Sister Helen Prejean on Fighting the Death Penalty

In the wake of the Trump administration reinstating the federal death penalty, Christiane speaks with renowned campaigner Sister Helen Prejean. Prejean is best known as the author of “Dead Man Walking,” which was subsequently adapted into a film of the same name. She joins the program to discuss executions, campaigning, and her latest book, which reflects on her life at age 80.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Now, beyond the movie, in your own life, what was it you were able to bring to these people? I think you accompanied six people to their deaths. What were you able to do for them? I mean, did you pray with them at the last moment? Did you hold your hands? Were you in the chamber? What did you do for them? What were you allowed to do?

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN, AUTHOR, “RIVER OF FIRE”: What any human being does with someone who is facing such an exigency in their life like dying or being killed, it was to give them dignity. It was to be present to them. It was to be able to say to them, “Look, you did a terrible, unspeakable thing, but you are worth more than the worst thing you’ve ever done in your life.” I mean, I recognize our country is very far away — at this point, the United States of recognizing that the death penalty is the torture of human beings because imaginative, you know, conscious human beings can’t help but anticipate being killed. And we are justifying it by saying, “Oh, but look what they did. So, we’re going to do them what they did to their victims.” What kind of standard of morality is that? So, it’s to bring people into the human story is what I did with “Dead Man Walking,” an eye witness account. And the reader learns with me and in the movie, you’d follow me. I wasn’t sure of myself. I was learning as I go. Tim Robinson all through the making of the movie, the nun was in over her head. And indeed, that’s really, really true.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This boy is to be executed in six days. You must be very, very careful.

SARANDON: Well, Matthew, I made it.

PENN: You’ve never done this before?


PENN: Never this close to a murderer before?

SARANDON: Not that I know of. I just want to help him take responsibility for what he did.


PREJEAN: What “River of Fire” does is talk about the slow awakening that it was not just a pray to God to solve the problems of the world, but prayer was to quicken me to be able to roll up my sleeves and reach out to the suffering world and to make a difference. So, it talks about somebody coming to an awakening. The gospel of Jesus — Christianity can be very misused. I cringe at what Christianity does when you have someone like ex-attorney general, Jeff Sessions, quote Romans 13, an apostle of St. Paul to justify the separation of children from their parents at the border. Saying that if something is legal, then it’s of God, it has the authority of God. These parents are breaking the law by being illegal and so, we are justified in separating them from their children. They brought it on themselves. And they actually tried to use the divine authority to justify what they’re doing. We got to get Christianity right.

About This Episode EXPAND

Sister Helen Prejean joins Christiane Amanpour to discuss her activism fighting the death penalty. Former anti-abortion leader Reverend Rob Schenk sits down with Michel Martin to explain how inflammatory rhetoric can turn deadly. Correspondent Jomana Karadsheh reports on the poaching of cheetahs in Somaliland. Crawford Allan joins the program to elaborate on the illegal trade of exotic animals.