At 75, "Dead Man Walking" author still fighting to end the death penalty
WASHINGTON — At a speech at American University, Sister Helen Prejean held up and pointed to a two-inch metallic pea green cross attached to her necklace several times. The well-known Catholic nun used the cross to remind her audience that Christians should oppose capital punishment.
The cross has a personal meaning too. It was a present to her from Eddie Sonnier, the convicted rapist and murder accomplice whose life story is told in the book and film “Dead Man Walking.”
“Eddie had to donate plasma from his arm to pay for the cross, which another inmate made. It’s the only time I’ve had blood on my hands,” Prejean said in an interview after her talk.
Prejean served as a spiritual adviser to Eddie Sonnier during his years in prison. She restated her claim that Eddie and not his brother Elmo or “Pat” Sonnier pulled the trigger of a .22 rifle that killed two teenage lovers in St. Martin’s Parish, Louisiana, in 1977. For her, Sonnier’s sacrifice of his blood for a cross illustrates the power of Christian forgiveness: Even murderers can create beauty after they have sought to make amends for their evil acts.
“Jesus was not pleased with a sacrificial death. He was saying, ‘See what this means?’” Prejean said, holding up the cross in her hand and thrusting it toward the audience of 70 Tuesday afternoon.
Prejean’s book was a best seller after it was released in 1993. It was adapted for a film in 1995, and Susan Sarandon’s portrayal of the nun earned Sarandon an Academy Award for best actress. Prejean turned into a death-penalty activist. Through her religious order, the Congregation of St. Joseph, she helped found Ministry Against the Death Penalty. (Elmo Sonnier died in an electric chair at the famous Angola prison in Louisiana 1984; Eddie died in the same prison last December after an illness).
Now 75, Prejean looks and acts only slightly older than she did at the height of her fame. Her thick mop of hair is brown rather than white or gray, and her speech mixed wisecracks, reminiscences, and theological references in a southern Louisiana drawl.
Prejean said she is at work on a spiritual memoir, River of Fire. “I’m just a story teller,” she said. Although Prejean mentioned several characters in her famous book, she devoted most of her speech to the death penalty.
To her, the use of capital punishment is nothing less than a spiritual cancer. She cited the words of Lloyd LeBlanc, who recognized that forgiving his son’s killers could rid him of the bitterness he felt: “They killed my boy, and I’m not going to let them kill me.”
Prejean added that forgiveness must be earned rather than handed out and helps make humans unique. “You have to pray for it and struggle with it and win it,” she said. “There is a transcendence in us that gives us our dignity and humanity.”
Prejean urged the audience to work with her to abolish the death penalty. Although the Catechism of the Catholic Church says the legitimate moral use of capital punishment is “very rare,” she called for going one step further.
“We have to end this thing. People don’t even think about the death penalty. They’re thinking about paying the bills and sending their kids to college. I trust in the goodness of people. It’s not that people are vengeful. It’s just that people have not reflected on it,” she said.
Four generations of polling results conflicts with Prejean’s claim. Gallup has asked Americans their opinion about capital punishment since 1936, and except for one poll in 1966, every poll has found that a majority supports the use of the death penalty. But support has dropped from 80 percent to 60 percent since the release of “Dead Man Walking.”
Prejean said she met with Pope John Paul II about the need to abolish the death penalty, but puts more stock in seeking to convince ordinary people. “The Church,” she said, “is us.”
Mark Stricherz covers Washington for Aleteia. He is author of Why the Democrats are Blue.