Nun seeks to educate, change death penalty



CHARLESTON — Aside from Mother Teresa and art critic Sister Wendy, she’s probably the most recognizable woman religious in the country. And she was here in the Palmetto State Nov. 9 and 10 for speaking engagements at the University of South Carolina Law School in Columbia and at the College of Charleston Physicians Auditorium.

That someone was Sister Helen Prejean, the Louisiana native whose book Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and was later made into a film which received four Oscar nominations. The book was number one on the New York Times best-seller list for 31 weeks and has been translated into 12 languages.

The topic of the nun’s S.C. talks was “Dead Man Walking — the journey,” explaining her work with those on death row and the families of murder victims.

At her evening Lowcountry appearance, while looking out on a crowd of close to 300, Sister Prejean joked that she was glad to see there were more people interested in religious and politics than sports in South Carolina, referring to the USC vs. Florida football game taking place at the same time.

“I’m a storyteller, so I’ll take you through experiences that I’ve had, then throw them out for your own reflection,” she began.

The Sister of St. Joseph of Medialle said it was a miracle that the film “Dead Man Walking” was made. She recounted how she received a phone call from Susan Sarandon during the making of “The Client” in Memphis. Sarandon said she was reading her book, would be in New Orleans soon for a couple of days of filming, and wanted to get together and talk.

Sister Prejean said of the resulting meeting with the actress, “That was the best conversation I’ve had in my life.”

At the Academy Awards ceremony a year prior to their meeting, Sarandon had held up the plight of Haitian refugees and was almost permanently banned from the Oscar telecast.

“She also discussed the vocation of acting and her passion for the craft,” said Sister Prejean. “I knew I could trust her.”

The death penalty activist then mentioned a “throw away” line from the movie, a quote from St. Basil in the 5th century, “Annunciations are frequent. Incarnations are rare.”

After getting stars Tim Robbins and Sean Penn on board for the project, Sister Prejean thought major motion picture studios would be knocking down her door to produce the movie. But that wasn’t the case. “They didn’t think society was ready for it. They didn’t think it would be a Hollywood success.”

When Sarandon eventually won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Sister Prejean in 1996, the Oscars were held on the feast of the Annunciation. “It’s all about incarnation,” said the nun from New Orleans in her Cajun drawl.

After entering the convent in 1957, Sister Prejean taught junior high and high school for several years and even served as the director of religious education at a parish in the Crescent City.

“I got involved with the death penalty when I got involved with poor people,” she explained.

In the late ’70s, Sister Prejean said there was a fierce debate taking place in her religious community about what their mission ought to be. “At the time I thought if the poor have God, they have everything.”

She described the turning point in her spiritual life, which took place during a three-day retreat. The speaker there, a nun who taught in college for 40 years, said Jesus preached Good News to the poor, but integral to that was that they would be poor no more.

“That means you tackle everything,” said Sister Prejean, who admitted she didn’t know much then about other races and social classes. “I was a privileged white woman growing up in the South,” she commented.

In 1981, she moved into the St. Thomas Housing Project in a poverty-stricken area of New Orleans to work with the poor.

“In the projects, drugs were everywhere. Drugs were a sub-economy. People who had attended school through the 11th grade couldn’t read at a third grade level,” she said sadly. “Then, I see it all from the perspective of the poor. When we see things from the eyes of the poor, it changes everything.”

In 1982, Sister Prejean began corresponding with a death row inmate at the Louisiana State Penitentiary.

“God leads us by steps, with a penlight, not a searchlight. They didn’t teach us in religious studies about the sneakiness of God,” she laughed.

That first step marked the beginning of her relationship with Patrick Sonnier, which progressed from pen pals to Sister Prejean eventually becoming his spiritual advisor and even a witness at his execution. She has since watched four other men put to death. “I carry the faces of all the human beings I have accompanied,” she intoned.

