Helen Prejean, C.S.J.
Helen Prejean, C.S.J., is a writer, speaker, and community organizer who has lived and worked in Louisiana all her life. She has lectured extensively on the subject of capital punishment and has appeared on ABC World News Tonight, 60 Minutes, BBC World Service radio, and an NBC special series on the death penalty. Her articles have appeared in many publications, including the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Baltimore Sun. She is a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille, which she joined in 1957.
Dead Man Walking
Sister Helen formerly chaired the Board of Directors of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. She delivered the speech printed below at an inter-religious service to protest the death penalty on January 24, 1995, in Albany, New York.
I come to you from Louisiana, as one who has been into the valley of death and accompanied three people to execution and watched them die in the electric chair. I come to you as one who has accompanied murder victims' families in their sorrow and their grief. I come to you as one who has spoken with and counseled prison officials whose job it is to kill their fellow human being. I come to you as one who has confronted governors and heads of departments of correction, legislators and others who in the halls and assemblies of law enact legalized death. I come to you as your sister. I come to you as one who is alive and shining with hope that in our country violence does not have to be the way.
People ask me, "How is it that you, a Catholic nun, became involved in the death penalty?" The answer is very simple. I say: "Because I got involved in poor people." The death penalty is a poor person's issue. Always remember that: after all the rhetoric that goes on in the legislative assemblies, in the end, when the deck is cast out, it is the poor who are selected to die in this country. In the history of the death penalty it has always been that way. The rhetoric says that the death penalty will be reserved only for the most heinous crimes, but then when you look and begin to see how it is applied, you begin to see that in fact there is a selectivity in process. And an integral part of it has to do with who gets killed. When the victim of a violent crime has some kind of status, there is outrage, and especially when the victim has been murdered, death--the ultimate punishment--is sought. But when the victim is poor, when the victim is a nobody, when the victim is homeless or a person of color--not only is the ultimate punishment not sought to avenge their death, but the case is not even seriously prosecuted.
I became involved with poor people in New Orleans, in the St. Thomas Projects, in 1981. On June 1 of that year I drove a little brown Toyota truck and moved in with a group of other sisters who were living and working there among the black, indigent residents of the city. It didn't take long to see how racism worked. When people were killed in St. Thomas and you looked for an account of their death in the newspaper, you'd find it buried on some back page as a three line item. When other people were killed it was on the front pages of the paper. Drug activity took place in the open, but when the sisters went to the mayor's office to complain, the officials would just shrug their shoulders and say, "Well you know, Sister, every city has a problem with drugs. At least we know where they are." I began to see that some life is highly valued, and some life is not.
One day while I was there in St. Thomas, working at a place called Hope House, a friend of mine asked me if I would be a pen-pal to someone on death row. I said, "Sure." I didn't know the person, but I knew that if they were on death row in Louisiana they were there because they were poor. And I was right about that. My friend scribbled the name down on an envelope--Patrick Sonnier. Little did I know when he wrote this name on the envelope that he was handing me a passport into a strange and bizarre country, and that the path there would eventually lead me into an execution chamber to watch Patrick die.
But as we begin on the way of truth and justice, God gives us a little pen-light, and we see the way ahead clearly for every step we must take. At least that's how it was with me. I began to write to Pat and he wrote back to me--about life in the six by eight-and-a-half foot cell where he was confined twenty-three hours a day. It seems harsh, but once you posit that you can kill people, anything less looks like an amenity. You might be confined in this tiny cell for twenty-three hours a day for five, six, seven, ten years, but no one's alarmed, because they've already posited that you can be killed at the end of it.
