English Language Arts

A significant portion of Sr. Helen’s personal papers that were donated to DePaul University Library’s Special Collections and Archives consist of correspondence she has with individuals and organizations.  She often relies on the written word to engage those who support the death penalty and those who oppose it by writing letters, opinion pieces for newspapers, and speeches.

These “raw materials” are the foundation on which Dead Man Walking is built. Understanding how to muster evidence and support one’s claims is critical to not only conveying an experience to others, but also in building a legal argument. Examining these sources individually and collectively reveals that Dead Man Walking is not one narrative, but many interwoven individual narratives.

Supplementing Dead Man Walking

Several of the primary sources provide a visual representation of Sr. Helen’s descriptions in Dead Man Walking. Two of Pat Sonnier’s letters to Sr. Helen (3/20/82 and 8/26/1982) include drawings of the death row cell block and the visiting area, while a series of photos from 1984 chronicles Sr. Helen’s visit to the prison.

  • Examine chapter two of Dead Man Walking. How do Pat Sonnier’s drawings and the photos of Helen add to the descriptive picture of Angola Prison? What information do they contain that the book alone does not? How do these illustrations change your understanding of the letters?
  • As students read the documents and/or book, ask them to circle, underline, or otherwise note words or phrases that seem most vivid or important to Allow them time to close their eyes and form a mental picture of the death row block and the visiting area (you might even ask them to draw, model, or write about this image).
  • How do outsiders communicate with inmates today? How does that impact the nature of the interaction? What are the benefits and limitations of physically writing a letter versus a phone call, in-person visit, or text/email (if permitted)?
  • How are Sonnier’s and Willie’s writing styles similar?  How are they different? How do they engage with Helen via written correspondence?

Questions/Discussion Prompts

  • Compare and contrast the tone and arguments found in the “formal” publications like the Stand Up for Life flyer and newspaper clipping with those found in “informal” sources, like How do they compare to similar sources today?
  • Compare the letters between Helen, Sonnier, and Willie to those written to the Governor. Do these reinforce or refute your understanding of the situation as it is presented in Dead Man Walking?
  • Helen writes to many different audiences, including those who oppose her. How does her tone and style change given these different audiences?
  • Create a diagram showing the arguments made by Helen and/or the inmates to opposing groups and/or the Governor. How are they similar? How are they different?
  • Closely examine and evaluate Dead Man Walking alongside the primary sources found here, paying particular attention to tone, word choice, and the point of view of the Do you find Sr. Helen’s arguments effective and convincing? Why or why not?