While in Columbia, the nun visited death row inmate Richard Charles Johnson. Now 39, Johnson was convicted of the murder of a S.C. state trooper when he was 22.

Sister Prejean vividly detailed the conditions on death row in both South Carolina and Louisiana. “These places are all unseen to us,” she said.

The mother of Sonnier, who Sister Prejean described as emotionally fragile, only went to visit her son once. “She just couldn’t take it.”

The nun said the faces of death row inmates shock her in how human they are. “They change; they reflect. The death penalty freeze frames people at one moment in their life with no chance of redemption,” she said.

Some statistics were given concerning capital punishment. In South Carolina, 70 people are on death row, and 83 percent of executions are carried out in 10 southern states. Eight out of 10 people on U.S. death rows are there because they killed a white person.

“Both presidential candidates in the last election supported the death penalty, saying it’s a deterrent,” said Sister Prejean. “But in the 38 states that carry out capital punishment, their murder rates are higher than the states that don’t have the death penalty.”

In the Prison Coalition Office in Angola, Sonnier’s spiritual adviser asked for background information on his case. There, on top of the file, was a color photograph of two beautiful teen-agers on the front page of the New Iberia newspaper under the headline “Teen-agers found dead.”

In a popular “parking spot” in a sugar cane field, the two Sonnier brothers, Patrick and Eddie, would approach a parked car pretending to be security guards. The couple inside would be intimated and embarrassed. The brothers would say that if the girl would have sex with them, they would let the two go and not charge them with trespassing. After the murders, five other couples came forward to say this had happened to them. But one night Eddie Sonnier brought along a gun, and two teens were shot three times in the back of the head.

“Of course I felt outraged,” said Sister Prejean about reading the details of the horrific crime.

She then discussed the “terrible mistake” she made in this journey. “I don’t go to see the victims’ parents. I meet them for the first time at a Pardon Board hearing. It’s the worst possible time.”

One family ignores her completely, but as she’s preparing herself to respond to the anger of the other family, Sister Prejean cringes as she recalls her first encounter with Lloyd LeBlanc, the father of the male victim. He walks directly to her and says, “Sister, where have you been? You can’t believe the pressure we’ve been under. I haven’t had anybody to talk to.”

Of him she says, “He’s the hero of Dead Man Walking. He takes my hand and walks me down the road of the murder victim’s family.”

Sister Prejean says LeBlanc prays in a small chapel from 4 to 5 each morning. “He prays for his son; he prays for his wife — who cried every day for three years following the murder — and he prays for Patrick and Eddie and their momma. We’ve got people who’ve been through death and choose forgiveness and reconciliation.”

Jesus inaugurated a kind of love so radical we can’t have enemies, Sister Prejean said, acknowledging, “The Gospel really challenges us.”

She said the oft-quoted Bible phrase “eye for an eye” is spoken three times in Scripture and only once by Jesus. “And how many times is mercy mentioned?” she asked. “Over 2,000.”

Sister Prejean’s next book, Innocence Betrayed, is scheduled to be published next fall. She said the book will take readers through the trials, appeals process, Supreme Court rulings, and executions of men she believes were innocent of the crimes with which they were charged.

“We’ve all been betrayed by the system. When we’re silent, we’re complicit. We’re part of it. History always gives us hindsight,” the nun said.

The need for churches to roll the death penalty back was also stressed. “We go from oil to light. That’s what God’s grace does to us,” she said.

Before ending her talk, Sister Prejean, who keeps a schedule of 15 to 20 speaking engagements a month from September through May, asked listeners to consider signing a death penalty moratorium petition before they left the event. At present, Illinois is the only state with a moratorium in effect.

Questions were then posed by audience members. One asked Sister Prejean to speak to the number of mentally disturbed people on death row in the United States and the growing number of states passing laws forbidding the execution of the mentally ill.

She replied that there are about 275 mentally retarded people on death row in America. Currently, 16 states have passed bills that ban their execution.