Sr. Helen Prejean has worked in prison ministry and against the death penalty for decades.

CNS PHOTO | PAUL HARING

Sr. Helen Prejean has worked in prison ministry and against the death penalty for decades.

March 21, 2016
R.W. DELLINGER
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE

'They killed a man with fire one night. They strapped him in a wooden chair and pumped electricity through his body until he was dead," Sister Helen Prejean told an audience in Los Angeles Feb. 27.

"His killing was a legal act because he had killed. No religious leaders protested his killing that night," she continued. "But I was there. I saw it with my own eyes. What I saw set my soul on fire, a fire that burns me still. Now here is an account of how I came to be and still am."

With these words from a new book she is in the process of writing, Sister Helen began her keynote address at the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress.

For the next hour-plus, the author of the 1993 bestseller Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States explained how a shy self-spiritual-centred woman religious in her 40s became one of the nation's outspoken voices against the death penalty.

The Sister of St. Joseph of Medaille said she'd been a comfortable suburban junior-high teacher when her community took a close look at its own mission.

The community decided in 1981 to return to its French roots of ministering to society's down-and-out. So she somewhat reluctantly moved into a housing project in New Orleans.

"My African-American neighbours began to teach me about the 'other' America," she recalled. "Their stories broke my heart."

The 40-something Sister Helen naively agreed to become the pen pal of a killer on Louisiana's infamous death row. When he asked her to visit, she did. Soon she became his prison-registered "spiritual adviser."

POOR BLACK MEN

She also started learning about how capital punishment was mostly applied to poor black men who had killed whites in Louisiana.

The religious sister witnessed the April 5, 1984, electric-chair execution of her pen pal, who was white.

"Watching his death, it changed my life," she confided. "He had done an unspeakable terrible crime. That's part of the spiritual journey, too."

Patrick Sonnier, 27, and his younger brother Eddie, 20, were found guilty of the rape and murder of Loretta Ann Bourque, 18, and the murder of David LeBlanc, 17, at a lover's lane in rural Louisiana Nov. 4, 1977.

Patrick got the death penalty and his brother was sentenced to life in prison; Eddie fell ill and died in prison Dec. 19, 2013, at age 57.

After Patrick's execution, a prison vehicle brought Sister Helen back to the gate where sisters from her religious community were waiting.

"I was so cold, they put a coat around me," she said. "And I threw up. I'd never watched a human being get killed in front of my eyes. I don't know what I'm gonna do about all this. I just know I'm throwing up in the middle of the night, and they just killed a man."

TELL THE STORY

But then she knew as clear as a bell. Most folks were never going to get close to a real execution. She had just witnessed one. So she had to tell the story. At first it was to any group that would listen.

Next Sister Helen started writing about the execution. Months later she had what she thought was a book, which an editor at Random House went about reshaping. Published in 1993, actress Susan Sarandon read The New York Times bestseller and wanted to play her in a movie.

The eventual result was the popular film Dead Man Walking, nominated for four Academy Award categories, including best picture.

Sister Helen said the best part of doing the book and movie was meeting with both St. John Paul II and Pope Francis. She got their support against the death penalty as a crucial pro-life issue along with abortion and euthanasia.