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Summer of Mercy video series - Week 4

Feature Film:  Dead Man Walking  (1995, 2 hr-2 min)

About the story:
Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn) has been on death row in Louisiana for the past 6 years.  As his execution day comes closer, he writes to Sr. Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon) for help with his appeal.  Sr. Helen reluctantly meets with him, initially finding him arrogant and unrepentant.  Still, she manages to find a lawyer who will help him file for a final appeal to avoid his death sentence.  Over a series of visits she develops a certain rapport with him, while also getting to know something about the families of his victims.  Sr. Helen soon finds herself caught between providing spiritual advice to a criminal, and seeing a need to comfort the families of his victims.

About the film:
Released in 1995, the film is a fictionalized account of the stories from Sr. Helen’s experiences as described in her book of the same name which was published 2 years earlier.  It stars Susan Sarandon as Sr. Helen Prejean and Sean Penn as Matthew Poncelet, a fictional character based on Sr Helen’s experiences with real life death row inmates Elmo Sonnier and Robert Willie.  The film was nominated for 4 Academy Awards (Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Song) with Sarandon taking home the Oscar for her portrayal of Sr. Helen.  At its release the film received critical acclaim for both Sarandon and Penn, and for a story that must balance between all the facets of good and evil in both the crime and the punishment.  It is a riveting film that still resonates with audiences today.  Through this film Sr. Helen’s work with death row inmates was brought into the popular culture as she continues to advocate for abolition of the death penalty.

About the Sr. Helen Prejean:

Helen Prejean, CSJ (Congregation of St. Joseph) was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1939, and at the age of 18 joined the sisters of St Joseph.  She received a BA in English and Education from St. Mary’s Dominican College in New Orleans, and a Masters in Religious Education from St. Paul’s University in Ottawa, Canada.  While serving the poor in the Thomas housing project in New Orleans, Sr. Helen began her prison ministry in 1981 when she became pen pals with death row inmate Patrick Sonnier, and later became his spiritual advisor.  She did the same for Robert Willie, another death row inmate.  Her work with both these inmates inspired her to write the book Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty, which was selected for the 1994 American Library Association’s Notable book list, and was a New York Times best seller for 31 weeks.  Sr. Helen has given countless talks and interviews, and continues to advocate for abolition of the death penalty worldwide through her Ministry Against the Death Penalty.  Her most recent book, The Death of Innocents:  An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions was published in 2004.

About Debbie Morris:
Author of the book Forgiving the Dead Man Walking:  Only One Woman Can Tell the Entire Story (with Greg Lewis) published in 2000.  Ms Morris is the real life victim of Robert Willie, and who’s testimony helped to send Willie to his death by electrocution.  Her story is a journey of faith and forgiveness in the face of brutal crimes committed against her and her boyfriend.


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