning film Dead Man Walking in Robsham Theater. Afterwards, Sr. Helen Prejean spoke about her experience making the film and counseling death row inmates. As a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Sr. Helen was working in inner city New Orleans when she was asked to be the spiritual advisor to a death row inmate in Angola prison. She agreed, and after witnessing his execution, wrote an account of her experiences in the book Dead Man Walking.


The movie adaptation of the book, written and directed by Tim Robbins, stars Susan Sarandon as Sr. Helen and Sean Penn as death row inmate Matthew Poncelet. Roger Ebert described the movie as “a film that ruins us for other films,” because the movie avoids the conventional Hollywood clichés. Matthew Poncelet is not an innocent man on death row. He is truly guilty of rape and of murder. But more remarkably, the film avoids spiritual clichés in its portrayal of Sister Helen. Even as she begins to realize that Poncelet is in fact guilty, she never wavers in her conviction that God loves even the greatest sinners among us.


Perhaps the reason the movie avoids clichés is that it does not shy away from the complex and painful relationships surrounding Poncelet’s crime. Over the course of the film, Prejean visits both of the murder victims’ families, as well as Poncelet’s own mother and younger brothers. She witnesses the pain and anger both sides feel, even as she continues to visit Poncelet in prison. She also bears the full force of the families’ incomprehension when they question how she can counsel the man who has torn their lives apart.


For the real life Sister Helen, this complexity is the reason that art is so necessary. In her talk after the movie, she explained, “There is a difference between art and propaganda. Art brings you over to both sides of the suffering.” Understanding this suffering, she suggests, is necessary in a culture that sees the death penalty in black and white. “Most people don’t reflect deeply on the death penalty,” she said. “Our culture says choose one side or the other. People see forgiveness as weak.”


Her experience working with death row inmates proved to her how necessary it is to start a dialogue. As Matthew Poncelet’s lawyer says before his client’s parole hearing, “It’s easy to kill a monster; it’s hard to kill a human being.” For Sr. Helen, this realization prompted a new direction to her vocation. “I’ve been a witness,” she said. “Now I’ve got to bring the message to the people so they can reflect.”


And reflect they did. Audience members slowly began to cluster around the microphones and ask Sr. Helen questions. “How were you able to feel compassion?” “What do you feel for these men?” “Did you feel like you were being weak?” Sr. Helen grounded her answers in that quiet, deep faith that Tim Robbins so subtly captured in his movie. “Human beings are more than the worst act in their lives,” she repeated again and again. “Even those who have done a terrible thing have dignity.”


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Comments: 3
  • #1

    Dudley sharp (Thursday, 23 October 2014 19:41)

    Sister Helen Prejean: A Critical Review

    The parents of rape/torture/murder victim Loretta Bourque, a "Dead Man Walking" Case

    " . . .makes you realize the Dead Man Walking truly belongs on the shelf in the library in the Fiction category."

    "Being devout Catholics, 'the norm' would be to look to the church for support and healing. Again, this need for spiritual stability was stolen by Sister Prejean." (1)


    Case Detective Michael Vernado, in the rape/torture/murder of Faith Hathaway, a Dead Man Walking Case

    "I wouldn't have had as much trouble with (Prejean's) views if she would have told the truth . . ." " . . . (Sr. Prejean) based her book on what was in I guess a defense file and what (rapist/murderer) Robert Willie telling her." (1)

    " . . . she's trying to mislead people in the book. And that's something that she's going have to work out with herself." "(Sr. Prejean's) certainly not after giving anybody spiritual advice to try to save their soul." (1)

    Sr. Prejean: “It is abundantly clear that the Bible depicts murder as a capital crime for which death is considered the appropriate punishment, and one is hard pressed to find a biblical ‘proof text’ in either the Hebrew Testament or the New Testament which unequivocally refutes this. Even Jesus’ admonition ‘Let him without sin cast the first stone,’ when He was asked the appropriate punishment for an adulteress (John 8:7) – the Mosaic Law prescribed death – should be read in its proper context. This passage is an ‘entrapment’ story, which sought to show Jesus’ wisdom in besting His adversaries. It is not an ethical pronouncement about capital punishment .” Dead Man Walking (2)

    “(Sister Prejean) received nothing but a stony silence, however, when she questioned the basis of the biblical crucifixion story as a “projection of our violent society.” “Is this a God?” Prejean asked about the belief that God allowed his son, Jesus, to be sacrificed for the sins of humanity. “Or is this an ogre?” “The audience — to that point in strong agreement with the author of “Dead Man Walking” — said and did nothing.” (“God, ogre comparison doesn’t fly with interfaith crowd”, Paul A. Anthony, Rocky Mountain News, 03:35 p.m., August 24, 2008) (2)

    It is understandable that the audience was stunned. Sister Prejean is questioning the bedrock of the Christian faith.

