Renowned Author And Advocate Sister Helen
Prejean Speaks Of Her Incredible Journey,
Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic Nun, is a world-famous author and anti-death penalty advocate. According to Wikipedia, she has won the following awards in the last 12 years:
World Methodist Peace Award in 2008, Peace Prize of the City of Ypres in 2005, Pacem in Terris (Peace On Earth) Award in 1998 which is named after a 1963 encyclical letter by Pope John XXIII which called upon all people of good will to secure peace among all nations, and Pax Christi USA Pope Paul VI Teacher
Of Peace Award in 1996.
The first book that she was wrote was Dead Man Walking. The book traces her beginnings as a Nun in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to her experience as a spiritual advisor to death row prisoner Patrick Sonnier who was put to death by electrocution. The knowledge she unexpectedly acquired as a result of that experience, on topics such as a death penalty that is almost exclusively reserved for those who murder white people, a criminal justice system that is stacked against indigent defendants, and is largely unconcerned with basic fairness while being infected with racism.
Death row/execution procedures are shocking as is the multi-faceted human cost of the death penalty to all who are connected to it, from victim and offender family members and friends, to prison guards and officials.
The book was a New York Times best seller and she was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. It later became a movie starring Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon, the latter receiving an Academy Award. Her second book was The Death Of Innocents, which examined the cases of two death row prisoners that she had been an advisor to: Joseph Roger O’Dell, and Dobie Gillis Williams, who she firmly believes were executed despite being innocent. An excerpt of Random House’s summarization of the book, describes it in the following way: Sister Helen Prejean was a little-known Roman Catholic nun from Louisiana when in 1993, her first book, Dead Man Walking, challenged the way we look at the death penalty in America.
It became a #1 New York Times bestseller and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Now in The Death of Innocents, she takes us to the new moral edge of the debate on capital punishment: What if we’re killing the wrong man?
Sister Prejean travels across the country giving anti-death penalty lectures, which incorporates what she has learned through her
personal journey, while presenting various arguments which make people on all sides of the issue apply careful thought. On Nov. 12, 2008, Sister Helen Prejean traveled to La Salle Institute in Troy, New York to share her personal journey, the knowledge that she has gained with regard to the death penalty and the criminal justice system, and a little bit about each book. About 100 people turned out.
Prior to the event, Sister Prejean sat down and visited with 12 people who had been pre-selected to meet with her, many due to particularities in their life’s circumstances.
The people at that meeting included the Executive Director of New Yorkers Against The Death Penalty David Kaczynski whose brother
the federal government tried to execute despite his obvious mental problems; Director of Administration and Research for New Yorkers Against The Death Penalty, Carrie Schneider; Marie Verzulli, whose sister was murdered by a serial killer and who works as a liaison to victim family members, her mother, the mother of a murdered state trooper; several other murder victim family members who, despite their tragedies, were nonetheless anti-death penalty.
There were also a couple of people who were not avowed anti-death penalty advocates, but were still wrestling with the issue in their own minds; and a few unsung anti-death penalty advocates who have made the issue important in their lives; Darren Wilkins who handles the managerial and public relations work of my advocacy.
Sitting in a close circle that radiated warm empathy and understanding, everybody had a couple of minutes to share their stories. Kaczynski commented that many people in the room were seeds of Sister Prejean, in that their hearts and minds had been touched by her writings and/or her advocacy work in one way or another. Sister Prejean spoke about the problem of wrongful convictions, mentioning me, and a woman named Cathy Henderson in whose case she had successfully intervened.
She mentioned that following a public appearance, a lawyer in a big law firm came up to her and told her that if there was anything that he could ever do for her, to let him know. She became aware of Cathy Henderson, who
had been sentenced to death in Texas.
Henderson had been spinning a baby to comfort and quite him, when she had slipped on a sharp object and the baby fell on a concrete floor. The coroner said that it was impossible that the injuries could have occurred accidentally, and Henderson received a very poor defense at trial, which included no expert witnesses for the defense to review the evidence to offer an opinion on how the injuries could have accidentally occurred.
Added all up, it equaled a conviction. Sister Prejean then contacted that lawyer that she had previously met, and with his and his firm’s help, several experts stated that wounds could have occurred accidentally.
As a result of that, her conviction was overturned by the Texas Court Of Appeals in a 5-4 decision. She remains incarcerated, while the prosecutor decides whether to retry her or not.
The presentation, which I will recount chronologically, began at 7pm. Kaczynski began by recognizing the triumph over tragedy that murder victim family members, who were in attendance, had made. They were asked to stand up, and they were greeted by applause.
I was also recognized. Kaczynski then introduced Sister Prejean and spoke briefly about her accomplishments and the impact that her work has had across the world. Sister Prejean began by in-sisting that I stand up and face the audience, and once I did I, too, was greeted by applause. Then she began speaking, telling the group that she started out as a Nun in New Orleans, working with poor, mostly African American people.
As she saw it, Jesus spent a lot of time with people that most others disliked, so by analogy she saw that as a form of carrying out his teaching. She observed racism within the church: Blacks would sit on one side, Whites on the other. When it was time to take communion, the Whites would go first.
