In 1982, Sister Helen Prejean was living and working in the St. Thomas housing project in New Orleans when a member of the Louisiana Coalition on Jails and Prisons asked her to become a pen pal to a death row inmate. Seeing this as an opportunity to further her mission to better the lives of the poor, she agreed, and wrote a letter to Elmo Patrick Sonnier. He wrote back and asked her to visit him, which she did, irrevocably changing the course of her life and work.
Prejean knew, from statistics, as well as from first-hand observation in her community, what a volatile mix poverty, racism, and hopelessness could be, and how it fostered all the attendant problems of drugs and violence. But Sonnier was different, and seemingly much more sinister. He and his brother Eddie had abducted a teenage couple, David LeBlanc and Loretta Bourque, from a lover's lane, raped Loretta, forced the couple to lay face-down in the dirt, and shot them each in the head. The brothers were tried separately; Eddie got life in prison, but Pat (as he preferred to be called) was sentenced to death, and when Prejean met him was awaiting execution at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola. And he was white.
In her book, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States (1993), Prejean described the feelings of fear and dread as she waited to meet Sonnier for the first time. To be allowed to visit, Sonnier had to submit her name to the prison warden, who reviewed her file and deemed her an acceptable visit. She had to have a meeting with the prison chaplain, who warned her that "these people" are "the scum of the earth" who would try and con her and were not to be trusted, ever. At each visit, she had to have the contents of her purse examined, and have a pat-down (but not the body cavity search she had worried about).
Sonnier, when she finally did meet him, turned out to be soft-spoken and polite, with his hair neatly combed, his hands and feet shackled, chain-smoking. Over many visits, he told her about his childhood, his family, his trials, his appeals - everything except the details of the crime itself. Eventually, he told her that it was Eddie who raped Loretta, Eddie who killed the couple. Prejean did not know what to believe about his culpability, but clung to her conviction that, whether he did it or not, he should not be killed. For her, as a christian, it is wrong to kill someone, anyone, even a murderer. So she worked to get him a stay of execution, spoke out against the death penalty in local and national media, and agreed to act as Sonnier's spiritual advisor, with him until his death.
After he took that final walk to the electric chair - "Sparky", the inmates call it - Prejean swore she would never go through such a traumatizing experience again. But she did. She befriended and worked to spare from death Robert Lee Willie, who, with Joseph Vaccaro, had raped and stabbed teenage Faith Hathaway, leaving her alone to die in the woods, after which they kidnapped a teenage couple, leaving the boy paralyzed and taking turns raping the girl as they drove across several states. Again, Prejean found compassion rising as she got to know this tough, mouthy young man whose pride would not let him beg for his life. Again, she ended up walking with him to his death by electrocution.
Prejean's book details her struggles to understand how to walk the path she has chosen with the most grace and compassion. She called these cold-blooded killers sons of god even as she counselled them to ask for forgiveness for their heinous acts. She arranged to have Sonnier buried in her church's graveyard, alongside the nuns and bishops. Worried that the victims' families would not understand how she could befriend Sonnier, their loved ones' killer, she had avoided contact with them, fostering resentment that boiled over when their paths inevitably crossed. She dreaded meeting Vernon Harvey, Faith's step-father, who had been very vocal in declaring that he couldn't wait to see Willie fry, but the two eventually became friends, agreeing to disagree. She organized marches, protests, vigils, and media interviews, presenting her view that killing is never justified, always wrong. She marshalled pages of statistics to show that it is more expensive to pursue the death penalty than keep a killer in prison for life; that all methods of execution - including lethal injection, which had just been introduced - are painful and therefore inhumane; that the poor, who cannot afford good lawyers, end up on death row while the rich go free; and that sometimes, innocent people are executed for crimes they did not commit. (This latter is the subject of her 2004 book, The Death of Innocents.)
The 1995 movie, "Dead Man Walking", written and directed by Tim Robbins, wisely steers clear of the statistics. Susan Sarandon plays Prejean with conviction, decency, and compassion, and deservedly won an Oscar for her portrayal. Sean Penn is riveting as the surly Matthew Poncelet, a fictionalized amalgam of the two killers, and also received an Oscar nomination. Robbins' script is beautifully balanced and even-handed, touching on the pain and anguish of the victims' families as well as the relationship between the nun and the killer, and he too got an Oscar nod. As the film moves towards its inevitable horrific conclusion, Poncelet's bravado crumbles and he offers the death-bed confession that the real killers never did. Then he is injected, first with a heavy sedative, then a drug to collapse his lungs, finally one to stop his heart. You do not need to share Perjean's religion or moral convictions to find this movie unsettling and tremendously affecting; it's a tour de force, and I highly recommend it.
Also, don't miss the excellent (if awkwardly titled) "Music From and Inspired by the Motion Picture 'Dead Man Walking'". With offerings from Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Johnny Cash, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Eddie Vedder, Lyle Lovett, Suzanne Vega, Michelle Shocked, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Patti Smith, and Steve Earle, this is an exceptional CD that beautifully recalls the movie that inspired it.