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A Nun and a Movie Star Walk Into a Bar...

Denny LeBoeuf,
Director, John Adams Project
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June 19, 2013

Okay, it was a restaurant, in New Orleans, where Sister Helen Prejean ate crawfish with Susan Sarandon and the movie “Dead Man Walking” was birthed. Listen to 2 very funny minutes of Sister Helen talking about this meeting.

But before there was a movie – or for that matter, an opera, a play, and an album – there was the book that inspired them. DEAD MAN WALKING: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in America by Sister Helen Prejean is twenty years old. A book that is at heart a great story, not a polemic or a piece of propaganda, but a story that lets people see what the death penalty is, what it does, and, for many readers, why it must be ended.

The book was re-released yesterday by Random House, with a new afterward by the author, by Susan Sarandon (who played Helen in the movie) and by the movie’s director and author of the play, Tim Robbins. The new foreword is by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who is of course himself a committed abolitionist. It has been a bestseller in many languages, and is credited by many as having begun the dialogue that continues to change the way Americans see the death penalty. As the Archbishop says:

While we [in South Africa] held our national “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” hearings and struggled to rebuild South Africa, people around the world were also making the connections and learning about the death penalty—how racist, unfair, and broken it is—and slowly a new global movement for the abolition of the death penalty began. At the heart of that movement was Dead Man Walking, this extraordinary, moving, historic book by Sister Helen Prejean.

Sister Helen was on The Rachel Maddow Show last night, and displayed the authenticity and clarity of her moral vision that made such a profound difference in this global movement toward abolition. As the website for the new edition, notes, the ACLU has been a part of that effort both before and after it established the Capital Punishment Project in 1974. (The picture above shows Sister Helen celebrating with staff and volunteers of CPP at a visit to our offices in Durham, NC in 2011.)

There will be a number of events around this 20 year anniversary. Helen will be interviewed on radio’s Democracy Now and by Andrea Mitchell today; in the coming weeks there will be other speeches and interviews. As always, she will talk about how her experience took her someplace few Americans get to see, and how she was compelled to take us all on that journey with her. As she did on the Maddow show last night, she will speak about the importance of not preaching to people, but giving them some facts so they could make up their own minds. She will do it with honesty, respect for her readers and listeners, and she will do it with humor.

That humor – like the title of this blog – may unsettle some people. What’s funny about the death penalty, after all? But listen to Sister Helen Prejean in one of these interviews or in the pages of her books, and you understand that her humor co-exists with a profound appreciation of the suffering of murder victims and their loved ones, as well as the condemned and their families. You will find that humor, like love, compassion, and a thirst for justice, is a part of Sister Helen Prejean and a part of the movement to end the death penalty.

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