“Dead Man Walking” author to present Convocation address

Sister Helen Prejean, whose best-selling book “Dead Man Walking” sparked national dialogue on the death penalty and helped to shape the Catholic church’s newly vigorous opposition to state executions, will address the incoming class when Salve Regina officially opens the academic year at 3 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 4.

The annual Convocation ceremony, which serves as a welcome to the University’s new students, will be held on the Wakehurst lawn.

In 1982, Sister Helen started corresponding with Patrick Sonnier, sentenced to die in the electric chair of Louisiana’s Angola State Prison for the murder of two teenagers. Sonnier asked her to become his spiritual advisor and she accepted. In 1984, Sonnier was put to death in the electric chair, and Sister Helen was there to witness his execution.

In the following months, Sister Helen became spiritual advisor to another death row inmate, Robert Lee Willie, who soon met the same fate as Sonnier. After witnessing this second execution, Sister Helen realized that this lethal act, performed at midnight, would remain hidden unless she spoke up about it.

Sister Helen came together with others to hold execution vigils and to march to draw attention to the issue. She founded a support group for victims’ family members, called Survive. And she sat down and wrote a book, “Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States.” The book ignited a national debate on capital punishment and inspired an Academy Award-winning movie, a play and an opera.

A quarter of a century later and with capital punishment still practiced in 31 states, Sister Helen divides her time between campaigning against the death penalty, counseling individual death row prisoners, and working with murder victims’ family members. She has accompanied four more men to their deaths and is currently spiritual advisor to two men, both of whom she believes to be innocent: Manuel Ortiz on death row at Angola, and Richard Glossip on Oklahoma’s death row.

Sister Helen recently finished writing her third book, “River of Fire,” a prequel to “Dead Man Walking.”

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