Sister Helen Prejean

On death row

The drive from New Orleans west to Louisiana State Prison drags on toward Baton Rouge through long flat stretches of nothing but cypress swamps and sudden, torrential rains that blind the driver to all but the tail lights of a car a few yards in front.

North of Baton Rouge, Highway 61 slowly turns "scenic." The landscape gently rolls, and forests and lines of ancient live oaks shelter what the tourist signs announce as "Antebellum Homes," vast slave plantations that before the Civil War lined the banks of the Mississippi River. Sister Helen Prejean, of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Medaille, has been making the trip to the state prison popularly known as Angola (because historically the slaves around here came from Angola in Africa) every month for more than twenty years. On five of these trips she has watched a man die.

This is the last Friday in June, and she will visit Eddie Sonnier and Manuel Ortiz. I hope to see Ortiz as well. In 1977, when Eddie was twenty, he and his older brother Pat (twenty-seven), squirrel hunting, came upon a young couple on a lovers’ lane, kidnapped them, raped the girl, and shot both in the back of the head. The court, in spite of a last-minute confession by Eddie, held that Pat had pulled the trigger and sentenced him to death and Eddie to life in prison. Prejean was Pat’s first death-row pen pal, as well as his spiritual adviser until his execution in 1984, which she witnessed.

The second prisoner she will see is on death row. Manuel Ortiz is a Salvadoran and a former New Orleans businessman, convicted of murdering, in 1992, both his wife and her woman friend. His lawyer, Nick Trenticosta, of the Center for Equal Justice calls the case against Ortiz weak. It was based largely on the testimony of an informer who said that Ortiz had once asked if he would kill someone for him. Ortiz was out of the country when the murder took place, and the prosecution suppressed evidence pointing to other suspects. Sister Helen believes she is counseling an innocent condemned man.

Trenticosta, one of the nation’s leading anti-death-penalty activists, also wonders about the mystery of Helen Prejean: How does she keep going? She began as a poor little nun willing to correspond with a prisoner and ended up writing a best-selling book, Dead Man Walking, that was made into a popular movie with Susan Sarandon in the role of Sister Helen Prejean. Prejean is the recipient of twenty-four honorary degrees and is a national celebrity so overwhelmed by her speaking schedule that she can barely keep track of where she is. A "general" in the worldwide movement to abolish the death penalty, she has three times been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Yet she continues her monthly seven-hour round-trip drives to Angola to look these God-forsaken men in the eyes.

Hollywood’s version
The museum at the gate to the Louisiana State Prison displays a replica of one of the prison’s degrading little cells, where the visitor can pose and have his or her picture taken for three dollars. We see the original electric chair, used from the 1940s to 1991-wooden, with big leather straps and sponges to transmit the current. There’s even an exhibit on the film Dead Man Walking, with pictures of the three inmates who inspired the film, and the original film script with Sister Helen’s comments. The script is open to the scene where, in 1982, the old-school prison chaplain warns Prejean that real prisons are not like the movies and real prisoners are not like James Cagney; they are "the scum of the earth." In the film he also tells Prejean she should dress like a "real" nun.

There are several levels of irony in the scene. Prison movies, as a genre, are peopled with innocent victims behind bars and oppressive thugs wearing the uniform of law and order. A heroic lawyer, played by Henry Fonda, will snatch the temporary victim of injustice from the electric chair five minutes before midnight.

The first irony is that, though the prisoners are human beings and not scum, the men on whom the composite film inmate was based, Patrick Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie, were guilty of stomach-turning crimes. Producer Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon were determined to purge the script of the usual prison-film sentimentality, to produce an "anti" death-penalty work of art which would give both opponents and proponents evidence for their case. So, though both Sonnier and Willie were electrocuted, the Sean Penn character dies by lethal injection. In this way the very fact of his death-apparently clean, peaceful, and painless-must horrify the viewer, if he or she is to be horrified; or the death may seem fitting, deserved.