Anyway I wrote to Pat on death row, and he wrote to me, and I went to visit him. In 1993 I wrote a book about my experiences on death row called Dead Man Walking, which is making its way across this country--I hope you'll get a chance to get this book if you haven't already. It's in bookstores all across the country. In it I take the reader with me to death row. This is because if there's one thing I know about the death penalty, it's that people who don't have direct knowledge of the issue easily buy into the rhetoric. So in Dead Man Walking I take you with me as I go to death row for the first time and hear the gates clang behind me, go around a corner, and look at a green metal door. Above it, in red block letters, are the words "Death Row." Behind it the forty-two people in Louisiana who are condemned to die wait for their death.
We all have images of death row inmates--wild-eyed people who have killed once and will kill again. But when I saw Pat the first time I was surprised. Here was a human being who had put on a clean shirt, shaved, and combed his hair, and Pat was so glad that someone had come to see him. Prisons have become places of great exile and abandonment.
We visited, and I remember coming away from him thinking, "My God--he is a human being!" I didn't know yet what he had done. Later I found out: on the night of November 4, 1977, he and his brother Eddie had taken a teenage couple from a lovers' lane, raped the young girl and then killed both her and the boy. Naturally, when I read about the crime, my heart moved over to the parents of these young victims. They had loved ones ripped from them by violence, and in a way they were condemned to sit on death row, too. After a crime like this, the lives of such families can never be the same again, and they need the healing and reaching out of the community around them.
In Dead Man Walking I talk a lot about the families of murder victims--about encountering them, about seeing their grief and their pain. What shocked me the most about these families was not that they felt abused by the criminal justice system--it is an adversarial system; it's not there to help grieving people--but how abandoned and alone they felt. When they would try to bring up their grief or pain, people would change the subject. People would leave them simply because they
didn't know how to deal with pain. I began to see how important it is for us to reach out to such people, to accompany them through their bewilderment, confusion, and grief.
The divorce rate of people who have lost children through murder is very high. Wherever the fault lines in a marriage are, they are severely stressed during times of grieving. People separate; they lose their jobs, and they need the help of a healing community around them. If there's a hero in Dead Man Walking it might be found in the story I tell of Lloyd LeBlanc, whose son, Dave, was murdered by Pat Sonnier and his brother. Lloyd is an incredible man--I go to pray with him now and then in a little chapel in St. Martinville, Louisiana. After the murder, when the sheriff brought Lloyd out to identify the body, he knelt by his son and said the "Our Father" he had learned on his mother's knee and from all his teachers in the Christian faith: "Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy Name." He knelt there by his slain and only son, and when he came to the words, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us," he said those words. In our society forgiveness is often seen as weakness. People who forgive those who have hurt them or their family are made to look as if they don't really care about their loved ones. But forgiveness is tremendous strength. One can see that in the actions of a person like Lloyd, who refused to let hatred and revenge consume him and take over his life.
In contrast to the LeBlancs, I tell the story of another victim's family in Dead Man Walking who couldn't wait to see the execution of the man who had killed their daughter. To them the execution was "justice" offered to them as victims by the state. That's part of the whole process: "We will give you justice. You can get to watch the person die who killed your child." This "justice" is offered to them in a moment of tremendous weakness and vulnerability. This particular family, the Harveys, couldn't wait to see their daughter's murderer die. They held their own press conference before his execution. Vernon Harvey, the father, said, "I can't wait to see him fry." After the execution the press all waited for the Harveys outside the gates of Angola, Louisiana's State Penitentiary. They said, "Mr. Harvey, you got your wish tonight--you got to watch Robert Lee Willie die. How do you feel now?" And he answered, "He died too quick. I hope he fries in hell for all eternity." He could have watched Robert Lee Willie die, and die, and die--and never be satisfied or find peace of mind. I looked across at him--I was standing there in the parking lot outside the prison--and saw a very thirsty man who had just had a long drink of salt water.
Revenge is not the answer. We must construct and build paths of peace and non-violence that are the answer.
When I was with Patrick Sonnier before he was executed, we had spoken about whether or not I would be there at the end, and he had said, "Oh Sister, it could really scar you to see something like this, because it's death by electrocution." He was trying to protect me. He had been in the crucible of death row for five and a half years, and he had become a loving man.
