A mission of mercy on death row

Sister Helen Prejean, a New Orleans nun and the author of Dead Man Walking, spoke about her work against the death penalty at Grant Hall Wednesday night.
Sister Helen Prejean, a New Orleans nun and the author of Dead Man Walking, spoke about her work against the death penalty at Grant Hall Wednesday night.

A prison guard at Louisiana’s Angola State Prison told Sister Helen Prejean to turn away for the last few moments.

But on that night in 1984, she didn’t listen.

The guard placed a metal cap on Patrick Sonnier’s shaved head, and put a mask over Sonnier’s face. The cap was connected to the electric generator that would kill the convicted murderer, and his face was covered so witnesses couldn’t see what happens to a human face when a lethal dose of electricity runs though its body.

Sonnier’s spiritual advisor in prison since 1982, Prejean was one of the witnesses to his execution.

“I told him, ‘You’re not going to die without a loving face to see,’ ” she said to an audience of more than 250 people in Grant Hall on Wednesday night.

Prejean came to Queen’s this week as the 2005 Dunning Trust Lecturer. Established by an anonymous donor in 1946, the Dunning Trust Lecture is held annually to promote an “understanding and appreciation of the supreme importance of the dignity, freedom and responsibility of the individual person in human society.”

That Prejean even made it to the University is no small feat. She and her fellow Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille work in New Orleans and had to evacuate during Hurricane Katrina.

Both Prejean’s home and her office were flooded, but she returned soon after the hurricane hit to assist with relief efforts.

Prejean said New Orleans has the highest “misery statistics” of all American cities: it has the most uneducated population, the highest unemployment rate, the highest infant mortality rate and the highest number of incarcerated persons in the United States.

“People been drowning in New Orleans for a long time,” she said in her thick southern drawl.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Journal attended an informal press conference for Prejean, along with two other media outlets and two members of Queen’s Theological College, which sponsored the lecture.

Seated at a small round table at the Sisters of Providence Centre on Princess Street, Prejean spoke about why 38 states in the United States and the federal government continue to have a capital punishment law.

“The American people are not any more vengeful than people from other countries,” she said. “They just haven’t reflected.”

The United States gained power and influence in the world too quickly by dropping the atom bomb at the Second World War’s end, Prejean said. By the time Richard Nixon became president in 1969, she continued, the emphasis on law and order and the military unraveled the nation’s social fibre.

“We will target the worst of the worst and dehumanize them,” she said of the thinking behind the crackdown on crime. “That’s

how we’ll restore order and keep order.”

Prejean said the easiest way for a politician to show that he or she is tough on crime is to bring back the death penalty, something that several states did in 1976—the same year Canada outlawed capital punishment.

“It’s easy to kill a monster when you’re separated from them, when you see them in the media,” Prejean said. “It’s very hard to kill a human being.”

According to Prejean, a notorious criminal like Paul Bernardo doesn’t deserve to die because of the murders he committed.

“He’s a human being,” she said. “He’s worth more than the worst crimes he’s ever done.”

“Where else in the criminal justice system do we allow [a criminal’s behaviour] to dictate how we deal with criminals?”

Prejean has accompanied six people to their deaths as a spiritual advisor since 1984. She is currently visiting a seventh on death row.

Prejean said it’s taken 40 years for her to see the importance of speaking with a human being against all odds in a prison cell.

“There are no movies you can pick out and watch in prison,” she said. “It’s just two people within bare walls conversing and being present with each other. Our greatest gift is the gift of presence.”

Prejean’s prison ministry began with a simple request for a pen pal. She received a letter from Sonnier in 1982, and returned the favour.

“I never dreamed they were gonna kill him when I sent that first letter,” she told the audience at Grant Hall.

When she began to visit him at Angola, she was entranced by what she saw: the physical appearance of a normal human being.

“We freeze-frame a person in the worst act of their life,” she said.

But Prejean soon found out what the worst act of Sonnier’s life was.

On Nov. 4, 1977, Sonnier and his brother Eddy murdered a teenage boy and a teenage girl. Due to a loophole in a court procedure, Eddy—who later confessed he fired the gun that killed the teenagers—received a 25-year sentence, and Sonnier received the death penalty.

“We should feel outrage about the death of innocent lives,” Prejean said. “I think of the poor parents ... this is everybody’s nightmare.”

After Sonnier’s execution, Prejean befriended one of the victims’ father—who told her he hadn’t wanted Sonnier to be executed because his daughter, now dead, thought the death penalty was horrendous.

Prejean said she learned from this man how to approach the conflicting emotions arising from a loved one’s murder.

“No one understands the mystery of evil ... we know of [social factors] that can lead to it, but we don’t fully understand it,” she said.

“But if I let hatred and bitterness get a hold of me, then I’m dead inside. We can’t let hatred overcome our love.”

Prejean said it’s often mothers who have lost their children to murder who oppose the death penalty because, Prejean said, behind the person about to be executed is another mother.

“[Mothers think to themselves] I can’t put another mother through this,” Prejean said.

Her visitations with Sonnier motivated Prejean to write a book. The result was Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States. The book won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993 and remained on the New York Times Bestseller List for 31 weeks.

But Prejean said what really brought her cause into the mainstream began with a phone call from Susan Sarandon in 1994.

Sarandon wanted to base a movie on Prejean’s book.

After some initial reticence from eventual director Tim Robbins, the movie became a reality in January 1995. It received four Academy Award nominations: Robbins for Best Director, Sean Penn for Best Actor, Sarandon for Best Actress and Bruce Springsteen’s song “Dead Man Walking” for Best Song. Sarandon won in her category.

Prejean’s book was also the basis for an opera presented by the San Francisco Opera, which premiered in October 2000. Robbins has just written a stage play adaptation for Dead Man Walking, which university and college students across Canada and the United States can perform to raise awareness about the death penalty and restorative justice.

Prejean published her second book in December 2004. The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions tells the story of Dobie Gillis Williams and Joseph O’Dell, two men who, according to Prejean, were put to death respectively in Louisiana and Virginia when they were innocent.

She said her new book also details “what happens to us when we buy into the belief that it is okay to kill one of us.”

Prejean told the Journal that the dignity of human life connects everyone.

“I’ve met people sentenced to their death, I’ve met the Pope, I’ve met movie stars—we are all human beings.”

The death penalty in the United States

•There are 38 states in the United States that have the death penalty, but in 2004 two of them— New York and Kansas—declared the use of it to be unconstitutional.

•After voiding all 40 death penalty statutes in 1972, the Supreme Court deemed the death penalty constitutional again in 1976. Since then, there have been 983 executions in the United States.

•Since 1973, more than 100 people have been released from prison due to new proof of
their innocence.

•There were 55 women on death row in the U.S. as of April 1, 2005.

•98 per cent of chief district attorneys in death penalty states are white; one percent are black.

•The 10 death penalty states in the Southern U.S. are responsible for more than 80 per cent of American executions.

•Since 1976, 815 people have died by lethal injection, 152 by electrocution, 11 by gas chamber, three by hanging and two by firing squad.

•In 2002, the Supreme Court issued a ruling in Atkins v. Virginia that made it unconstitutional to execute people with mental disabilities. Before the ruling, 12 states allowed such executions.

—Source: deathpenaltyinfo.org

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to journal_editors@ams.queensu.ca.

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.