A few weeks after I watched that scene on video, I was wheeled into a hospital operating room for spinal cord surgery. The operating table, narrow, with the outstretched arm, was the same as the execution chamber’s; the room’s walls were plain and bare, and a ceiling light glared down at me; men and women in uniforms huddled around; someone took my arm, sterilized a spot with a gauze, pierced a vein with a needle, and sent a serum into my system-and then everything was gone. When I came to, four hours later, it occurred to me that I had gone through, but not experienced, the oblivion of death. Perhaps this is what the general public imagines death by lethal injection-except for the anxiety of anticipation-to be. If there is another world on the other side of darkness, we will have what we deserve; if not, we will never know.

The final irony is that the naive nun would one day become the heroine of a prison movie and one of the world’s leading spokespersons for the idea that there are no "scum" among our fellow human beings. The public usually imagines movie stars to be more glamorous and interesting than the real-life characters they portray; in fact, the real Helen Prejean may be less glamorous but she is much more exciting, complex, and above all funnier than Sarandon’s portrayal. —R.A.S.

Death row is situated in a wing of the long, low administration building, perched on the highest point of the eighteen-thousand-acre farm. The prison extends into the Mississippi River, which surrounds the farm on three sides. It was known in the 1960s as the "bloodiest prison in the South," but a series of reform-minded wardens, particularly the current one, Burl Cain, have attracted national and international attention. Angola has been the focus of several sympathetic TV documentaries, as well as a critical book, Daniel Bergner’s God of the Rodeo (1998), on the annual popular rodeo where convicts ride wild bulls and break many bones.

Last December six convicted murderers took three guards hostage and beat and stabbed one to death before guards crushed the rebellion and killed an inmate. The incident is seen as both an exception to the usual order and a brutal reminder that some of the fifty-one hundred Angola inmates are desperate men. With more than 60 percent serving life without parole and many others knowing they will die before their terms are up, hope is in short supply. The prisoner whom the guards killed had earlier told Warden Cain, "I’ve got nothing to lose. I came here as a young man. I’m going to die in prison."

Prejean makes her way to the visiting room to try to deliver a little hope to Eddie Sonnier and Manuel Ortiz. She knows that mostly they will talk small talk; but she also prays that the new national and international discussion of the death penalty will offer Ortiz a glimmer of light.

Meanwhile, I am ushered into the warden’s office. At his door is a beautiful Western saddle and near the conference table a handmade spinning wheel, proud products of the prisoners’ craft shop. Cain, fifty-eight, is a short, heavyset man with a tan, lined face. He sits at the end of his office conference table, with two witnesses, his assistant Cathy Jett and a university professor friend, as he tells me why I may not talk to Manuel Ortiz on death row. Cain describes himself as a ship captain in a storm who must navigate between the rocks and the waves. He knows I will write a book or article against capital punishment, so he cannot identify himself with my project.

He has gotten good coverage for running a humane, "Christian" prison. He has eaten last meals with condemned men and held their hands at the end. The documentary film, The Farm, records how his leadership during the 1997 flood that inundated much of the low-lying prison land won the respect of the inmates. But he was "burned" by Daniel Bergner’s book. Cain gave the writer yearlong access to the prison; then the author embarrassed him by detailing prisoners’ homosexual acts and by depicting the rodeo as a "perverse," thirty-two-year-old tradition that seriously injures inmates desperate for a few seconds of fame. So no, I may not see death row, but his assistant will give me a tour of the grounds.

Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal (Phil. 3:13). The big sign stands out among the trees and flowers along the main road leading down through corn and hay and soybean fields to the Mississippi, the new rodeo stadium in progress, the airstrip and the main prison complex and self-contained camps of army-like barracks where the prisoners live and work. To our right a group toils in the bean field while a guard on horseback with a shotgun hovers a safe distance away.

The average inmate is thirty-six years old, the youngest is seventeen, and the oldest ninety; 78 percent are black. All are encouraged to live as fully as any prison can permit: through clubs like Dale Carnegie, Toastmasters, and AA, through religious retreat groups, and through the arts-there is an arts and crafts festival, and splendid murals abound. New Orleans Union Baptist Theological Seminary offers prisoners an education program leading to degrees in ministry. A hospice ward cares for the dying. To give death dignity, the dying man’s friends may make his coffin and place it in a hand-carved wagon hearse that a team of horses will draw to the grave.