She first got involved with the death penalty when she agreed to correspond with Patrick Sonnier, who was on death row for a murder that he did commit. He had no visitors, so she began visiting him. He asked her to become his spiritual advisor, that is, the person who would, in effect, get him prepared to die and meet God. Thus began her journey through which she learned many things along the way that she had no idea about.
For example, she attended a Louisiana Pardon Board hearing for Sonnier, the subject of which was whether that body would go ahead and allow the execution to go forward on the scheduled date, or whether they would spare him.
She stated that the death penalty was polarizing in many ways. She said that the hearing was open to the public, and that the authorities actually had separate seating areas for people as they came in, according to whether they were in favor of the execution or not. She stated that Mrs. Sonnier, the accused’s mother, stayed in her house often, reluctant to go outside even to shop, because when she did people would point and talk about her, that she was the monster’s mother, for how do you have hatred of a person and not of their murder? She said that dead animals were thrown onto Mrs. Sonnier’s porch.
Sister Prejean stated that a mistake she made was that while being the advisor to Sonnier, she did not reach out to the family members of the victim. Lloyd LeBlanc, the father of murder victim David LeBlanc, said to her one day, “What about us, sister?
We need you too. You wouldn’t believe the pressure that we are under.” She became friends with him, even traveling early in the morning before 7am to pray with him at a church for his son.
Ever since that time, she always reaches out to victim family members whenever she agrees to be a spiritual advisor to a death row prisoner. As an additional example of the polarization process, since she began that practice, however, only 2 people had ever allowed her to be friends with them. She said that in many ways people affected were on a see-saw, either on one side or the other.
Sonnier would be denied at that hearing, and he would be executed by electrocution. She said that the location where the execution would take place there were three sections: one for the press who would view the proceedings, one where victim family members would go, which featured one way glass, and another were people, on behalf of the accused, including the spiritual advisor, might sit.
Even the place of death would have “sides”. She said that Sonnier had offered not to have her present at his execution, but that she insisted on being there, to provide the ‘face of love’, for him to focus his eyes on.
Lessons Learned Along The Way
Sister Prejean wrote a paper, based upon her experience with Sonnier, entitled Would Jesus Pull The Switch? In that article, she discussed many issues that she referenced in that writing: I don’t see capital punishment as a peripheral issue about some criminals at the edge of society that people want to execute.
I see the death penalty connected to the three deepest wounds of our society: racism, poverty, and violence. In this country, first the hangman’s noose, then the electric chair, and now the lethal-injection gurney have been almost exclusively reserved for those who kill white people.
The rhetoric says that the death penalty will be reserved only for the most heinous crimes, but when you look at how it is applied, you see that in fact there is a great selectivity in the process.
When the victim of a violent crime has some kind of status, there is a public outrage, and especially when the victim has been murdered, death—the ultimate punishment—is sought. But when people of color are killed in the inner city, when homeless people are killed, when the “nobodies” are killed, district attorneys do not seek to avenge their deaths.
Black, Hispanic, or poor families who have a loved one murdered not only don’t expect the district attorney’s office to pursue the death penalty—which, of course, is both costly and time-consuming—but are surprised when the case is prosecuted at all. Ask Virginia Smith’s African American family. She was 14 when three white youths took her into the woods, raped her, and stabbed her to death. None of them got the death penalty.
Their fathers knew the district attorney, and they had all-white juries. In regard to this first and deepest of America’s wounds, racism, we’d have to change the whole soil of this country for the criminal-justice system not to be administered in a racially biased manner.
The second wound is poverty. Who pays the ultimate penalty for crimes? The poor. Who gets the death penalty? The poor. After all the rhetoric that goes on in legislative assemblies, in the end, when the net is cast out, it is the poor who are selected to die in this country. And why do poor people get the death penalty? It has everything to do with the kind of defense they get. Money gets you good defense.
That’s why you’ll never see an O.J. Simpson on death row. As the saying goes: “Capital punishment means them without the capital get the punishment.”
I had to learn all this myself. My father was a lawyer. I used to think, “Well, they may not get perfect defense, but at least they get adequate defense.” I tell you it is so shocking to find out what kind of defense people on death row actually have had. The man I have been going to see on death row now for over six years is a young black man who was convicted for the killing of a white woman in a
small community in Many, Louisiana.
He had an all-white jury, and he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death in just one week. Dobie Williams has now been on death row for 10 years, and I believe he’s innocent. But it is almost impossible for us to get a new trial for him. Why? Because if his attorney did not raise any objections at his trial,
we cannot bring them up in appeals.
Finally, the third wound is our penchant for trying to solve our problems with violence. When you witness an execution and watch the toll this process also takes on some of those who are charged with the actual execution—the 12 guards on the strap-down team and the warden—you recognize that part of the moral dilemma of the death penalty is also: who deserves to kill this man?
In that writing, she also references the conditions on death row that Sonnier wrote her about: Confined 23 hours a day. He said how glad he was when summer was over because there was no air in the cells. He’d sometimes wet the sheet from his bunk and put it on the cement floor to try to cool off; or he’d clean out his toilet bowl and stand in it and use a small plastic container to get water from his lavatory and pour it over his body.