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Sister of Mercy

30 November, 1999

Sr Helen Prejean has campaigned tirelessly for the abolition of the death penalty. She talks to Seán Murphy about the wrongful execution of innocents in the US.

The enduring memory of meeting Sr Helen Prejean is that she smiles a lot. Yet her work is not conducive to laughter. Sr Helen’s gripping autobiographical work Dead Man Walking so inspired the film director, Tim Robbins, that he adapted it for the screenplay of his movie of the same name. It starred the acclaimed actress Susan Sarandon in an Oscar-winning role and brought the 65-year-old nun and her work to the attention of millions around the world.

When she was invited in 1982 to write to a prisoner on Death Row who had brutally killed two teenagers, Sr Helen had no idea how much it would change her life. Although she abhorred his crime, she befriended the man, Patrick Sonnier, as he faced the electric chair. “I had moved to work in a parish near New Orleans the previous year. At the time my main concern was not to get shot, as death was rampant – from guns, disease and addiction. Five other nuns and I were practically the only whites in the town and poverty and crime were high. In 1980, my religious community, the Sisters of St Joseph of Medaille, had made a commitment to ‘stand on the side of the poor’ and I had assented – but I have to confess only reluctantly.”

A member of the Prison Coalition invited her to write to Patrick Sonnier, who was on Death Row for the murders of David LeBlanc and Loretta Bourque after Loretta was raped. Sr Helen would later discover that the actual murders were committed by Patrick’s brother Eddie. However, Patrick was guilty of collusion. Nonetheless because of the rigidities of the American legal system she was unable to get the courts to recognize this fact with the result that Eddie was allowed to live but Patrick wasn’t.

“I had been very naive because I always thought our system of justice was pretty good. How wrong I was! I think a lot of people are aware of the irregularities of the judicial system since the OJ Simpson case. We have a saying that ‘them without the capital get the punishment in America because those with the capital are never really punished’. It frightens me to think that many people who were on Death Row have come off because they were shown to be innocent after they were convicted for murder.”

Given the horrific crimes Patrick Sonnier was convicted for, did Sr Helen have any moral qualms about getting involved with him? “I could not accept that the state planned to kill Patrick in cold blood but the thought of the young victims haunted me at first. The details of the depravity stunned me. A boy and girl, their young lives budding, were just blown away. In sorting out my feelings and beliefs, there was one piece of moral ground on which I was absolutely certain: if I was to be murdered I would not want my murderer executed. I would not want my death avenged especially by a government which can’t be trusted to control its own bureaucrats or collect taxes equitably or fill a pothole, much less decide which of its citizens to kill.

“As I corresponded with Pat I began to notice something about him. In each of his letters he expressed gratitude and appreciation for my care and made no demands. He never asked anything from me. He only said he was glad to have somebody to communicate with because he was so lonely. The sheer weight of his loneliness, his abandonment drew me. I abhorred the evil he had done. But I sensed something, some sheer and essential humanness, and that led me to investigate how I could meet him.

“In Matthew 25 Jesus gave us the test for the way to follow him. ‘I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me to drink. I was in prison and you visited me: I had never believed that passage was meant to apply to me – but all of a sudden it did.”

The problem was that she was not just visiting an ordinary prison she was going to Death Row – which was a very emotional experience. “My stomach was in knots. I was there for a two-hour visit and I was very apprehensive until I met Patrick. He was freshly shaven and his black hair was combed into a wave at the front. All of us have been thought to think of people on Death Row as monsters but he didn’t seem like a monster. He was very lonely because no one was visiting him. His mother had visited him once but she was never able to go back.”

Sr Helen’s emotional toll was much deeper when after all the legal options had been exhausted she accompanied Patrick to his death after knowing him for two and a half years. If Helen has no misgivings about her involvement with Patrick Sonnier she does have one regret about one aspect of her early involvement in this ministry.

“The one thing I would have done is to have contacted the victim’s family. I didn’t think they would want to have anything to do with me because I was campaigning to save Patrick, but I met Lloyd LeBlanc who had lost his son because of the Sonniers. He told me that he would have been very grateful for my support because there was so much pressure on him to advocate the death penalty for Patrick. Many people thought that if he loved his son properly he must push for the death penalty for his murderer.

“He went to Patrick’s execution, not for revenge, but hoping for an apology. Before sitting in the electric chair Patrick had said, ‘Mr LeBlanc, I want to ask your forgiveness for what me and Eddie done: and Lloyd LeBlanc had nodded his head, signifying a forgiveness he had already given.

“The way of Jesus is forgiveness. Forgiveness is never going to be easy. Each day it must be prayed for and struggled for and won.”

This article first appeared in The Word (June 2005), a Divine Word Missionary Publication.