The author and narrator of Dead Man Walking, Helen Prejean is a Catholic nun who has dedicated her life to working for social justice. She grew up in a loving and affluent household. Prejean believed that as a nun, she would live a life of quiet religious contemplation. But after experiencing a religious awakening, Prejean begins to work with residents of the St. Thomas housing project in New Orleans and realizes that in order to live up to her faith and ideals, she must shoulder the struggles of the poor as if they were her own. Through her work at the St. Thomas projects, she gains firsthand knowledge of the daily struggled faced by the poor.
Her work leads her to death row, where she begins corresponding with Patrick Sonnier. Her experiences with Patrick open her eyes not only to the cruelty of capital punishment but also to the widespread abuse and injustice of the American judicial system. Witnessing Patrick’s execution alters Prejean forever. She becomes a full-time anti-death penalty advocate and agrees to be a spiritual advisor to another inmate, Robert Willie, even though it means she will be forced to witness another execution. However, Prejean’s work to abolish the death penalty is incomplete until she realizes that in addition to ministering to the men on death row, she must also try to heal the families of their victims. Prejean now reaches out to the victims’ families and tries to support them as well.