By Kathy Toppins
EDMOND — Sister Helen Prejean, author of “Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States,” spoke Tuesday night at the University of Central Oklahoma about her own walk from innocence to outrage as an anti-death penalty activist.
Her book became the basis for the 1995 movie “Dead Man Walking,” starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn.
The book and movie provide a first-hand account of Sister Prejean’s experience counseling Patrick Sonnier, a man she said was guilty of terrorizing teenagers, but not guilty of murder.
He and his brother, Eddie, each blamed the other for murdering David LeBlanc, 17, and Loretta Bourque, 18, while they were parked near a sugar cane field, Prejean said. The brothers also blamed one another for raping Loretta.
Eddie was sentenced to life; Patrick was sentenced to death.
Patrick had come from a world unfamiliar to the nun. The daughter of a successful lawyer and businessman in Baton Rouge, Prejean said she had lived a privileged life. She wasn’t in touch with poor people.
“I had African-American servants as I was growing up. That was the only way I knew black people,” Prejean said. She attended a segregated, private school.
As a young nun, she did what she thought she was supposed to do about poverty, racism and social injustice — she prayed. She said she didn’t think much about the death penalty.
Through listening to another sister speak in Terre Haute, Ind., Prejean said she came to realize Jesus did more than pray, and so should she.
She responded to that awakening in 1982, when she moved into the St. Thomas Housing Project in New Orleans. She said she lived with struggling African-Americans, where children weren’t learning in the public schools, and she started seeing justice from a different point of view. While living in the housing project, a friend asked then 40-year-old Sister Prejean to be a pen pal with Patrick, a death-row prisoner at Louisiana’s Angola State Prison.
“You know what the problem was? The guy wrote back,” Prejean said. “He had a name.”
They began to write, and it was clear from his letters he had no one to visit him.
“I was so naïve,” said Prejean of that moment when she signed the prison form to be his spiritual adviser. “Little did I know that 2-1/2 years from that moment, I, as spiritual adviser, would stay on at the death house when everybody else at a quarter to six is going to be asked to leave.”
She walked with Patrick to the electric chair and looked into his face as they killed him. “And, I am never going to be the same,” Prejean said.
Crossing the United States for the past 20 years to talk to people about the death penalty, she said she learned “we are not a vengeful people.” Most people want to execute criminals, she said, for the same reason they would amputate a gangrenous limb or kill a rabid dog. Their intent is to protect people.
Prejean said she made a mistake when she first met with the prisoners and their families, but failed to meet with the murder victims’ families.
“They are the amazing heroes in this country that teach us the path of forgiveness,” Prejean said.
After accompanying six more men to their deaths, her experience has led her to believe that death will not heal the family, honor their loved ones or provide closure. “What happens when the family gets home and the chair is still empty?” Prejean asked.
Several audience members shared her concern. Ray Jones, a former district judge and defense attorney in three death penalty cases, said, “I don’t think it’s morally right for my state, my government to commit the crime of premeditated murder.”
If revenge is the goal, he said, death row inmates have told him they would rather die than spend 23 hours a day in an 8 foot by 8 foot concrete cell for the rest of their lives. If cost is the issue, he said, studies show multiple appeals are costlier than incarceration. Shortening the appeal process to cut costs is not the answer, either, Jones warned. “Then, we are going to start executing more innocent people.”
Matt Jones, pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church, said, “As a minister, I have a Biblical perspective on the death penalty. I watched ‘Dead Man Walking’ and thought it was a powerful drama about questions that don’t have easy answers.”
He said the Bible contains conflicting evidence on the acceptability of the death penalty. Based on Jesus’ teachings, though, Jones said he believes the death penalty is murder.
“Although the Bible gives examples of state-mandated executions, I think Jesus sheds a new light on that,” Jones said. Jesus called for forgiveness.
“Jesus doesn’t ask us to accept the behavior, but forgive the person. And also, it’s not worth the risk to execute a person who could be innocent,” Jones said.
Pat Hervey said, “I am strongly against the death penalty. That’s a decision I’ve come to in the last 15 or 20 years. I started considering how the death of the convicted felon affected other people.”
She mentioned the felon’s family, the person who has to perform the execution and the public.
“I think it diminishes our civilization to be executing people. It doesn’t bring back the people they have killed. It doesn’t accomplish anything, in my opinion,” Hervey said. “What’s really important here is that each life matters.”
Others were less certain. “I’m still on the fence about capital punishment,” said Karen Dorrell, a former journalist. “I can see where most of the time it would be better to wait, but there are times I can see no justification for fighting the death penalty.”
Dorrell said she wished more juries were offered the sentencing choice of life without parole.
“The thought of some of these people who have done horrible things being released just appalls me,” Dorrell said, noting she is concerned they will commit the same crime again. “That is the catch,” Dorrell said. “I’m glad I don’t have to make the decision.”