Dead Man Walking

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Sister Helen Prejean was working in a housing project in New Orleans in January 1982 when an acquaintance asked if she would correspond with a prisoner on death row. DEAD MAN WALKING is her extremely moving and morally challenging account of her deepening involvement in activism opposing the death penalty. Her arguments are well-reasoned, well-informed, and buttressed by her strategy of writing her personal story rather than a book simply of polemic.

She writes: “In sorting out my feelings and beliefs, there is ... one piece of moral ground of which I am absolutely certain: if I were to be murdered ... I would not want my death avenged. Especially by government—which can’t be trusted to control its own bureaucrats or collect taxes equitably or fill a pothole, much less decide which of its citizens to kill.”

After witnessing the death of convicted murderer Patrick Sonnier, whom she had befriended, Prejean decides to work no longer with death row inmates. But she reads an article quoting the assistant district attorney who had prosecuted Sonnier’s case. He acknowledges that capital punishment may not deter crime, then adds: “If it doesn’t, all we’ve lost is the life of a convicted criminal.” Prejean is galvanized. “I realize that I cannot stand by silently as my government executes its citizens,” she writes. “If I do not speak out and resist, I am an accomplice.”

DEAD MAN WALKING is dense with moral and legal arguments, facts and figures (the footnotes are extremely helpful and thoughtful). Yet it is highly readable; this reviewer read it in two days. It also, perhaps oddly, is entertaining and heartening, an inspiring portrait of American grassroots activism. “But I am out of joint with the times,” writes Prejean. “This is the eighties, when social activists from the sixties are supposed to be experiencing the ‘big chill,’ and here I am just warming up to the action. ... Before, I had asked God to right the wrongs and comfort the suffering. Now I know — really know — that God entrusts those tasks to us.”