Elmo Patrick Sonnier committed two heinous crimes.
On Nov. 5, 1977, Patrick and his brother Eddie dressed as police officers and abducted two Louisiana teenagers from a local lover’s lane. After they handcuffed the 16-year-old male of the couple to a tree, the brothers raped the 18-year-old girl. Then they placed both teens face down on the ground, and, using a .22-caliber rifle, the brothers shot each teen three times in the back of the head.
Sister Helen Prejean didn’t know about those crimes in January 1982, when someone from a prisoner rights group asked her to become Patrick’s pen pal. At the time, Patrick was on death row at Angola, the nickname for the Louisiana State Penitentiary, the country’s largest maximum security prison. So when Prejean, a Catholic nun, found out what he and his brother had done, she doubted whether she should begin a correspondence. But then she reminded herself of her commitment to stand with the poor, and she agreed to write Patrick. He wrote back. Prejean became his spiritual advisor prior to his execution in the electric chair. The role not only transformed her life, it changed the way millions of people view the death penalty.
Prejean, 74, wrote about her experiences with Patrick and another death-row inmate in “Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States.” The book, published in 1993, is a spiritual examination of the practice of execution, and it incorporates the views of death row inmates, their families, the victims’ families and even prison guards. It served as the basis of the Oscar-nominated film “Dead Man Walking,” starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn and directed by Tim Robbins. Sarandon won an Oscar in 1995 as Best Actress for her portrayal of Prejean. The book has even been turned into an opera.
Prejean will come to Seattle to participate in the upcoming Social Justice Film Festival. On Oct. 12 at 7 p.m. at University Christian Church, 4731 15th Ave. NE, she will be on hand for a screening of “Central Park Five,” a documentary about five black and/or Latino teens who were wrongfully convicted in 1989 of raping a white woman in New York’s Central Park. Prejean will participate in a post-screening discussion.
Prior to her arrival in Seattle, Prejean talked by phone from New Orleans about her work to eradicate the death penalty. She speaks with a smooth, Southern drawl that makes you feel as if you’re her closest friend, the two of you seated on a porch swing, each holding a glass of sweet tea. Her sugared tones help the medicine go down, as she offers her thoughts on execution, redemption, forgiveness and overcoming cowardice.
First, I thought we would start talking about your book and the work that you do, since that’s how most people know you.
I never dreamed I was going to write a book, but my eyes were opened: My eyes had seen too much, and my heart had held too much. I had accompanied, by the time I wrote “Dead Man,” three people to execution and watched them die and was helpless to stop their deaths. I watched the process of the whole death penalty and their victims’ families on the other side. So I had to do something to just get the word out, to bring people close to the reality, because you know how there can be these invisible walls? There can be great suffering that goes on, but people don’t hear the cries, they don’t hear the suffering because they’re separated from it. Like we’re separated from the inner city in the suburbs. And I had been brought close, so I knew I could tell the story, and that’s how “Dead Man Walking” was born.
I came out of the execution chamber with Pat Sonnier, the first man I was with, April 5. It was 1984. It was right after midnight when I came out. I’d never seen anything like this in my life — and I vomited. I threw up as soon as I got outside the gate of the prison. And that’s really when my mission was born.
I thought: The people are never gonna see this. It’s a secret ritual, and it’s done behind prison walls, and people are going to read [in the newspapers] “Oh, that was a crime; justice was done.” And they’re nowhere close to the reality. But I had been there, so I had to tell the story to whoever would listen. And [the book] came out in ’93.
The 90s were the zenith in the United States for the death penalty. Over 80 percent of people in the Deep South states like Louisiana believed in the death penalty, and a lot of the country did. So I had a good editor; I had really good people helping me, and it got good reviews. But it’s still a book by a Catholic nun about the death penalty, and what were its chances of it going anywhere? And one of the miracles that happened: Susan Sarandon read it, and she pressed Tim Robbins for nine months until she prevailed on him to read the book because she was the first one to realize: We need another kind of film in the United States on this issue. There had been formulaic films, and the whole energy was whether the person was guilty or not. Then, “Yes, he’s guilty,” and it ends with the execution, and people would come away from the film and say that justice was done: “He got the ultimate penalty, he deserved what he got.” But in my book, I bring people over to both sides of the issue, from the victim’s family and what they suffer, from the prisoner’s family and what they’re going through. Then I talk about the guards, who have to do the killing. What happens to them?
So let’s talk about the victims’ family. Did you meet Pat Sonnier’s victims’ families?
