Nun tireless in bid to end death penalty
Sister is finishing 2nd book

Sister Helen Prejean has written “only one little book,” as she puts it. But that little book, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States, caused a big stir in the national debate over capital punishment.

The book spent 31 weeks on the New York Times’ best-seller list and was made into a major Hollywood release in 1995, earning four Academy Award nominations and a Best Actress Oscar for Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen.

Now the 64-year-old nun is finishing up her second book, expected to be published next summer, as she continues her crusade against the death penalty.

The feisty and charismatic nun, who will give two talks in Toledo on Friday as part of the Erase the Hate campaign, said her new book describes her experiences in counseling two death-row inmates, Dobie Williams of Louisiana and Joseph O’Dell of Virginia.

“The working title is Machinery and Death , in which I tell the story of two people that I believe were innocent that I accompanied to executions,” Sister Helen said in a recent interview from her office in New Orleans.

The nun has been crusading tirelessly against the death penalty since 1981, when she began her prison ministry by becoming a pen pal and then spiritual adviser to Patrick Sonnier, on death row at Louisiana’s Angola State Prison for the murder of two teenagers.

Sister Helen never expected to become a leading figure in the fight to end the death penalty, but she believes that her ministry is part of a divine plan.

“I’m a person that is trying to live out of faith,” said Sister Helen, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille. “I really see God’s power behind this because I’m a Catholic nun. I was a spiritual adviser to a man on death row in Louisiana in the early ’80s when everybody and their cat believed in executions, and then I watched this man, Patrick Sonnier, be put to death in the electric chair, and after him I accompanied four others, and I wrote the book.”

Dead Man Walking captured the nation’s heart and mind, she said, because “I tried to be very truthful in it.” She balanced her story by not only giving the condemned man’s side but also capturing the pain and misery of the victims’ families.

Sister Helen, who freely cites numerous statistics about the death penalty and speaks with passion and a lilting southern accent, is set in her views but recognizes that capital punishment is not a black-and-white issue.

“Most people do struggle with this issue. They feel ambivalent about it,” she said. “You know they’re horrified over crime, they’re outraged, they say that a person deserves to die. Then, on the other hand, they know they can barely trust the government to fill a pothole, let alone decide which one of its citizens should die.”

But the death penalty “corrupts everybody it touches,” she said.

Prosecutors eyeing a judicial position can put a death-penalty conviction ahead of other concerns, even if it means withholding evidence or distorting the facts, in order to look tough on crime, Sister Helen claimed.

Others tainted by capital punishment include politicians who use the anguish of a victim’s family in order to win votes; wardens who bear the burden of making sure that executions are carried out; prison workers who strap the inmates down and afterward have trouble eating or sleeping, and victims’ families who await the execution of their loved one’s killer only to find it does not bring satisfaction, according to Sister Helen.

“Even [victims’ families] who believe in the death penalty, they come out of an execution and say, ‘The S.O.B. died too quick, I hope he burns in hell.’ But they realize they could have witnessed it once a week for a thousand years and it never would have brought back the person they have lost. It would never be enough. They could never watch him die enough. It’s the wrong formula. It’s the wrong solution, to think they’ll watch some person die, and then come home and the chair is not as empty any more, where their loved one used to sit.”

Sister Helen said she has witnessed the emotional trauma victims’ family members endure after waiting 10 or 15 years for an execution date to be set, then mustering the inner strength to travel to the prison and take a front-row seat in the witness room, only to have the courts issue a last-minute stay. And that troubling scenario can happen time and time again, she said.

“Look what that family has gone through, waiting 10, 15 years for this moment,” Sister Helen said.

It would be helpful for victims’ families if the government provided counseling, set up support groups, helped with funeral expenses, and aided with jobless assistance because grief and confusion often lead to unemployment, she said.

As for the Bible’s oft-quoted verse on capital punishment found in Exodus 21:24, “eye for eye, tooth for a tooth,” the nun said it needs to be put in context.

“Sure, you can find the death penalty in the Old Testament,” Sister Helen said. “In fact there were 37 crimes in the Old Testament for which you could be given the death penalty. But when the Old Testament was written, they didn’t have any prisons. They didn’t have alternatives. The punishment was death for all kinds of crimes.”

In fact, she said, God was ordering restraint by calling for the punishment to fit the crime.

“Vengeance was so uncontrolled, if somebody in one village did something to somebody in another village, they would go in and wipe out the whole village,” Sister Helen said.

“And what this [verse] does is restrain the violence. Only one life for one life; only an eye for an eye, only a hand for a hand.”

That scripture was superseded by Jesus’ teachings, she said, including his statement in Matthew 5:38: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

In her talks in Toledo on Friday, at 1:30 p.m. at St. Ursula Academy and 7:30 p.m. at Lourdes College, Sister Helen said she will “take people through the journey” that she has traveled in her visits to death row, including the witnessing of six executions.

“You have to show people, you have to tell them stories, you have to put faces on all this and take it out of the realm of the abstract,” Sister Helen said.