Published April 15, 2016
ALPHARETTA—Sister Helen Prejean, known for sparking national dialogue on the death penalty, will speak at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Alpharetta on Monday, May 9, at 7:30 p.m.
Sister Helen was born on April 21, 1939, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and joined the Congregation of St. Joseph in 1957. She spent her first years teaching religion to junior high school students. Realizing that being on the side of poor people is an essential part of the Gospel, she moved into the St. Thomas Housing Project in New Orleans and worked at Hope House for several years in the early 1980s.
During this time she was asked to correspond with death row inmate Patrick Sonnier, the convicted killer of two teenagers, who was sentenced to die in the electric chair of Louisiana’s Angola State Prison. Upon Sonnier’s request, Sister Helen repeatedly visited him as his spiritual advisor. In doing so, her eyes were opened to the Louisiana execution process. Sister Helen turned her experiences into a book. The result was “Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States.” The book was number one on the New York Times bestseller list for 31 weeks. In 1996, the book was developed into a major motion picture. It was later developed into an opera and a play for high schools and colleges.
Fifteen years after beginning her crusade, Sister Helen has witnessed five executions in Louisiana and has accompanied six men to their deaths. In doing so, she began to suspect that some of those executed were not guilty. This realization inspired her second book, “The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions,” which was released by Random House in 2004.
Sister Helen divides her time between educating citizens about the death penalty and counseling individual death row prisoners. As the founder of “Survive,” a victims advocacy group in New Orleans, Sister Helen counsels families of murder victims.
St. Thomas Aquinas is located at 535 Rucker Road in Alpharetta. The event is free and open to the public.