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Sister Helen Prejean Leads Crusade for Those Who Are Condemned to Die

February 18, 2001|SUSAN VAUGHN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Witnessing the electrocution of a death row inmate provoked Sister Helen Prejean to become a tireless activist against capital punishment.

Her message, that "every human is worth more than the worst thing they've ever done," has reached millions and earned her three Nobel Peace Prize nominations. Her book, "Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States" (Random House, 1993), was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

Prejean (pronounced pray-ZHUN), 61, doesn't resort to moral and religious arguments. She doesn't recite statistics or engage in polemics. Rather, she uses her ability as a Southern storyteller to get audiences to think. As she puts it, she's "tilling the soil" for productive discussion.

"I don't use notes--I'm spontaneous," Prejean said. "What I do is take everyone through the experiences with me, the meetings on death row, finding out about the crimes. That's how I wrote 'Dead Man Walking.' "

Since 1982, she has been a spiritual advisor to death row inmates. She has attended the executions of five men whom she befriended and counseled. She has forced herself to witness 2,000 volts of electricity shoot through their bodies or potassium chloride stop their hearts. She does this "so [each one] can see a loving face when he dies."

Prejean's emergence as America's leading anti-death penalty activist couldn't have been predicted 18 years ago, when a Louisiana Coalition on Jails and Prisons representative asked her to write to Patrick Sonnier, a death row inmate at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. She agreed and sent Sonnier a short, introductory letter and photographs: one of herself on a pony; another of Christ on the cross.

They corresponded until Prejean decided to make the seven-hour round trip to Angola to visit him.

She didn't know what to expect, but she knew about his crime: In 1977, he and his brother had kidnapped a young couple, raped the girl and then shot both teenagers in the backs of their heads. Prejean thought the acts heinous. But she didn't believe Sonnier should be put to death. In the words of Gandhi, whom she often quotes, "An eye for an eye, and everyone is blind."

As her relationship with Sonnier developed, she confronted him about his crimes, challenged him to take responsibility for his past actions and stirred him to reflect on his humanity "as a son of God."

Moments before his electrocution, his last words to her were "I love you."

"To me, on one level, it was the most surreal experience of my life," she said.

"Just hours before, I was talking to him and he was fully alive and drinking coffee and talking to me. I believed up to the last moment, 'Surely this wasn't going to happen, that he's not going to die.' I just couldn't get my mind around it."

During the silent drive home from the execution, "I vomited," she said. "They had to stop the car so I could throw up. I said, 'I just watched them kill the man.'

"All I knew was that I had to do something," Prejean said. "I was a witness and I had to tell people. You either get paralyzed by that or do something, but I didn't know what I was going to do. And then I began to tell the story."

She started keeping a journal "to sort out the stuff that was happening." She also described her experiences in a community newsletter, then in magazine articles and newspaper essays. Eventually, over a 2 1/2-year period, she poured out her thoughts and recollections in "Dead Man Walking." The title is a phrase shouted by San Quentin prison guards when a death row inmate was released from his cell.

She also began speaking to audiences.

"I'd speak to any little group who would hear me," she said. "The smallest was in a nursing home, where someone yelled, 'Who wants to hear the nun on the death penalty?' Three people raised their hands. Then two of them dozed off on me."

Her audiences grew, but so did vocal opposition to her stance. Prejean was called a communist, bleeding heart liberal and "Sister Jane Fonda." Some individuals insinuated that she'd fallen in love with Sonnier.

Prejean, a former schoolteacher, responded to the attacks by relating first-person accounts of her interactions with death row inmates to help her adversaries better understand her position.

"I still think of myself as a teacher, only the classroom has widened," she said.

Today, she challenges her audiences to do research--including watching an execution--before taking a stance on capital punishment.

"They have done unspeakable things," she said of the prisoners. "But they are still human beings."

She also reaches out to those whose lives have been shattered by the men on death row: the families of murder victims. She is the founder of Survive, an advocacy group for homicide victims' survivors. She expected many to despise her because of her work with death row inmates.

"Vengeance doesn't help people move on," she said. "Watching a person die is not going to be the thing that heals their loss."

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