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DePaul University Special Collections and Archives

Ministry to Death Row Inmates

Sister Helen Prejean began corresponding with death row inmates in 1982, when she was asked to write to Elmo "Pat" Sonnier, an inmate in the Louisiana State Penitentiary.  She developed a regular correspondence and then a visiting schedule with him.  When Sonnier was killed in the electric chair in April 1984, with Sister Helen witnessing as his spiritual advisor, she knew that she would campaign from then on to abolish the death penalty in the United States. In the immediate aftermath of Sonnier's death, Sister Helen did not intend to act as spiritual advisor to any more prisoners, but when she was asked later that year to correspond with Robert Lee Willie she could not refuse.  He was also killed in the electric chair in December 1984.  Sister Helen's experiences with Pat Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie inspired her to write her first book, Dead Man Walking.

Dobie Gillis Williams and Joseph O'Dell were two death row inmates that Sister Helen believed to be innocent.  She tells their stories in her second book, The Death of Innocents.  Sister Helen had a long relationship with Dobie Williams as his spiritual advisor, lasting for eight years.  His appearance in a BBC documentary, Killing Time, prompted a lot of people to write to him to express their support, especially in the last few months of his life.  He was killed by lethal injection in January 1999.  Joseph O'Dell was a Virginia death row inmate.  Sister Helen became involved in his case at the request of Lori Urs, a volunteer paralegal who believed that O'Dell was not guilty.  His case gained a lot of attention in Italy, a country strongly opposed to the death penalty, and after his execution in 1997, O'Dell was buried in Palermo at the request of the Mayor.