What a tragedy that we take human beings--we put them into a crucible like that, in which even they can be transformed--and then we kill them! It is an act of total despair on our part. By killing them we say they are beyond redemption.
I said to Pat, "No, I will be there with you. I cannot bear the thought that you would face death without seeing at least one loving face." I remembered the crucifixion of Jesus, and the women who were there. Not that this criminal was Jesus--not that he was innocent. But the most profound moral question of our violent society is not what to do with the innocent, but what to do about the guilty. We ask, "Don't they deserve to die?" But the real question should be, "Do we deserve to kill them?"
In Dead Man Walking I tell of the guards, of the strap-down team, of the warden and the major and the people who kill other people on behalf of the people of the State of Louisiana.
They take a man from his cell and forcibly bring him to a chair. If he resists they constrain him, and they strap him into an electric chair, screw an electrode into a metal cap they have placed on his head, and literally fry him. They practice for this--there is a whole ritual set up. They have prison officials who meet with them beforehand to affirm them in their job--to reassure them that they are not killing--they are only carrying out the law, and it's their job. They have psychiatrists speak with them, and they're all pumped up--they become very task-oriented: "I'm only doing my job, I'm only doing my job."
One day the major at Angola called me into his office--he had been through five executions--and said to me, "Sister, I'm not going to be able to keep doing this." He said, "Don't get me wrong--I know all these guys on death row. Some have done truly heinous things. I don't condone what they've done. But we get close to them like this." This major's miserable little job after each execution was to take a paper bag, go to the condemned man's cell, and collect his soap, his toothbrush, and personal belongings to send to his family. He said to me, "I come home from these executions and sit in my easy-boy chair, and I can't sleep or eat. I can't keep doing this anymore. In my gut I know I'm killing a fellow human being who has been rendered defenseless." This man, Major Kendall Coody, was the only man I know who, because of his conscience, quit his job at the penitentiary. I heard that six months later he died of a heart attack. A lot of people in the book Dead Man Walking have died--the mothers of both Pat Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie have died; and Major Kendall Coody has died. Death is a very stressful thing for everybody. And my rhetoric is that we need to come closer to what it means when we give the state the power to condemn human beings to death and then kill them.
In many of the debates over the death penalty, words are bandied about with little or no regard for their meaning. People even say that executing criminals does not take away from their dignity--if it is done with dignity. But the fact of the matter is that whether you're waiting to die by lethal injection--waiting for the poison to flow down your veins--or waiting for a bullet, or waiting for a rope, or waiting for gas, or waiting for the electric current--there is no difference: there is no lesser or greater dignity in dying because you're dying one way and not another. The practice of the death penalty is the practice of torture. And by the time the people I have been with finally climb into the chair to be killed, they have died a thousand times already because of their anticipation of the final horror.
Here in the United States of America, good and decent people are being manipulated on this issue--being made to feel that unless we execute people we're not really being tough on crime. Don't believe it! It's got nothing to do with being tough on crime. It's a very selective way of punishing people--very selective. We are not worthy of it.
It was a redemptive thing for me to be with Patrick Sonnier. In the Catholic Church, when we receive sacraments, we say that an indelible mark is left on the soul. Being present at Pat's death left an indelible mark on my soul. And it is this that brings me out to you tonight and all across this country to tell my story and to say, "There is an alternative."
Forty-eight state legislatures have now re-defined sentencing for first-degree murder so that people who are imprisoned for such a crime will not walk out after just a few years. We can be safe from violent people without imitating their crimes--without imitating the very violence that we wish to eliminate from our society.
Here in this place, with the beauty and richness of all the different faiths--the beauty and richness of all the people here--we light a candle tonight, a light in the midst of the darkness, to say that we are people of life and not death, a people of compassion and not vengeance.
Let us carry on the work of lighting candles here and in the hearts of people everywhere to let them know how we feel about the death penalty and to work for its abolition. God bless you.