Sister Helen Prejean, a leading death penalty abolitionist and author of the book “Dead Man Walking,” which was made into a movie starring Susan Sarandon, spoke to a crowd of students and staff at the Mayo Concert Hall in the Music Building on Nov. 2. In her hour-long talk, which focused on the prisoners’ and victims’ families, she argued that the death penalty degrades the dignity of inmates and doesn’t bring families the justice they seek.
Prejean, a Catholic nun from New Orleans, led the audience through her own realization that abolishing the death penalty was a cause worth fighting for. Born to a successful New Orleans attorney and attending an all-girls, white, private Catholic school, Prejean admitted she had never thought about death row inmates.
Prejean said she was exposed to the social justice movement through her work in New Orleans housing projects.
“These kids didn’t have a chance,” Prejean said. “Poor people are hidden in this country.”
Prejean moved on to working at the Adult Learning Center in New Orleans, where a colleague asked her if she would like to be a pen pal with an inmate on death row. That inmate was Patrick Sonnier, the first death row inmate to whom she served as spiritual advisor.
“God’s sneaky,” Prejean said of the request. She said that she never thought that her pen pal would lead her into life-long work fighting against the death penalty.
While writing to Sonnier, Prejean promised to visit him. When she did, she recalled, Sonnier appeared no different than any other person.
During her work with Sonnier, Prejean admitted she made one big mistake. While she counseled Sonnier, she didn’t reach out to the families of the children that Sonnier and his brother, Eric, murdered.
Prejean recalled her book’s editor telling her if she didn’t admit her mistake, readers would think she was only giving the highs, not the lows, of her work.
Prejean met the parents of Sonnier’s victims at the pardon board hearing where Prejean had asked the board to change Sonnier’s death sentence to life in prison. One family walked past Prejean, averting their eyes. The other approached her. That’s when Lloyd LeBlanc, who had lost his son to Sonnier, invited Prejean to pray at a chapel by his house. LeBlanc said that while he had struggled with the issue, he felt bitterness; he had forgiven Sonnier and did not want to see him die.
“He’s the hero of ‘Dead Man Walking,'” Prejean said of LeBlanc.
Prejean said that many who lose their loved ones to murder start with wanting the death penalty.
“Almost everyone starts there,” Prejean said.
As time goes on, she said, attitudes change. Families argue over the death penalty. Seventy percent of marriages end in the wake of a child’s murder. While the justice system claims to be providing closure by executing the one who killed their loved one, Prejean said it doesn’t provide the help that victims’ families really need.
Families, Prejean said, need counseling and support, not executions, to heal. This principle is what made Prejean form groups to give help to victims’ families, even as she works to abolish the death penalty.
Prejean said the death penalty would only be abolished by making clear to politicians that the public supports the move.
“If they don’t have the people behind them,” Prejean said, “they don’t have the moral courage.”