Sister Helen Prejean of ‘Dead Man Walking’ pens another winning tale
A wing and a prayer might not stop the death penalty, but maybe a book will. And a Sister. The Catholic nun who ruffled political feathers when she penned the New York Times bestseller “Dead Man Walking,” is back on the road with a new book in stores and a visit to the Capitola Book Café on Jan. 21. No slouch, this nun is on a mission from God and she knows it. Namely: end the death penalty. She hopes to do this not only through numerous speaking engagements but also through her second recently released story, “The Death of Innocents.”
If you’re like the 60 percent of Americans who are uncertain about the electric chair, lethal injections, and such, this book will kill you. After reading it, there’s no room for ambivalence. If you’re against capital punishment, you’ll be even more enraged and proactive. If you were for it, you’ll probably re-evaluate things.
“I don’t believe the government should be put in charge of killing anybody, even those proven guilty of terrible crimes,” Prejean writes on page 29.
That this book makes its readers weepy and philosophical, thus spawning deep conversations is good, Prejean infers. She notes for example the conversation she and I are having right now over the telephone. With her Southern accent, witty nature and passion, she’s talking about what it’s like to grieve for someone whose killer was the state; why likely innocent people like Dobie Williams were sent to the lethal injection room; and why “Dead Man Walking” created such a stir, with the backing of powerhouse couple Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, who have also endorsed “The Death of the Innocents.”
“If you are not outraged by the sheer inhumanity and unfairness of state-sanctioned killing after reading this book, it might be time for you to run for governor of Texas,” the Hollywood couple writes on the back of the hardcover, nearly 300-page book.
This “sheer inhumanity” they mention is, in their opinion, the effects of the death penalty, and then further, capital punishment when fired upon someone who is innocent, like Dobie Williams and Joseph O’Dell. These two men are at the heart of “The Death of Innocents.” But first off, know that Prejean makes no distinction between guilty and innocent when it comes to the death penalty.
“The dignity of a person is worth more than the worst thing they’ve done in their life,” Prejean says. “When people are guilty [there’s the] absolute horror at what they did to their victims, combined with the horror at what the state is doing to them.”
At the publication of this book, Prejean had walked five men to their deaths. Two of them, she believes, were innocent. They are Williams and O’Dell.
Prejean tells their stories with compassion and clarity. Sure, she has an agenda, but the facts present themselves. And, many of these facts were never brought into the courtroom for juries to hear. With all the legal mumbo jumbo that is a trial, there are loopholes, incompetent attorneys, liars and overlooked information, all of which can present a bad case for someone, who in the case of Williams and O’Dell, might be innocent. And then there are issues of race, poverty, and a fair legal setup for the underprivileged.
With Williams, Prejean presents the story of a black man with a low IQ. The defense said he broke into a house—through a bathroom window—stood naked with a knife in his hand and butchered the wife of the home when she sat down to use the toilet. The excluded evidence and testimonies prove otherwise, but had no final impact. Williams still was put to death.
In the book, as his mama and the rest of his family says good-bye and exits, Prejean moves in to be with Williams.
“We put our arms around him, holding him tight around the waist and shoulders, and wave to his family as the van pulls away. I know he is seeing his family for the last time. It’s up to us now,” she writes. “I get very active, talking to him, telling him what a good human being he is and that Jesus is very close to him and will give him all the strength he needs. … We have all moved into a mode of initiating, comforting, strengthening, not letting his spirit go slack.”
They put Williams in his cell and Prejean sits outside of it. She asks for a favor—will they let Williams “sit outside the cell so he can be near us and we can touch him?” she writes. “I think of how Jesus, in the agonizing moments before his death, asked his disciples to watch and pray with him, but they all went to sleep.”
Prejean doesn’t cut any corners or really, make this easy. She’s not supposed to. American eyes are already cloudy as we know so little about this subject, and equally invest little time to inform ourselves. But that’s what Prejean has done for us.
She taps into the heart and soul of these two presumably innocent men and the crimes they likely didn’t commit. But that’s not her entire message. Ultimately she attacks the core of the death penalty issue.
And she’s not afraid to shake up the church, either. “I call it Christianity light when George Bush says God is on our side and then bombs the Iraqi people,” Prejean says. “Pure religiosity can so easily be used to uphold oppression.”
This is a nun speaking here: A faithful, devoted, woman of God.