I visit the kennels where attack dogs and bloodhounds are kept, the stables with 250 horses, and then I come to Camp J, the "dungeon," two rows of cells where the incorrigibles are housed until they learn to behave-they’re violent, they throw their excrement at one another. I walk the corridor between the dark, 6 ft. x 8 ft., one-man cages, each with nothing but a sleeping slab and a stainless steel combination toilet and sink. In each a black man sits shirtless and silent on the edge of his bunk or on the floor, or squats naked on his toilet. Toilet paper is rationed; when you run out, tough. The incorrigibles are allowed only one book-the Bible.

A few years ago, Prejean, the anti-death-penalty crusader, was viewed as a lonely idealist, a bleeding-heart liberal, oblivious to the fact that crime springs not from poverty but from an evil heart. Today, a series of developments have shifted the death-penalty debate, so much so that publications as different as the Newark Star Ledger and the National Review have published articles on the conservative case against the death penalty.

Over the last several months, the reality and practice of the death penalty have had unprecedented national attention. The relatively new science of DNA testing, combined with the dedication of investigative journalists, has exposed a seriously flawed justice system. In the spring, Illinois Governor George Ryan, a Republican who supports the death penalty, faced with evidence that the state was in danger of executing innocent men, imposed a moratorium on executions until the problem could be remedied. Since 1977, thirteen inmates on Illinois’s death row have been exonerated, and twelve executed. More recently, a Columbia University study showed that nationwide 70 percent of reviewed capital cases had reversible judicial error.

A new book, Actual Innocence (Doubleday) by New York Daily News columnist Jim Dwyer and lawyers Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, founders of the Cardozo Law School Innocence Project, tells the stories of a dozen out of sixty-seven cases in which DNA testing freed innocent men convicted of rape and murder, including one five days short of execution. More than a scientific report, Actual Innocence is a devastating critique of sloppy forensics and hair analysis, mistaken eyewitness identifications, coerced confessions, police and prosecutor misconduct, the use of jailhouse snitches, and of incompetent defense attorneys. Considered in isolation, these flaws can look like correctable human errors. But in the light of unambiguous DNA evidence, the scandal finally begins to shock.

The presidential candidacy of Governor George W. Bush has turned attention to Texas, with the nation’s highest number of executions. Bush himself has presided over 143, with another 3 scheduled between September and election day. Although seven people sentenced to death in Texas since 1976 have been exonerated after seven to ten years in prison, Bush interprets their escaping execution as evidence that his system really works; he maintains that no fatal mistakes have been made. But the New York Times (May 14, 2000) took a look and came up with seven cases so flawed that it is possible Texas has executed an innocent man. And a Chicago Tribune study (June 11, 2000) of the Texas record found the system riddled with weaknesses; for example, the defense attorneys in forty cases presented no evidence or witnesses for their clients.

In July, the Clinton administration postponed the execution of the first federal prisoner to face the death penalty since the Kennedy administration, because the federal government has not yet developed clemency procedures, and because there is evidence that the penalty’s administration may be geographically and racially biased.

When you telephone Prejean’s New Orleans headquarters, an efficient, but friendly, woman’s voice informs you that Sister is all booked up for the year 2000. If you wish to schedule her for 2001, please send a fax. It is the voice of Sister Margaret Maggio, of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Medaille, a teaching congregation with about 200 members throughout the United States, 100 of them in New Orleans.

Together with a third sister, Maggio and Prejean live in a two-story brick apartment complex in mid-city New Orleans, a safer environment than the crime- and drug-ridden Saint Thomas Housing Project, where Sister Helen moved in 1981 to work in a literacy program, determined to go along with the congregation’s decision to "stand on the side of the poor." Later, she lived in a house with Sister Christopher, ("Chris"), her best friend for thirty years. After Chris died of breast cancer, Prejean told the London Times in 1997 that she felt as though she had "undergone an amputation." She said, "The other day I found the scarf she used to wear when all her hair fell out after chemo, and I kissed it and pressed it to my face just to smell her one more time. Our relationship wasn’t sexual, but we were so intimate that it’s like being widowed."