Yes. But where I made a mistake, Rosette, I hesitated to meet the victims’ families because two teenagers had been killed by these brothers, both of them. And I thought: The victims’ families are not going to want to see me. I’m the spiritual advisor to a man who killed their kids. And I stayed away. It was really cowardice that made me stay away. I was afraid of their anger, their rejection, and then I met them at the worst possible time. It was right at the pardon board hearing, one week before Pat was executed. And they were there at the pardon board because they had been told by the D.A., “You bring all your relatives and friends, because this is the last legal hoop you gotta jump through to get your justice.” And that’s when they meet me. And what am I doing at the pardon board? I’m there trying to persuade the pardon board not to kill Patrick Sonnier. And so how could they not see me as an enemy?
There were two teenagers killed: David LeBlanc and Loretta Borque. And the girl’s parents were just furious with me. We bumped into each other outside the pardon board. But the boy’s parents came right up to me, and Lloyd LeBlanc, David’s father — David was only 16 years old, and when they lost their son, Lloyd and his wife were too old to have other children: tremendous suffering. And he walked right up to me and he said, “Sister. Where have you been all this time? We’ve had nobody to talk to. You can’t believe the pressure on us with this death penalty thing.” I said, “Mr. LeBlanc, I’m so sorry. I never dreamed you’d want to see me.” “Sister, you need to come walk in our shoes.”
Actually, he’s the hero of “Dead Man Walking,” because he made his way through the crucible of suffering and loss. All the people kept telling him he had to be for the death penalty, and as he put it: “I went there, Sister. I did. I went there.” [He] said, “Boy, I’d like to pull the switch myself. I don’t care what pain it causes their momma or anything.” And then he said, “I didn’t like what was happening to me, because this hatred and this bitterness was taking over me. They killed our son, but I’m not gonna let ’em kill me. I’ma do what Jesus said.”
He said, “Sister, people think forgiveness is weak. The way I experienced was, it was taking my life away, all this anger and bitterness. It was eating me alive. I’ve always been a kind person; I love to help people. So then I came back to myself, and I just said, ‘No, that’s not who I am.” And then he set himself to go down the road of forgiveness.
He was the first victim’s family I ever met that taught me that forgiveness is, in a way, saving your own life and not [letting] the hatred take over. And that’s why I call him the hero.
And guards? What do guards think?
Some guards, you know, are all hyped for it. They practice for the execution: They get a guard of the same height and weight as the one to be executed, and they do dry runs of it, where the person goes peacefully, the person fights them all the way.
But some guards, like Felton Coody, he had been the supervisor on death row for years. And that was fine, he could do that. He saw there was order on the tier. But then they moved him over to the execution’s slot, and after five executions, he called me in his office one day and he said, “Sister, I’ma have to quit this job. I’ve been there five times; and I come home afterward and, I sit in my La-Z-Boy chair, and I can’t eat, I can’t sleep. In my gut I know it’s wrong, because they’re defenseless, and we take ’em out and we kill ’em.” He said, “My job isn’t even to strap ’em down. Mine was just to go the cell and get their stuff, after they’ve been killed, like their toothbrush and their personal belongings to give to their family.” And, Rosette, he’s the only one I met in the whole system that quit his job because of his conscience.
Now we have more and more people speaking out who have been intimately involved in the killing process. I don’t know if you saw this in Newsweek magazine [in the Sept. 25, 2011, issue]: The title of the article is “I Committed Murder,” and it’s about the executioners and the guards and the people in the prisons and the people who have been most closely identified in the process. In fact the title of the article came from Jerry Givens, and he was the executioner in Virginia, and he killed 62 people. The first ones by electrocution and the rest by lethal injection. He was real honest. He had what you call an “executioner’s high.” He did this interview in Newsweek, and it was like a public confession to a nation.
So more and more of those people who have been so involved in the process are speaking out. That’s helping us put down the death penalty. The death penalty is in diminishment. I’m out there on the road, waking up people, because it can’t end too soon. Because the death penalty by its very nature is the practice of torture, because you can’t put a conscious, imaginative person in a cell — like in California, it’s an average of 20 years — where you wait to be killed. And you anticipate it.
Everyone I know on death row has the same nightmares: “They’re coming for me, it’s my time, someone’s coming to get me. I’m kicking and screaming, going, ‘No, no,’ and then I wake up and I look around me, and I’m in my cell, and I go, ‘Oh, it was just a dream.’ ” Patrick Sonnier, he said, “Sister, just pray my legs hold me up.” Because they want to walk with dignity.
When you met Patrick Sonnier, what did you think?
