Prejean: Support for death penalty dropping

by Amy Kingsley

Sister Helen Prejean didn’t know it at the time, but when she wrote her first letter to death row inmate Patrick Sonnier, she signed a passport to a sliver of society few outsiders ever see.

Her interaction with Sonnier, which developed from pen pal to spiritual advisor, transformed the nun and altered her sense of spiritual service. It also resulted in a book, Dead Man Walking, which became a best-seller and Academy Award-winning film.

Sister Prejean spoke about her experiences with Sonnier and related stories about the making of Dead Man Walking at UNCG on Sept. 7. She reminded the hundreds seated in the Elliot Center Auditorium that North Carolina and the other Southern states have some of the highest execution rates in the country. After recent campaigns for a moratorium on executions in the state failed, Gov. Mike Easley signed a law authorizing an Innocence Inquiry Commission to review cases of inmates who might have been wrongfully convicted.

“The Bible says that you won’t know the day or the hour your time will come,” Sister Prejean said. “But when the state kills you, you do know both the day and the hour.”

Prejean wrote a second book after Dead Man Walking that dealt with the issue of wrongful convictions, but she focused much of her speech on sentencing inequities. About 80 percent of those on death row murdered a white person, she said. In cases of black-on-black violence, the cases sometimes don’t even make it to court.

“When the courts define who should get the death penalty, they always say it’s for ‘the worst of the worst,'” she said. “Nobody knows what this means. To kill any innocent human being is the worst of the worst. But the qualifier is: Did you kill a white person?”

Sister Prejean worshipped and worked as part of the Sisters of St. Joseph for about decade until a conference dedicated to human rights inspired her to work for social justice. She gave up her teaching position at a suburban New Orleans Catholic school and moved into inner-city housing projects. It was a world she had never experienced, despite residing in a city where about 50 percent of the population subsisted below the poverty line. It was while she lived at St. Thomas Housing Projects that a member of the Prison Coalition approached her about writing to Sonnier.

When she visited Sonnier, she was shocked to see inmates at Angola Prison – who made 2.5 cents an hour for their labor – working fields formerly attached to a slave plantation. Sister Prejean was also surprised at the humanity she discovered in Sonnier, a felon who confessed his involvement in the rape and murder of two teenagers in rural Louisiana.

“Through Amnesty [International] I began to learn about human rights,” she said, “about the right not to be tortured or killed. These rights are granted to every human and not given for good behavior or taken away for bad behavior.”

Sister Prejean inspired Sonnier to take responsibility for the murders, achieve spiritual peace and then walked with him to the death chamber. She also became acquainted with Lloyd LeBlanc, the father of 16-year-old murder victim David LeBlanc, and founded a support group for victims’ families called Survive.

After her experience with Sonnier, Sister Prejean counseled another death row inmate and started to work on her book. She finished it two years later, which set off the chain of events that ended in Hollywood.

“A book is like a child,” she said. “You write a book, it has legs and it goes where it wants to go. Well this book wanted to go to Susan Sarandon.”

Sarandon met with Sister Prejean and started working on her partner, director Tim Robbins. Even though Robbins, Sarandon and Sean Penn all agreed to work on the project, the three had a hard time securing studio backing, Sister Prejean said.

In the end the movie, which tackled the complicated issues surrounding Sonnier’s crime and his efforts toward redemption, earned four Academy Award nominations and launched Sister Prejean’s book onto the best-seller list. In recent years, use of the death penalty has come under increasing fire.

Appeals courts have overturned the convictions of more than 120 death row inmates since the penalty was reinstated in 1976. The number of executions carried out has declined each year since a peak of 98 executions in 1999.

“You should have seen the polls in Louisiana when [Patrick Sonnier] was on death row,” she said. “Everyone and their cat thought executions were a great idea. I thought, I will begin to tell this story, because the more you know about the death penalty, the more support drops.”

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