A Light That Shines in the Darkness


Back around 1993, when I wore a reporter’s hat, I contacted Sister Helen Prejean at the Congregation of St. Joseph in New Orleans hoping to snag an interview about a book she had written. The book had been turned into a movie — “Dead Man Walking.” To my surprise (because it was a really big hit movie at the time and she was the national advocate for the abolition of the death penalty) the receptionist who answered my call patched me through to Sister Prejean’s phone and she answered. I told her who I was, that I was hoping to interview her for a story on the book/movie, and was wanting to hear from her how true-to-the-book it was and to get her general thoughts on the Hollywood experience, etc. The Sister very kindly and humbly declined the interview. Not only did she not want to opine, she didn’t want the publicity. This from a nun who was portrayed in the movie by Susan Surandon.


From a reporter’s standpoint, that kind of deflection is deflating, especially when you have THE person on the phone that you MUST HAVE for the story you’ve sold to your editor. There in the silence of the phone line between Shreveport and New Orleans, I off-handedly mentioned to Sister Prejean that she and I had essentially bumped shoulders once at Angola State Penitentiary. “How so?” she said. I told her I had been picked from “the lottery,” of all things. It’s how the state corrections system chooses journalist witnesses. I was a chosen alternate for the execution of a man named Willie Celestine, and she was his spiritual adviser. She walked with him as he was led in shackles from his cell in Camp F to the electric chair.


To get to the death chamber, doomed prisoners are escorted by an entourage that also includes deputies and the warden through a break room, of all things. “In fact,” I told Sister Prejean, “there’s a Coke vending machine in that break room and that’s where I was sitting when they walked past. “When I wrote my story,” I said, “my lead was: For convicted murderer Willie Celestine, tonight marked “The Real Thing.”


Sister Prejean and I talked for nearly an hour. She casually talked about the movie, about her book, and about executions in general and, finally, agreed to let me quote her for an article that was published a few days later.. About two weeks later, there was a small box sitting on my desk when I showed up for work. I opened the box and there was a signed copy of the book, “Dead Man Walking.” Inside the cover, was Sister Prejean’s autograph and this message: “To Don Walker, you are a light that shines in the darkness.”