When I actually went to the first visit, we’d been writing letters. I was really nervous about him, because anybody can write nice letters, but I’d never been with a real murderer before. I thought his face would look different or something, it would look harder. Then when I met him, and I looked at his face — we were separated from one another, he was on the other side of this very heavy mesh screen — I couldn’t believe how human he was. And you know what I’ve come to? Everybody is worth more than the worst thing we’ve ever done in our life. And that has stayed with me.
I shouldn’t have worried and been nervous: It was two hours, and he did most of the talking. He was just so glad to have a visitor. So then I just kept visiting — and couldn’t believe they were really going to kill him. This was in the ’80s: He was killed in ’84; I started writing to him in ’82. We hadn’t had an execution in Louisiana for over 20 years. There had been an unofficial moratorium across the nation starting in the ’60s into the ’70s. And then in ’76, the Supreme Court put the death penalty back.
So it was just beginning again to go through the legal process, so that executions could begin to happen. And I thought: Oh, my God, they are going to kill him.
[Editor’s note: After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1972 the death penalty was “cruel and unusual,” the Justices then ruled in 1976 that the death penalty was constitutional. The first person executed after the ruling was Gary Gilmore in Utah in January 1977. Gilmore’s crime and execution served as the basis for Norman Mailer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Executioner’s Song.”]
They are still executing people today.
You better believe it.
[On Sept. 26] Texas officials [executed] Arturo Diaz. In a TV newscast I saw, it said that for someone to receive the death penalty in Texas, jurors have to unanimously decide that someone is a future danger to society and has no redeeming value. How many people have you met in your work that you thought could never be redeemed?
There were none.
We’re asking the jury for something impossible: By our taking on the death penalty, one of the big crunches is on these ordinary citizens who are asked to make these godlike decisions, in which they don’t have the expertise to make the decision. Future dangerousness? Criminologists have studied this. It’s almost impossible to determine, because so much has to do with what a person’s context is, what’s around them, what’s going on in their life. It’s an impossible thing to answer.
Then to say you have no redeeming value? I wrote a second book, Rosette, called “The Death of Innocents” about accompanying two people to death that I believe were innocent, and I talk about this struggle of juries. The working title for a long while was “Impossible Burden.” We’ve taken on a burden that human beings can’t handle. First of all, that we’re always gonna get the truth. We know that 142 wrongfully convicted people have come off death row saved by [law school] students and innocence projects, so it’s very iffy that we get the truth. Then it’s a unanimous decision, and it means that if one [juror] holds out, the person isn’t going to be killed. So everybody on that jury holds that person’s life in their hands. And they live with that for the rest of their life.
I tell a story in “The Death of Innocents.” I call it the “anguished juror.” The trial was of a man in Louisiana, Robert Sawyer, and [there was] no doubt that he did the crime. Then the jury goes in, and so the foreman says, “Let’s see what we’re facing here.” And they go around the table and “Death, death, death, death, death, death, death,” and they come to this guy, and he goes, “Hey. Who are we to kill him? Let’s let him live. He’s going to be in prison. He’s not going to hurt anybody.”
Then there were a number of factors. One was: [The juror] didn’t have real knowledge then that the person wasn’t going to get out of prison. Jurors for a long time weren’t informed that if you don’t give the death sentence, people are going to get life without parole. So [the jury may] question, “Well, maybe he’ll get out on good behavior,” and in good conscience, they may go, “Well, we have to give the death penalty.”
So that was a factor in it. But the other was, he said, “I just gave in to pressure. ‘OK, I’ll vote for death, too.’ ” On the night Robert Sawyer was executed, this [juror] calls his lawyer, and he’s drunk and he’s crying, and he says, “I tell my boy, ‘Son, don’t cave in to pressure. Stand up for what you believe, no matter what.’ ”
You know that biblical story of Solomon, who’s known for being wise? One of the ways they show the wisdom of Solomon — this is in the Old Testament of the Bible — two women came before Solomon, and there was a baby. Each of those women claimed to be the mother of the baby.
And so what Solomon said was, “Oh, well, bring me a sword, and we’ll cut the baby in half. You each take a half of the baby.” And the real mother went, “No, no, don’t kill the child,” and that’s how he knew who the real mother was. I just want to say that is chicken feed [compared] to the decision these jurors make. It’s just ordinary people called in to make these life-death decisions.
You know all these names [of people involved with the cases]. How do you remember all these people?
They’re emblazoned in my life. How could I forget the names of these people? When you’re really close and involved in all this stuff, the names are sealed forever as part of you. It’s just part of me. [Pause.] What’s your name again? [Laughs.] Nah, that’s just a joke.