Dead Man Walking (Book Review)

Stories from Death Row by Sister Helen Prejean

I think this might have been was one of the hardest books I’ve ever read in my life. Just from the subject of the book itself- death row covered by a Catholic activist nun- you know you’re in for a morally challenging endeavor. But I guess I didn’t realize how taxing it would be to read about this. Throughout the entire book, you’re either learning about graphic murder and rape allegedly committed by the people on death row, or you’re learning about the trauma that those same people on death row are experiencing, or have experienced in their own lives to make them who they are today. Either way, it feels like a lose-lose scenario, and it’s hard to read. I start out the book as a strong prison and death row abolitionist, and halfway through the book I am having my doubts as I learn about the scope of human potential to hurt. By the end of the book I still hold my idealistic view that an eye for an eye is wrong and does not help anything, but I am definitely sobered by reading about all the pain.

Throughout the book, Prejean lays out her reasons for being spiritual advisers to people on death row and advocating for the abolition of the punishment:

“The death penalty costs too much. Allowing our government to kill citizens compromises the deepest moral values upon which this country was conceived: the inviolable dignity of human persons. I have no doubt that we will one day abolish the death penalty in America. It will come sooner if people like me who know the truth about executions do our work well and educate the public.”

Though the executions that Prejean witnesses in the book concern the electric chair, she also speaks to the more modern method of lethal injection:

“The method is preferred because it virtually eliminates visible bodily pain… There is an elaborate ruse going on here, a pitiful disguise. Killing is camouflaged as a medicinal act. The attendant will even swab the “patient’s” arm with alcohol before inserting the needle- to prevent infection.”

Years later, Prejean speaks with the chairperson for the Pardon Board (which has one of the final says in execution cases) of men she had been a spiritual adviser to. He comments:

“I did these things. I sat in judgement on these men like that- the guilty and the innocent. But who was I to sit in judgment? It still bothers me. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.”

In the end of the book, after ten years of working to end the death penalty, Prejean has merged her death penalty abolitionist work with also creating support groups for victims of violent crime and murder.

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