I became acquainted with this book first through the excellent movie, with Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, whose portrayal of the condemned man (although with a different name than the actual person in the book: the movie character was actually a conflation of the two primary men Prejean writes about in the book) was riveting and Oscar-worthy. I am still rendered breathless watching his performance in the execution chamber, strapped to the gurney, about to be euthanized, trembling so violently that I believe that he really was channeling something in there. Terror that raw and real is just too profound to feign.
Throughout the book, I keep hearkening back to the movie, with which I'm a bit more familiar. It seems that the more linear story line was comprised of a convincing conglomerate of features of the two main subjects in the book. There is a fair amount of the book's dialogue in the movie, however, so, despite the dramatic license, it is what I would consider a faithful rendering, down to the heart-rending statements of the murder victims' families when talking about their deceased children, slaughtered without mercy by the men Prejean's trying to save.
The book is quite a bit less emotional, to me, and much more matter-of-fact than the movie, although, as many other reviewers have noted, it's certainly about a woman on a mission, whose personal journey to world-famous activism was a circuitous one, filled with deep ambivalence and internal conflict. It's always fascinating to learn how passionate people find their purpose, which is often simply by happenstance (some may say fate), as here, when Sr. Helen Prejean was simply asked to write letters to a man on death row at Angola prison in Louisiana. What follows is nothing short of extraordinary: it's a moving testimony to great determination and depth of character, to the point that Prejean is so committed to her cause that she was willing to not only serve as the spiritual advisor to two murderers, but also to remain with them to the end, which entailed even watching them die.
Some describe this journal as as an account of her deep spiritual journey, but I think the material speaks much more directly to a political one, which resounds in her arguments against the death penalty and permeate throughout the text. They're more practical than what I would describe as overtly spiritual: her most vociferous objections are the most logical ones. How can a society justify the killing of one human being for killing another human being? Killing is either wrong for all or none. She also makes a cogent argument that it is simply more cost-effective, which she concedes is a main concern among those who oversee the practice, to keep persons incarcerated, as opposed to spending often millions of dollars to see a death penalty case through to execution, which often doesn't happen at all, even once sentence is pronounced.
She also does an admirable job of pointing out the legal system's many foibles, stating that because of its many inherent imperfections and shortcomings, there is no real fair way to apply something as binding as a death sentence, which, as we all know, is certainly inconsistently applied, falling hardest on 1) the poor, and 2) minorities. Convincing arguments, indeed. The spiritual aspects, at least for the other persons in the book, seem much less pronounced, and perhaps rightly so.
The book is also quite multi-faceted, more than I was expecting, in that Prejean discusses in substantial detail the intricacies of the legal system, which is even more convoluted with death penalty cases. Prejean also notes, as many advocates have to acknowledge, that it has no demonstrable deterrent on actual crime, because it is so inconsistently used. The last few chapters of the book were more human in scale, as she discusses the final days and hours of one of the convicted, the second man she accompanied to the electric chair, whose dubious remorse had to weigh heavily on her.
In sum, this was a masterful work with a complex yet balanced array of elements. It presents the views of a variety of people involved, from the condemned, to the victims' families, to the lawyers, politicians, prison guards and administrators, to fellow nuns and supporters, and even to their opponents, the death penalty proponents, whom she treats with the same dignity and respect as her most ardent supporters. It is thought-provoking, heart-wrenching, and profound, and is bound to challenge readers' conception of a subject most Americans have a strong opinion about. It definitely forces readers to confront their own views, but it also allows them to step into the shoes of persons with a wide variety of perspectives, often different from their own, which is an admirable step in being to engage with the other side in a useful and constructive manner.
What I learn first about the legal system is that it's a system of gates that shut like one-way turnstiles, and you can't go back in once you've come out.... if the trial attorney does not raise an issue or make an objection, the higher courts say that the defendant has waived his/her right to raise the issue later on.
Millard explains that one rule of thumb he uses to determine the quality of defense counsel is how long the jury selection process lasts. If it lasts several weeks or a month, he says, you know you have a strong attorney.
Amnesty International defines torture as an extreme physical and mental assault on a person who has been rendered defenseless.
E.M. Forrester: I'd rather be a coward than brave. People hurt you when you're brave.
Will you dare to condemn the unfairness inherent in the judicial system which metes out one brand of justice for the rich and one for the poor? [i.e., the federal court system stating that legal counsel, even in civil matters, is essentially a human right, and that all should be provided with representation or counsel, as they have no chance to negotiate the justice system without it, thus disposing self-represented litigants to the inherent bias and insurmountable discrimination]
I lay down my life/in order to take it up again./No one takes it from me; /I lay it down of my own free will... (John 10:17-18)