Growing up as a privileged white daughter of the South, “Dead Man Walking” author Sister Helen Prejean never questioned the need for a death penalty to protect society from dangerous criminals.
But that was before her “awakening to justice,” she told a Belmont University audience Monday. She described it as “a conversion experience as a believer in Jesus.”
“Before I came to understand that the gospel of Jesus is linked to social justice, I lived a life of praying for people, yes always, but charity, always being kind to individuals. And I didn’t get it about justice,” she said.
“And I’m at a conference, and this speaker was talking about Jesus and about poor people. And that you can’t announce to people that God loves them, just announce it, if their children are dying before they’re 5 years old and they don’t have healthcare and they’re poor. And the kind of community that Jesus established was that everyone had dignity and those who had more than they needed shared with those who didn’t, so no one was in need.”
“We did that for 300 years in the following of Jesus,” Prejean said. “And then we kind of adapted the gospel–[that] can’t apply in modern times. And the same thing’s happened with the death penalty–tough love, gotta have justice, all that.”
Prejean, a Catholic nun with the Congregation of St. Joseph, dedicated her life to working with the poor in of New Orleans in the early 1980s. There, she said, “African-Americans were my teachers.” Being with people in their suffering, she began reading through those experiences about the lives of the saints and Catholic Worker movement founder Dorothy Day.
She also got an invitation to be pen pal with Patrick Sonnier, the convicted killer of two teenagers sentenced to die in the Louisiana electric chair. At first, Prejean said, she never imagined that Sonnier would actually be executed.
“Looking at Matthew 25, how many times had I read, ‘I was in prison and you came to visit me?'” she asked. “We are all our own little spin doctors when it comes to these scriptures… I know a man. I’m writing letters. He’s alone, so I go to visit him.”
Prejean became Sonnier’s spiritual adviser in the months leading up to his execution on April 5, 1984, for the 1977 rape and murder of Loretta Anne Bourqe, 18, and the murder of 16-year-old David LeBlanc.
Prejean said Sonnier didn’t want her to witness his death, fearing it would scar her emotionally and spiritually. Her response, she said, was exactly as portrayed by actress Susan Sarandon in the 1996 motion picture “Dead Man Walking” directed and written by Tim Robbins.
“You are not going to die alone,” Prejean said she told Sonnier. “You look at me. I’ll be there. You look at my face.”
At the execution, Prejean recalled, “I put my hand out so he could see my face–the last face he saw before they killed him.”
“That changed my whole life,” she said. “I became a witness. I saw what it was.”
Quoting from the epistle of First John “that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you,” Prejean said she determined, “I’ve got to start telling the story.”
In the past 15 years, Prejean has witnessed five executions in Louisiana. Today she educates the public about capital punishment by lecturing, organizing and writing.
She founded a group in New Orleans called Survive, where she counsels both with inmates on death row and the families of murder victims. She is a past chairperson of the board of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. She currently is honorary chairperson of the Moratorium Campaign, a group gathering signatures for a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty.
Since the 1993 publication of her memoir Dead Man Walking and the film it inspired, Prejean has become recognized as one of the most articulate opponents of the death penalty in America. Her second book, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions, argues that an unjust system may be killing innocent people. She tells the story of two of the men she counseled on death row before they were executed. She said she believes both were innocent.
Prejean said most people don’t reflect much on the death penalty, because they don’t expect it to ever affect them or someone they know. But she challenged Belmont students to look for and fight injustice beyond their own experience.
“Those of us who are people of faith are meant to stand in relationship to our culture and critique it,” she said. “Not simply go along with it, but to say, ‘Is this in accordance with the gospel of Jesus?'”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.