While the sisters’ new address is relatively free of Saint Thomas’s flying bullets and sirens in the night, their street has enough shabby buildings to leave their vow of poverty intact. Sister Margaret answers phone calls, e-mail, snail mail, and faxes, sets up speaking engagements, negotiates with the media, who, at execution time, call twenty-five times a day. Prejean concentrates on colleges and social justice groups, charging no set fees, but taking advantage of opportunities where endowed lecture series bring a bigger stipend to her religious community.

Although daily Eucharist is not always possible, the two nourish their spiritual lives with morning prayer, spiritual reading, a monthly meeting of a spiritual book club, Sunday Mass at the local church, the annual retreat, and an active social life with friends.

After the movie of Dead Man Walking came out, phone calls rose to fifty a day. When Sister Helen found herself driven to the Academy Awards in a limousine, Margaret turned to her and quipped, "You’re not just a little nun from New Orleans any more." But she is. The only effect celebrity has had on Helen Prejean is to give her more work and make her a member of more groups, like Hands Off Cain (an international group based in Rome), the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and Amnesty International.

Helen Prejean was born April 21, 1939 in Baton Rouge. Her father, a lawyer, died in 1974 and her mother, a nurse, in 1993. Her brother Louis works with the handicapped and her sister Mary Ann sometimes travels with her on lecture tours. It was a warm and happy family that welcomed priests and nuns into their home; so it made sense that, when Helen finished Saint Joseph’s Academy, where the nuns were so warm and friendly, she would join the community.

After earning her B.A. in English from Saint Mary’s Dominican College, she went to Saint Paul University in Ottawa for a master’s degree in religious education. But still her education was not complete. Her family had raised her to be charitable, but the renewal of her order in 1967, following Vatican II, opened her eyes to the concept of justice as the basis for moral decisions. In 1952, at the age of twelve, she had seen a bus driver literally kick a young black woman off the bus, leaving the woman sprawled and humiliated on the sidewalk. The image stuck, the seed of the realization that systems inflict pain and hardship in people’s lives, and "that being kind in an unjust system is not enough."

Sister Helen’s second-floor bedroom and office are not neat. Her life is too full of people, mementos, and her own intellectual and artistic interests (she paints watercolors and plays the clarinet and guitar) to allow the luxury of order. Books burst out of the shelves and pile up on the floor. A NordicTrak, on which she memorizes poetry while working out, blocks the door. A rocking chair where she sits for morning prayer looks out into the courtyard. Hundreds of overlapping snapshots are tacked to the wall-an old shot of her father, herself, and her sister; Pat Sonnier, not in grim prison garb but smiling and robust in a bright blue shirt; Eddie Sonnier and others she has visited.

I have seen Prejean in action twice: in 1998 at the PEN Awards for Prison Writings in New York and at Saint Peter’s College in Jersey City, New Jersey, in fall 1999. "I’m just a storyteller," she says. But she’s also a clever writer: her editor at Random House, Jason Epstein, taught her to start with a crime story to grab her audience and not to let them go. Though over sixty, her face is unlined; her eyes sparkle with good humor, and her voice-when she chooses-carries enough of a disarming Cajun accent to testify to her Louisiana rural roots and mute her otherwise overwhelming and sophisticated intelligence.

Her rugged jocular warmth, which comes through at dinner with wine or in small groups, flows into a large room. After all, she has been a public speaker since her student-government days; she has not suddenly been shoved into the limelight.

Her stories are crafted-talks have two to five story sections, depending on time available-to disarm a possibly antagonistic audience, to dispel their misunderstandings about how the death penalty works, to answer standard objections like, "The Bible says, an eye for...," and to assert the common humanity of killers, of victims, of us all.

And she gets laughs, sometimes unintentionally, always at her own expense. At Saint Peter’s she exhorted her audience several times to protest against New York Governor George Pataki’s recent legislation-until her audience reminded her that she was in Jersey City. She then told the audience that she had prepared for her first meeting with the actress Susan Sarandon, who portrayed her in Dead Man Walking and of whom she had never heard, by dutifully studying Sarandon’s Thelma and Louise (1991)-only to discover at their lunch that she had confused Sarandon with co-star Geena Davis! At a university graduation where Prejean was receiving an honorary degree, while marching in procession she remarked to one of the trustees, "I’m going to enjoy this. Who is the main speaker?" The trustee, shaken, replied, "But, I thought you knew." She switched into her two-story mode.

