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...

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About the Author

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