Nun speaks out against death penalty
Emily McConville | Wednesday, April 1, 2015
Sr. Helen Prejean, whose book about her experience as a spiritual adviser to two death row inmates inspired the Academy-Award-Nominated film “Dead Man Walking,” spoke about her spiritual journey and anti-death-penalty advocacy at Our Lady of the Road Church in South Bend on Tuesday.
The lecture was sponsored by the Michiana Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, St. Peter Claver Catholic Worker and the Center for Social Concerns.
Prejean said her story is one of awakening to a gospel of justice. She recalled a privileged childhood in Louisiana during the Jim Crow era, when she said she never questioned segregation or understood the legacy of slavery, which led to the disproportionate imprisonment of African Americans.
It was only later, after she became a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph and the Second Vatican Council emphasized a preferential option for the poor, that her “awakening” took place.
“We have 10 major housing projects in New Orleans, and I had never been to one of them,” she said. “When I woke up — and that’s the first part of ‘Dead Man Walking,’ was waking up — and I got it. The Gospel of Jesus is about people that don’t have a voice, that people look down on, people despise, people call them losers — these are [marginalized] people.”
Prejean moved into the St. Thomas Housing Projects, where she witnessed poverty and how the poor were affected by police brutality and bad education and healthcare. She said she realized then that living the gospel meant leaving her own privilege behind.
“It was like the world, it was always there in the inner city, but I had no anchor to it,” she said. “… God put me there. We never wake ourselves up.”
While she was working at St. Thomas, Prejean began a correspondence with Elmo Patrick Sonnier, who was on death row for murdering two teenagers. Prejean later visited him in prison and became his spiritual adviser, the only person allowed to spend time with him in the hours leading up to his execution. In the electric chair, her face was the last one Sonnier saw before the hood was pulled over his head.
“Knowing what I’d just seen, having learned, beginning to learn about the death penalty, how it worked, who got it, who didn’t and how race place a part and how poor people get — everything I learned, I thought to myself — I wasn’t picturing your faces, but I was thinking of you, because I [thought] the American people will never be close to this, to see this,” she said.
“Executions are a secret ritual done behind prison walls, and people are never going to be there to see those things through. As long as we don’t see it, we don’t care — there was a crime, justice was done, and so we don’t even think about it because it’s so removed from us. I was a witness, I had to tell the story, and my mission began that night.”
Prejean worked with many other death row inmates and started advocating against the death penalty. In 1993, she wrote “Dead Man Walking,” about her experience with Sonnier and another inmate, Robert Lee Willie. The book found its way to actress Susan Sarandon, who showed it to her then-partner, Tim Robbins. Working with Prejean, Robbins wrote the screenplay for the film of the same name and cast Sarandon as Prejean and Sean Penn as a composite of the two inmates.
Prejean said a person’s position on the death penalty is often portrayed as a choice between convict and victim.
“When we hear about the death of innocent people who were killed in cold blood, there’s a part of us that experiences rage. ‘Whoever did that, who carjacked that mother with those children, deserves it. That’s what the death penalty’s for,”’ she said. “Do we deserve to kill?”
Prejean said part of her own moral journey was learning to reach out to victims’ families as well as death row inmates. She was reluctant to contact the parents of the teenagers Sonnier murdered, Loretta Anne Bourque and David LeBlanc, especially after she learned the details of Sonnier’s crime.
“I felt this guilt ripple through me,” she said. “‘What am I doing? I’m with them. I’m a spiritual adviser to the two people who killed these innocent kids, what am I doing?’”
Prejean encountered LeBlanc’s parents at a hearing of the Louisiana pardon board, where she was testifying on Sonnier’s behalf. LeBlanc’s father asked her why she had not reached out to them before, but to her surprise, he also invited her into their lives.
“This man takes me into his heart,” she said. “He was the first victim’s family, even though I had done him wrong, who takes me into his heart, and I go pray with him.”
The LeBlancs, Prejean learned, were under tremendous pressure to be in favor Sonnier’s execution. Instead of letting anger consume him however, LeBlanc’s father forgave his son’s murderer, even visiting Sonnier’s mother at her house. Prejean said Lloyd LeBlanc was the hero of “Dead Man Walking.”
“He was the first victim’s family that taught me that what forgiveness means — when you give it, is not so much what you do for the one who hurt you to relieve their burden, though it may in fact do that, but it’s to save his own life,” she said.
Prejean said she met many families like the LeBlancs; when New Jersey was in the process of eliminating the death penalty, 62 families testified in favor of the ban.
“When we meet those people who have been thrown in that fire, and we see the call of grace in them, it calls us,” she said.
Prejean ended the talk by telling the story of Pope Francis, who left his own life of privilege to work with the poor in Buenos Aires, and encouraging those in attendance to advocate for the end of the death penalty.
The talk also featured Misty Wallace and Keith Blackburn from Bridges to Life, an organization which connects victims of crimes with prison inmates. In 1992, Blackburn shot Wallace in an attempted carjacking and spent eight years in prison. Wallace later found Blackburn on Facebook and forgave him, and the two now travel together, discussing forgiveness and redemption.