Dead Man Walking: An Evening with Sr. Helen Prejean in Durham

Dead Man Walking: An Evening with Sr. Helen Prejean in Durham December 7, 2011

At the end of her talk to a packed house at Trinity United Methodist Church in Durham, North Carolina, on Friday, December 2, Sister Helen Prejean (whose work on death row was made into the award-winning film Dead Man Walking) lifted her arms out wide and said, “What does the Gospel of Jesus say? We have to show compassion for the victims of murder on one side of the cross and for the perpetrators of murder on the other side of the cross.”

The closest I have come to knowing a victim of murder and the perpetrator of that murder occurred around the death of Eve Carson, the UNC student body president who was murdered in the spring of 2008.

I was just finishing my course preparation when I received the email that the body of a murdered victim found near campus had been identified as the beloved student body president. Shocked and horrified, I stumbled toward my class on that bright sunny day wondering, “What will I say to my students?” Faltering, I cried in front of the class and said how horrible this was. “I understand there will be a vigil for her shortly, I suggest you all go,” and I ended the class. Although I had never met Eve, as I looked at my students I thought, “Any one of them could have been the victim.” My heart broke for Eve’s family and friends.

My mind wondered, who would do such a thing? When the alleged perpetrators were caught a few days later, I found out that one of them had recently been released from a juvenile detention center I had recently visited in Durham. During Advent of the previous December, I went with a group of volunteers from Holy Cross Catholic Church to give a special treat of food, juice and cookies, to the youth inmates. Because of trouble inside the center, the incarcerated were being held in solitary confinement inside their cells which had no windows and they could not even turn on or off their light.

With the guard next to us, we knocked on the doors one by one, the guard turned on their light, and we asked if they would like a treat. I then asked each person their name and what they wanted to pray for. Each and every single one of them said, “I want to pray that when I get out of here I’m a different person.” or “I don’t want to do bad no more.” One girl, who could not have been more than 15 years old, was about 7 months pregnant. “I want to get out of here and be a good mother to my baby!”

I then made the sign of the cross on their forehead, held their hand, and said to each one. “I claim you as a child of God,” and asked God to help them become better people. Those little words -calling them by name, calling them a child of God, asking God to help them, seemed to energize them. I was convinced they meant it–they wanted to live different lives. Yet, now Eve Carson had been allegedly killed by someone just like them, someone who likely would have held my hand and asked me to pray for him to change.

Crimes like the murder of Eve Carson that rally support for the death penalty. Who would not be outraged at the brutal and senseless killing of Eve? But Sister Helen, and the mother of a murder victim who spoke on behalf of Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, challenged the quick assumption that the death penalty for murder is fair or justified.

Our response to crime cannot stop at demanding justice, we must also exercise mercy. One of the most prominent Catholic theologians of the 20th century, Cardinal Avery Dulles, wrote this theological reflection on Catholic doctrine and capital punishment in 2001:

He concludes that, in modern societies, the death penalty should not be imposed when “punishment can be equally well or better achieved by bloodless means, such as imprisonment.”

In his 1995 encyclical “The Gospel of Life,” Pope John Paul II also wrote that “modern society in fact has the means of effectively suppressing crime by rendering criminals harmless without definitively denying them the chance to reform,” and he quotes the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which states:

“If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.”

These statements again point to justice–the modern state has other means of protecting society–and compassion–people do not lose their human dignity, nor their right to life, because they committed a crime.

Other than compassion, arguments against the death penalty abound, and Sister Prejean named most of them:

1) Innocent people get convicted of crimes and we know that innocent people have been executed; read this chilling testimony from former Illinois Governor George Ryan who voted to re-instate the death penalty and then halted all executions after 13 death row inmates were exonerated.

2) There is substantial racial bias in how the death penalty is applied (see the Death Penalty Information Center);

3) Despite promises of a fair trial, prosecutors routinely hold back information that could exonerate the accused (read this WSJ op-ed arguing that prosecutors often violate the law).

With all these good reasons to oppose the death penalty, why do we still have it? My companion Friday night, Ashley Lucas, a professor at UNC who works on theater in prisons and the effects of incarceration on the families of prisoners, told me few people like Sister Helen actually reach out to have personal contact with prisoners. (check out Lucas’s blog post on the talk). The following day, a friend confirmed that, saying, “I think of myself as a compassionate person, but I never think about prisoners at all.”

Sister Helen Prejean is so influential both because her arguments are based on sound reasoning, strengthened by religious teachings, and because of her powerful witness to compassion.  On tough, highly politicized issues people are not easily swayed numbers and reasoning alone. Sister Helen presented her sound arguments woven in with stories of real death row inmates she has known, showing us their humanity and dignity. She challenged stereotypes about prisoners, without demonizing those who oppose her views.