Not everybody loves Sister Helen Prejean. From the beginning she has faced opposition in her beloved home state of Louisiana, by many measurements one of the most corrupt and backward states in the Union, which now has eighty-eight inmates on death row. The Catholic bishops of Louisiana went on record in 1994 against the death penalty; Kirby Ducote, executive director of the Louisiana Catholic Conference, has testified against the death penalty to the legislature; and the state bishops’ conference is preparing a parish-based campaign urging Catholics to ask the governor for a moratorium. But historically, the church’s voice has not been strong.

The former ordinary, Archbishop Philip Hannan, though he once supported Sister Helen in a clemency case, regularly backed New Orleans District Attorney Harry Connick’s arguments against anti-death-penalty testimony from Loyola University Jesuits. When the student newspaper, the Loyola Maroon, covered the conflict in 1987, Connick replied that "the position of the U.S. Catholic bishops does not express the official position of this diocese." When I asked Hannan if his position had changed, he assured me that he had always opposed the death penalty, except for international terrorists. He praised Helen Prejean’s work, but added, on the basis of seeing the film, that he thought that she had not shown enough concern for the families of the victims.

In fact, though she has formed victims’ support groups and visits their families, Prejean has agonized over her failure to do more. In January of this year, in Hollister, California, nearly a hundred protesters, representing the families of three murder victims, confronted her outside of Saint Benedict’s Catholic Church, where 400 parishioners were waiting to hear her speak. The father of one victim described in detail how the killer had stabbed his daughter fifty times and left her to die. "I’m sorry-I’m so sorry," Prejean told him. Her sympathy for the victims did not impress the families. Her campaign against the death penalty only added to their pain-pain, they argued, that only the death of the killer would ease.

Do You Wish to Argue?
By the time Dead Man Walking was published in 1993, Sister Helen Prejean had developed a set of arguments, both pragmatic and moral, against the death penalty which she would roll out in interviews and work into her public appearances.

First, she tries to defuse the public’s exaggerated fear of violent crime, which has been exploited by politicians and the media, by showing that a very small number, two persons out of a hundred thousand, die of felony-type murders each year, "roughly the same percentage as those who die from drowning or accidental poisoning." Furthermore, the death penalty is legally applicable to only a small number of violent crimes-only 1 in 345. Then, she suggests that life sentences without parole can provide the protection citizens are convinced they need.

Second, she explains how, because of court costs and prolonged litigation, death sentences ultimately cost much more than life imprisonment. Third, she lays out the evidence that executions do not deter crime. In Louisiana, for example, in the fall of 1987, right after the state executed eight people in eight and a half weeks, the murder rate in New Orleans rose 16.39 percent. Fourth, she illustrates the unfairness of a judicial system where the black and poor who can’t afford good lawyers are swept off to death row. Meanwhile, as she sees it, the pragmatic arguments, like the cost of executions, also have their ethical dimension: It is immoral to waste social resources, whether the tax money that should go to schools or the lives of persons who should be contributing to the community.

Finally, after reasoning carefully with her listeners, she concludes: If it is wrong for individuals to kill one another, it is wrong for the government too; and we are complicit in this legal killing because we give the government the power to do it. —R.A.S.

Over the last twenty-six years almost one-third of the prisoners in Angola have been put there as a result of cases brought by District Attorney Connick, a Catholic. He was instrumental in making the life sentence an actual life sentence; in practice it had been ten years and six months. He insists that his investigations are scrupulously fair. "We’re not mad dogs after blood," he told me. But his position on the death penalty has not changed, and he is convinced that church doctrine is on his side. He keeps the Catechism, with its exception clause, allowing the death penalty in cases of "extreme gravity," by his bedside. He also reminded me that New York’s Cardinal John O’Connor, in a sermon to law enforcement officers, said that while he personally opposed the death penalty, he allowed the listeners to follow their conscience. Connick was taught at Jesuit High School in New Orleans that the death penalty was not immoral, and he argues that he does not see how it could have become so since then. He particularly resents going to Mass in a Jesuit church where the priest will say, "We must speak out against evil-abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty." He comments: "I don’t like being told that I am in mortal sin."

