By SUSAN VAUGHN, Special to The Times
Witnessing the electrocution of a death row inmate provoked Sister Helen Prejean to become a tireless activist against capital punishment.
Her message, that "every human is worth more than the worst thing they've ever done," has reached millions and earned her three Nobel Peace Prize nominations. Her book, "Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States" (Random House, 1993), was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
Prejean (pronounced pray-ZHUN), 61, doesn't resort to moral and religious arguments. She doesn't recite statistics or engage in polemics. Rather, she uses her ability as a Southern storyteller to get audiences to think. As she puts it, she's "tilling the soil" for productive discussion.
"I don't use notes--I'm spontaneous," Prejean said. "What I do is take everyone through the experiences with me, the meetings on death row, finding out about the crimes. That's how I wrote 'Dead Man Walking.' "
Since 1982, she has been a spiritual advisor to death row
Prejean's emergence as America's leading anti-death penalty activist couldn't have been predicted 18 years ago, when a Louisiana Coalition on Jails and Prisons representative asked her to write to Patrick Sonnier, a death row inmate at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. She agreed and sent Sonnier a short, introductory letter and photographs: one of herself on a pony; another of Christ on the cross.
They corresponded until Prejean decided to make the seven-hour round trip to Angola to visit him.
She didn't know what to expect, but she knew about his crime: In
As her relationship with Sonnier developed, she confronted him about his crimes, challenged him to take responsibility for his past actions and stirred him to reflect on his humanity "as a son of God." Moments before his electrocution, his last words to her were "I love you."
"To me, on one level, it was the most surreal experience of my life," she said.
"Just hours before, I was talking to him and he was fully alive and drinking coffee and talking to me. I believed up to the last moment, 'Surely this wasn't going to happen, that he's not going to die.' I just couldn't get my mind around it."
During the silent drive home from the execution, "I vomited," she said. "They had to stop the car so I could throw up. I said, 'I just
watched them kill the man.'
She started keeping a journal "to sort out the stuff that was
She also began speaking to audiences.
"I'd speak to any little group who would hear me," she said. "The smallest was in a nursing home, where someone yelled, 'Who wants
Her audiences grew, but so did vocal opposition to her stance. Prejean was called a communist, bleeding heart liberal and "Sister Jane Fonda." Some individuals insinuated that she'd fallen in love with
"I still think of myself as a teacher, only the classroom has widened," she said.
Today, she challenges her audiences to do research--including watching an execution--before taking a stance on capital punishment.
She also reaches out to those whose lives have been shattered by the men on death row: the families of murder victims. She is the founder of Survive, an advocacy group for homicide victims' survivors. She expected many to despise her because of her work with death row inmates.
"Vengeance doesn't help people move on," she said. "Watching a person die is not going to be the thing that heals their loss."
In 1995, "Dead Man Walking" was made into a movie starring Susan Sarandon as Prejean and Sean Penn as a composite character based upon Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie, another death row inmate who raped two women, left two people dead and a third paralyzed during a crime spree. Last year, Prejean's book was adapted as an opera which premiered in San Francisco.
Prejean is pleased that her message has taken new forms. They are story vehicles, she said, that can spark contemplation by the larger audiences who view them.
At 18, after graduating as president of her Baton Rouge senior class, she entered the novitiate of St. Joseph Sisters in New Orleans. She wore a long black habit, traveled in pairs with other nuns and led a contemplative, cloistered life.
"Sometimes religion can be lived in a way that's ethereal," she said. "You don't get involved in changing society at all. You have a relationship with God and go to heaven."
A nun who was a sociologist described a radically different spiritual path available to religious personnel: They could dedicate their lives to serving the poor, working for justice. Prejean was inspired. When she returned to New Orleans, she asked permission from her order to move to a high-crime, drug-infested housing project called St. Thomas, to educate its poor at Hope House, a community center.
She began this work in 1981. The following year, she started corresponding with Sonnier and adopted a new role as spiritual advisor to those sentenced to die for their crimes.
Currently, Prejean is penning a book about "three innocent people on death row." Her research has led her to believe that some inmates awaiting execution in the United States did not commit the crimes for which they're imprisoned.
She talks animatedly about how such judicial travesty can occur: mistaken eyewitness identification; sloppy forensics and police work; perjured testimony; suppressed exculpatory evidence; coerced confessions; and incompetent defense attorneys.
"My joy's going to come when the gas chambers and gurneys are in museums," she said. "I will only spend my life doing essential things. . . . When spiritually, intellectually and emotionally you're feeling alive, you know you're using your gift. That's how it's been for
Today at 10 a.m., Prejean will lecture at the Religious Education Congress in Anaheim, sponsored by the Los Angeles Catholic Archdiocese Office of Religious Education.
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times