The other three men she has walked with were guilty. But she believes that none of them should have been escorted out of life, with a stamp of approval from the state. Cause of death on their death certificates? Legal homicide—a strange term, and an unsettling one at that.
“It [the new book] kind of emerged,” Prejean says. “I didn’t know I’d write ‘Dead Man Walking.’ [I was] going to executions … it was like a fire inside of me. Life continued to happen and experiences continued to happen. There were these two men in whose lives I got drawn and [I was then] witnessing the execution of innocent people.”
Don’t mistake Prejean for some naïve Catholic schoolgirl. Hardly. Her book is packed with legal tidbits and jargon, dumbed down enough to get regular people immersed and fascinated. She knows her stuff. Not only has she walked with men to their deaths, she’s walked them through the justice system. And she’s none too pleased with our government’s handling of matters concerning this issue.
“I knew a task in this book was really to take ordinary citizens through the Constitution in a way everybody can understand,” Prejean says. “I’m not a lawyer or a judge, just a citizen. How do I bring people through it?”
By giving the death penalty a face. By taking readers into the execution room where a needle is inserted and lethal fluids drip into veins, bringing death.
“We’re going to kill the one who killed your loved one; look at how morally bankrupt [that is],” Prejean says. We’re looking, Sister, we’re looking.Sister Helen Prejean will be speaking about her book, “The Death of Innocents,” at Capitola Book Café at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 21. 1475 41st Ave., Capitola. For more info, call 462-4415.
JanuaryAll readings are at 7:30 p.m. unless otherwise noted.
10 Thursday | Capitola Book Café
The idea of a counterculture can probably be perfectly illustrated in our humble little town of Santa Cruz, where going against the norm is practically a prerequisite for living here. However, if you want to ditch the illustrated version and go straight for the academics, in steps Ken Goffman’s “Counterculture Through the Ages.” Goffman, a.k.a R.U. Sirius, explores the role of counter cultures through historical, political and sociological eyes, all the while keeping a light, slightly gonzo-ish tone, which is counter culture in itself: writing an academic book non-academically. Based on ideas of the late Timothy Leary, Goffman tells us the secret history of society’s outcasts and how they become united by their ultimate disgust for authority thus forming countercultures.
13 Thursday | First Congregational Church
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20 Thursday | Bookshop Santa Cruz
Literature’s favorite dysfunctional family is back with Valerie Hemmingway’s “Running With the Bulls.” After an interview in Spain in 1956, Irish reporter Valerie, then Danby-Smith, struck up a rapport with Ernest Hemmingway thus becoming his “personal secretary.” Through the years, her job title included traveling from Europe to Cuba with the family and being the keeper of Papa Hemmingway’s deepest secrets and lies. Now married to Ernest’s son Gregory, Valerie writes about kicking her heels up in Pamplona to living the high life in the Ritz Carlton, Paris all in the shadows of Hemmingway’s infamous destructive personality. “Running With the Bulls” paints a portrait of the final high and low years of one of literature’s greatest writers.
23 Thursday | 2:30 p.m. | Capitola Book Café
Finally some news we can all rejoice about: Chocolate is actually good for you. Not only does it have tons of antioxidants, but it also sparks your brain in the same way that falling in love does. In his latest book “Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Light and Dark,” Mort Rosenblum explores this discovery and other mysteries of chocolate, including how it is produced and manufactured. From the cacao plantations in Africa plagued with civil war, to the giant chocolate tycoons Hershey and Ghirardelli, Rosenblum ignites your brain cells and your tastebuds as the true story of everyone’s favorite milky treat springs to life. Warning: do not read this book without a substantial supply of chocolate somewhere in your vicinity.
28 Thursday | Capitola Book Café
Former Good Times writer and founder of the Santa Cruz Poetry Festival, James Delessandro takes the blending of fact with fiction tradition of such movies as Titanic and weaves a story set around the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Using intense research and his own imagination, Delessandro explores the politics and corruption of Victorian-era San Francisco amidst the backdrop of one of the greatest natural disasters to hit the United States. Recently, Delessandro has teamed up with Lucas Film to produce a documentary on the infamous 1906 event. The film, The Damndest Finest Ruins takes photographs of the earthquake and animates them in a short 19-minute reel. The Damndest Finest Ruins will be shown in addition to a discussion of 1906 on this unique evening of literature and film.