    Appropriately, Pope Benedict XIV appears to rebuke her a few days later: “If to save us the Son of God had to suffer and die crucified, it certainly was not because of a cruel design of the heavenly Father. The cause of it is the gravity of the sickness of which he must cure us: an evil so serious and deadly that it will require all of his blood. In fact, it is with his death and resurrection that Jesus defeated sin and death, reestablishing the lordship of God.” (“It Is Not ‘Optional’ for Christians to Take Up the Cross”, 8/31/2008) (2)


    1) Sister Helen Prejean: A Critical Review

    2) Sister Helen Prejean & the death penalty: A Critical Review

    3) Sr. Helen Prejean: "Botched" Nun

  • #2

    Dudley Sharp (Friday, 24 October 2014 23:52)

    On Oct 13, 2014, at 12:49 PM, wrote:

    To: Students, Professors & Administration, School of Theology and Ministry, Boston College

    bcc: Boston Globe

    RE: God Allows Us to Wake Up”: Sister Helen Prejean Comes to BC, By: Craig A. Ford, Jr., Graduate Students of Color Blog, 10/11/14,

    From: Dudley Sharp

    Mr. Ford speaks of us being introduced to the "reality of capital punishment" by Sr. Prejean and being "honest with oursleves".

    Sadly, the article defines "nothing could be further from the truth".

    Sr. Prejean is rebutted on all points. I am happy to discuss all these issues with her on a BC site.

    The sister states: “We’re good, not bad people,” “We’re just real ignorant!”. . . or susceptible to deception.

    "Wake Up!" Do you really think Sr. Prejean doesn't know what she is doing?

    1) Sr. Prejean claims that "75% of those on death row aren’t educated above a sixth grade level".

    Sharp reply: 13% are educated to 8th grade or below. Median education on death row is 12th grade, with 87% above 8th grade. (1).

    2) Ford or Sr. Prejean: " . . . since 1973, there have been 146 exonerations (from death row)."

    Sharp reply: This has been a well known fraud, beginning about 15 years, ago, when the number was 69. Based upon numerous reviews, possibly, as many as 25-44 actual innocents (as of today) have been discovered and released from death row (2). Anti death penalty folks just redefined "innocent" and "exonerated" as if they redefined lie as truth and put a bunch of cases into those fraudulent definitions (2).

    3) Sr. Prejean commonly, calls the death penalty racist, refers, herein, to the primary execution states as "former slave states" and, recently stated, while in St. Louis, “the system of injustice which disproportionately kills black bodies.”, a statement which can, reasonably, be seen as putting another match to the powder keg in Ferguson, Mo.

    Ford writes: "Sister Helen devastates us with the reality that the death penalty is sought more often against people of color than against whites".

    Sharp reply: "As blacks represent 47% of murderers and whites 37%, whites are about twice as likely to be executed for committing murder than are blacks" , with whites 56% of those executed, 34% blacks." (3)

    "There is no race of the offender / victim effect at either the decision to advance a case to penalty hearing or the decision to sentence a defendant to death given a penalty hearing." (3)


  • #3

    Dudley Sharp (Friday, 24 October 2014 23:53)


    4) The sister calls the death penalty classist.

    Sharp reply: 99.8% of poor murderers avoid the death penalty. It depends, strictly, upon the definition of the wealthy, as to whether or not wealthy murderers are more or less likely to be executed than poor murderers, in the context of the very small percentage and number of wealthy murderers (4).

    5) Sr. Prejean states: "we turn our eyes away from the fact that we view violence as redemptive."

    Sharp reply: Why would we turn our eyes, away? Christians, more than any group, understand the redemptive value of violence, not only with the Passion of the Christ, but the redemptive value of the death penalty, as detailed for 2000 years (5). As the Sister called God an ogre for crucifying His Son (6), her perspective is expected. It appears she was, later, rebuked by the Pope, as I, previously, detailed.


    Mr. Ford ends with this:

    "Will we ourselves allow this logic to become reality again?"

    One can only hope and pray that logic and reality will prevail.


    1) Table 5, Capital Punishment 2012, Bureau Of Justice Statistics, May 2014, NCJ 245789

    2) Start with sections 3 & 4, within
    The Innocent Frauds: Standard Anti Death Penalty Strategy


    4) See Is There Class Disparity with Executions?

    within The Death Penalty: Fair & Just

    5) The Death Penalty: Mercy, Expiation, Redemption & Salvation

    6) As presented to you within email dated 10/5/2014 11:29:11 A.M. CDT, as "Sister Helen Prejean: A Rebuttal" and as found within:
    “God, ogre comparison doesn’t fly with interfaith crowd”, Paul A. Anthony, Rocky Mountain News, 03:35 p.m., August 24, 2008

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