Undoubtedly, my work among the poor, first in Washington, DC, with Exodus Youth Services, and also here in North Carolina, opened my heart to the struggles of persistent poverty, racism, and discrimination that lead to crime. Of course individuals have choices, and I do not believe in environmental determinism. But those of us who grew up with two parents, or at least parents who had finished school and did not use drugs or alcohol, those of us who grew up in crime-free neighborhoods, have very little idea how the other half lives. People who make bad choices deserve a chance to reform. I believe in the sincerity of the people in juvenile detention who told me they want to reform. Yet, as a sociologist, I also know the power of social conditions that will lead to much recidivism despite good intentions.

It is quite unlikely that crime, and hence imprisonment, will ever go away, but we have abundant reasons to think we can do better justice than the death penalty. We should cultivate a justice system based on a sound understanding of the human person. Justice is not vengeance, it must be compassionate. Don’t take it from me or even from Sister Helen, take it from the families of murder victims, like the parents of Eve Carson, who stated they do not want her alleged murders to receive the death penalty. We can, and we must, carry out justice while living compassion.

"You seem to have misunderstood George's point. We can know that human activity has built ..."

Bill Nye, the “not-so-science” Guy
"Regular updates to the countdown to the Day of the Lord by the sign of ..."

Bill Nye, the “not-so-science” Guy
"There was talk that Dr. Lector was based on a real person - a killer/psychiatrist ..."

Bill Nye, the “not-so-science” Guy

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Holly

    Margarita – would you be able to give your thoughts on my story/question below? I don’t feel that I have a good perspective on it – I need someone outside looking in…

  • Margarita Mooney

    Dear Holly,

    I read your story in response to Brad’s post about turning the other cheek. Your concern the young man that gravely hurt your son will himself suffer greatly while in prison, not be rehabilitated, is quite compassionate. You are doing the right thing but praying for him while he is in jail. I admire your willingess to reach out to him. If you could visit him in jail, I can only imagine how deeply that would touch his heart.

    I know that there are groups that work for restorative justice–that is, bringing together victims of crime and perpetrators of crime to work for the healing of both. Can any other readers tell Holly how to find out what types of prison ministries or restorative justice organizations might exist in her area?

    Holly, if you can even find out where the young man who hurt your son is imprisoned, would you write him a letter and just express to him what you have said here, that despite how much he hurt you and your son, you care for him and pray for him? I also think that anything you can do to connect with other family members of victims of violence would be good for you and for others.

    I would suggest you follow the links on my post and contact Sister Helen Prejean’s office in Washington, DC, and that you contact the Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation. I expect they would be very understanding of your situation and be able to connect you with resources to support you.



  • Holly in Nebraska

    Thanks for a great article. Loving the unlikable is one of the hardest things to do. People are unable to like a person who has committed a horrible act so they think they cannot love them. But loving is about wanting what is best for the other person. If we concentrate on that, maybe we can make inroads into ending the death penalty. Thanks again for the article and references.

  • Margarita Mooney


    Please see also a blog post written in response to your story by Ashley Lucas:


  • Oregon Catholic

    I’m not a death penalty proponent and I agree that bloodless means should be used but I wonder what the solution is for violence and murder in prison among those who have nothing left to lose except their life?

    There is the case in Oregon now of Gary Haugen who was in prison for life for killing a woman and then, while imprisoned, he killed another inmate and received the death sentence for the inmate killing. What about the right of the inmate to protection from Haugen, a convicted killer? Was justice served by the life sentence? Is lifelong solitary confinement to prevent murder behind bars any better than the death penalty?

    Haugen didn’t think life on death row was tolerable and went to court to be allowed to stop his appeals and be put to death. He won, but then his death warrant was suspended by the governor. What about Haugen’s right not to endure what he feels is torture?

  • That is a very moving story about Mr. Haugen. I agree that prisons also need to be places where inmates are safe from each other, but I think bloodless means of achieving that goal should always be sought.

    People who are psychologically depressed, who have suffered a tremendous financial setback, who have a terminal illness causing great physical suffering, or who are on death row may indeed want to take their own lives. Knowing this, society goes to great lengths to prevent anyone from taking his or her own life. Suicide should not be allowed, encouraged, or abated, not even in extraordinary circumstances. Despite his tremendous suffering and wrong deeds, Mr. Haugen’s life is not meaningless and neither he nor society has the right to end his life.

    Stanley Hauerwas has an excellent book on the problem of suffering:

    Although it is focused on terminally ill children, he raises an important question: if we see physical suffering only as something to be ended, how can we deal with cases where we are incapable of ending the physical suffering? While always fighting to reduce physical suffering, we must not forget the importance of compassion and love, even for people who do not see meaning any longer in their lives.

  • david

    The story above about all the young inmates inadvertently illustrates the reality it is supposed to refute: ALL of those kids said they wanted to become good people, but how many of them would when released? Not many. This is because good intentions don’t change people; pain and consequences change people, and the mere incarceration is not nearly enough pain for many.
    Sister Helen has missed one of the most valuable lessons of her story: the “deadman walking” was repentant, receptive, and human at the end, but as far as I can tell from the movie, these changes were caused by his fear of his impending execution, not by his imprisonment or her mercy toward him. Without the death penalty, there would have been no redemption in her story at all. The Bible certainly allows for executions, though the procedure is quite strict so that the likelihood of mistake is minimized.