In 1982, Sister Helen Prejean agreed to serve as spiritual advisor to convicted murderer Patrick Sonnier; two years later, she did the same for Robert Lee Willie. In this memoir of Prejean’s introduction to the capital punishment system, we come to know two condemned men she advises and ultimately accompanies to their deaths; we also meet the parents of their victims, and the men charged with killing in the name of the state. (The central characters in the movie and the opera of the same name, Matthew Poncelet and Joseph De Rocher, respectively, are a composite of the men described in the book.)
This collection of essays, edited by Hugo Bedau and Paul Cassell, brings together the voices of judges, attorneys, and philosophers—four arguing in favor of capital punishment, four against. The essays consider the effectiveness of capital punishment as a deterrent; the risks of wrongful executions and the opportunities for mitigating the risks; fairness in sentencing, the costs of the death penalty vs. long-term imprisonment; the rights of victims’ families; and more. The book closes with the text of a 2003 speech by former Illinois Governor George Ryan, announcing commutation of all of the state’s death sentences.
A decade after her first book sparked a national conversation on the death penalty, Sister Helen Prejean published her second book. “As in Dead Man Walking,” she writes, “this is my eyewitness account of accompanying two men to execution—but with one huge difference: I believe the two men I tell about here … were innocent.” Like Dead Man Walking, The Death of Innocents offers both Prejean’s intensely personal experience and her extensive research on the history and application of the death penalty in the United States.
Debbie Morris was another victim of violent crimes at the hands of Joseph Vaccaro and Robert Lee Willie. In her memoir, written with Gregg Lewis, Morris tells her story, beginning with the gruesome ordeal she suffered at the age of 16 and continuing with her struggle to find wholeness and healing.