April 19, 1999
Volume 51, No. 28
Nun and death penalty opponent Prejean speaks here April 25
The more frequently people attend church, the more they tend to believe in the death penalty, some polls have found. Based on this and her personal relationships with death-row inmates and the families of their victims, Roman Catholic nun and death penalty opponent Helen Prejean knows she won't necessarily be preaching to the choir when she speaks at the April 25 University Worship service at 11:15 a.m. in Cannon Chapel. For most people, Prejean has said, the issue boils down to this: "What's your image of God?" Is he compassionate or hungry for revenge?
Author of the 1993 book Dead Man Walking, later made into the film of the same name with Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, Prejean first became involved with the issue of capital punishment when she was asked to correspond with Patrick Sonnier, a 27-year-old Louisiana man convicted, with his brother, of raping and killing 18-year-old Loretta Bourque and murdering her boyfriend, 17-year-old David LeBlanc.
Prejean's correspondence with Sonnier soon evolved into visits, and she was present at his execution. "I knew I was one of the few people in this country who had really seen [an execution] close up," Prejean told The Progressive magazine. "It's a secret ritual done at midnight. People don't see it. All they have is political rhetoric. It was a tremendous mantle of responsibility placed on my shoulders--to speak out."
Initially fearing their reaction to her, Prejean nevertheless sought out the parents of Sonnier's victims shortly before his execution. To her surprise, they welcomed her overtures. They confided how they'd felt slighted and abandoned by the criminal justice system, and that they too wanted an opportunity to be heard.
One victim's father acknowledged that a chorus of pro-death-penalty voices made him feel pressured to seek vengeance for his son's murderer. Another man and his wife attend every execution at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, as does Prejean, although for very different reasons. "When someone takes a human life, they should give theirs," the man stated simply. But he and his wife have also befriended Prejean. "Sister Prejean does not argue with him," Sue Halpern wrote in The New York Times Magazine. "It is her particular gift to know that her moral authority does not extend to this man and his grief."
But other victims' families don't see Prejean, a member of the Order of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille, as benignly. "I get letters saying, 'You stupid naïve nun, you don't know what we've been through,'" she told the Times. "And they're right. I don't."
For Prejean, the ability to at least try and understand both sides of the death penalty issue is what's sorely lacking in current public debate. Many people abstractly believe in capital punishment, she said, but the more detailed their knowledge of the issue, the more ambivalent they become. "The fact that mistakes are made will not surprise anyone with even cursory knowledge of the criminal justice system," she has said. "It has been a sobering discovery for me to see just how fragile and flawed the system of justice is."
Still, Prejean doesn't shrink from the fact that these men have been accused and convicted of horrendous crimes or suppose their innocence. But, she has argued in defense of her compassionate stance, "people are more than the worst thing they have ever done in their life."