In 1997, Sister Helen wrote personally to Pope John Paul II urging him to remove the "extreme gravity" loophole from Catholic teaching. The letter was sent to thank the pope for interceding in the case of Joseph O’Dell. Prejean pointed out to the pope that "the lone dissent in the Supreme Court decision to hear the O’Dell case came from Catholic Justice Antonin Scalia, who is relentless in his pursuit of legalizing executions, even of juveniles and the mentally retarded, and who expedites the death process in the courts in every way he can." She also explained to the pope that to justify his call for executions, Connick relies on the "absolute necessity" clause in the encyclical Evangelium vitae. This July in Italy, Prejean met briefly with John Paul II who kissed her on the forehead; later Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger announced that the new edition of the Catechism would emphasize the church’s unqualified opposition to executions. Told of the Catechism’s change, Connick was unfazed. He cannot imagine a conflict between the church’s teaching and his oath to uphold the law as he sees it.

What of Sister Helen Prejean’s future? When we talked about some of the hot-button topics that now divide Catholics-like contraception, celibacy, abortion, and women’s ordination-she said the way to prevent abortion would be to support women, to save them from the social conditions which pressure them to abort. She prefers to save these topics for her next book, a memoir of where her faith has taken her and a reflection on the lives of women she has met on her spiritual journey.

In a moment of self-definition she reminds me, "I am a religious educator," a "prism" through whom others can view a moral issue. She is excited about her new group-study pamphlet, "Reflections on Dead Man Walking," published in the Renew Impact Series (Liguori). In mid-October the San Francisco Opera will premiere an opera version of Dead Man Walking, with music by Jake Heggie and a libretto by playwright Terrence McNally, author of Love! Valor! Compassion! and the controversial Corpus Christi. October is also the month, Prejean’s friends can’t help remembering, in which the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize is announced.

Prizewinner or not, Prejean’s main impact, says Stephen Bright, of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, has been in bridging the gap between convicts and the survivors of their crimes, in asserting the humanity of everyone involved-inmates, victims’ families, guards, executioners, law enforcement officers, even jurors who often do not have enough information when they vote for death. Father Joel LeBauve, priest of the Baton Rouge diocese and Angola chaplain from 1994 to 2000 (not the chaplain in the film), says Prejean’s most significant impact is in influencing church authorities, and, above all, showing the world that "one person can make a difference when individuals do what is right." Her life says: Don’t give up! Don’t feel isolated and alone!

Which is what she is saying to Eddie Sonnier, whom she has been visiting for fifteen years, and Manuel Ortiz, while I have been exploring the prison grounds. Eddie explains in great detail the toys he is making in the craft shop. He likes to give gifts and he is making "Sis" a cedar shelf for the corner of her cluttered home.

The Ortiz visit is more difficult because it stirs up emotions still churning from January 1999, when she watched the crippled, arthritic, indigent black man, Dobie Williams, after twelve stays of execution, walk bravely to his death. She was convinced, for the first time, that the condemned man was innocent, that he had been railroaded for the death of a white woman in a small racist Southern town. Jake Heggie, she told Williams, had been weaving his spirit into the opera.

He may have to weave in Manuel’s as well. As a prisoner Ortiz has shown a streak of independence, filing complaints when he sees procedures are violated, and he’s been moved for a while off the more "religious" section of death row in retaliation; but he keeps hope alive and has told Our Lady of Guadalupe he will make a pilgrimage to her shrine if he is set free. For hours, he and Sister Helen just talk about life. When it is time to go, they pray together. Because of the screen between them they cannot touch; but they reach out and press their hands against the screen. As if to touch-and say farewell.

Published in the 2000-10-06 issue: 

Raymond A. Schroth, SJ, is Jesuit Community Professor of the Humanities at Saint Peter’s College in Jersey City, New Jersey.

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