By Warren Duffie
Featured in the Fall 2003 edition of CUA Magazine
It was 1 a.m. on an April morning in 1984 when Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J., solemnly walked out of the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, got into a car with two friends and returned down Highway 66 to Baton Rouge. Before they traveled far, Sister Prejean felt a wave of nausea wash over her. Asking her friend to pull over to the side of the road, she got out and vomited.
Only an hour earlier, she had watched a man die in the prison’s electric chair. He was Patrick Sonnier, convicted of killing two teenagers — a man for whom she served as spiritual adviser. Sister Prejean says that she entered the friendship naively; she had no idea it would suck her into the moral maelstrom that is the debate on capital punishment.
“I was stunned and traumatized,” she says. “I kept asking myself, ‘Did I see that? Did they really kill him?’ It was done in the middle of the night, and I felt as though everyone else was asleep and I was the only one awake. That’s what motivated me to be a witness about this process and speak out against it.”
On Oct. 31, 2003, at a celebratory dinner held on campus for several hundred guests, Sister Prejean was presented with the James Cardinal Gibbons Medal, the highest honor bestowed by Catholic University’s Alumni Association. The medal is given each year to an individual who has served the nation, the Catholic Church or The Catholic University of America in an exemplary way.
“It was fitting for us to present Sister Helen Prejean with the James Cardinal Gibbons Medal,” says CUA’s president, the Very Rev. David M. O’Connell, C.M., who hosted the dinner. “She has been a passionate defender of the sanctity of human life and has argued eloquently against the death penalty through her personal witness and her writings. And though we cannot claim Sister Prejean as one of CUA’s own, she is linked to our CUA family — her father Louis graduated from CUA’s law school in 1925.”
The awardee is the author of Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States, which was nominated for the 1993 Pulitzer Prize and spent 31 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list. In 1996 the book was developed into a film starring Sean Penn and CUA alumna Susan Sarandon, B.A. 1968, and written and directed by Tim Robbins. The movie received four Oscar nominations for Best Actress (which Sarandon won), Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor.
Sister Prejean was introduced to the capital punishment debate in January 1982, when an employee of the Louisiana Coalition on Jails and Prisons asked her if she would be interested in becoming a pen pal to a death-row inmate. She agreed, and so began her friendship with Sonnier.
“I remember that he wrote me right back, saying that he was so grateful that someone wrote to him because it was so lonely on death row,” says Sister Prejean with a soothing Louisiana accent. “He had been trying to face death alone, but it had been too hard. Then, when I realized that he had no one to visit him, I decided to go to see him. He was like a thirsty bird gobbling up every drop of water that I offered.”
After Sonnier’s execution, Sister Prejean befriended two more death-row inmates. During that time, she also reached out to the murder victims’ families, who called her to task for caring more about the criminals than the victims.
“At first, I didn’t know what to do with the victims’ families,” she remembers. “I thought they would be angry with me because I was spiritual adviser to the men who killed their loved ones — that I would only add to their pain. That was a cowardly act and my biggest mistake. If I could do anything differently, I would have reached out to those families sooner and not have let my cowardice get in the way.” (Sister Prejean has since established Survive, a New Orleans support group for victims’ families.)
In 1991 she began to chronicle her experiences in the book, published two years later. But she was worried when she began to discuss the possibility of a film with Sarandon and Robbins. After all, she jokes, there hadn’t been a good movie about nuns since “The Bells of St. Mary’s.”
“I had great reservations about making the book into a film because I figured no one would get it right,” Sister Prejean recalls. “But Susan and Tim were different. We worked so closely to capture the right spirit.”
Although she says the success of the book and film was nice, the most satisfying thing for her was the way that success opened up new doors in the discussion of the death penalty. Capital punishment was an issue that Hollywood didn’t want to address directly, and many studio executives rejected Robbins’ idea for the movie.
“None of them thought it would be a success because they didn’t think the American public would want to reflect that deeply,” Sister Prejean explains. “ ‘Dead Man Walking’ showed that you could construct this issue in a way that could attract mainstream America and be a success at the box office.”
Her book and movie have proven to be catalysts for a broader movement against the death penalty. This past January, for example, Illinois Gov. George Ryan commuted the death sentences of his state’s 156 death-row inmates, saying the death penalty system there was deeply flawed.
Looking back over her 20 years of counseling inmates and grief-stricken families, Sister Prejean says the biggest reward has been “visiting and praying with the victims’ families, and being with human beings who are considered the scum of the earth and having the privilege of them looking at your face at the last moment of their lives.”