On the evening of Tuesday, Jan. 29, Sister Helen Prejean spoke to a full-capacity audience at St. Mary’s Hall about her life’s work as a leading voice in the death penalty abolition movement. As the Nitze Senior Fellow for the 2012-2013 academic year, Prejean gave the first of her two lectures at St. Mary’s, titled “Dead Man Walking: The Journey Continues.”
Prejean’s bestselling book, Dead Man Walking, chronicles her first experiences with death row inmates. The book’s popularity shot Sister Helen to fame, and inspired the 1995 film of the same name, starring Susan Sarandon as Prejean.
Seniors Marty McGowan and Emily Wavering were responsible for coordinating Prejean’s lectures. McGowan provided the introduction to Prejean’s lecture and explained why he wanted to bring her to St. Mary’s. He read Dead Man Walking as an “apathetic high school junior” who never really thought the issue of the death penalty would engage his interest. Upon finishing the book, however, McGowan said it “struck something within me as [Prejean] so eloquently described the conflicts of race and class within the death penalty system, with the personal horror of witnessing the brutality of state executions.”
After a chance encounter with Prejean while in Annapolis for his Maryland Legislature class during the spring of 2012, McGowan was inspired to bring Prejean to St. Mary’s. He and Wavering decided that organizing Prejean’s lectures would be their Leadership Engagement Project (LEP) for their Nitze Leadership Tutorial, a class requirement which “gives students the opportunity to engage in leadership in really any way they see fit,” Wavering explained.
“I had never thought much about the death penalty,” Wavering continued, “but reading [Dead Man Walking] and listening to Sr. Helen speak forced me to contemplate the issue more personally than I ever anticipated.” In bringing Prejean to campus, Wavering hopes that “Sr. Helen’s talks on campus inspire not just conversation, but informed action.”
Prejean, a Roman Catholic nun of the Congregation of St. Joseph and a native of Louisiana, began her lecture asking “ya’ll can handle Southern?” in regards to her distinctive accent. “We’re at a historic moment in Maryland. We’re about to end the death penalty in the state,” she said in regards to the motion to repeal the death penalty that has been put before the Maryland General Assembly. “Maryland would be the sixth state in six years to end the death penalty,” she continued, “and we can see a definite trend [of opposing the death penalty] happening across the country.”
Prejean’s experience of growing up in the racial segregation of the South, a practice that she “never questioned,” and her eventual realization of white privilege, led her to come to an “awakening…of coming to understand that the real gospel of Jesus was to be on the side of poor people, of marginal people, of hated people, of people despised by others. When you think of it, how have we ever gotten to a point in this country where we could put people in cages and say ‘They’re so bad, we have to kill them,’ that it’s the only way to be safe as a society?”
The same principles with which people judge others to be less than human, in such attitudes as racism or homophobia, also apply to death row inmates, said Prejean. “We think ‘they’re not human like the rest of us, so we have to kill them.’”
While working at a safe house in a violent and drug-ridden area of New Orleans with mostly African American residents, Prejean truly began “to understand the suffering” of those of the poor and underprivileged. It was during this time, in 1982, that a friend from the Louisiana Prison Coalition visited the safe house and suggested that she “be a pen-pal with somebody on death row.”
Her letter to Patrick Sonnier, a convicted double murderer, began a written dialogue between the two. “He was just glad somebody had found him and was writing to him,” said Prejean. “He said ‘pray for me, Sister, and I’ll pray for you.’ He had no one to visit him.” When Sonnier asked Prejean to be his spiritual advisor, a person who could give counsel and comfort in preparation for his execution, she agreed to meet him in prison.
Before meeting Sonnier, Prejean said the she had not thought deeply about the death penalty before, as it “isn’t a moral issue that touches most of us personally.” The thing that struck Prejean the most about Sonnier was that his face “was so human,” and was not the cold, beastly face of a killer that she was expecting. His humanity, and her realization that “every minute of his life was a reminder that people wanted him dead,” led her to be Sonnier’s advisor, and even accompany him on his walk to the electric chair. Before his death, Prejean told Sonnier: “look at my face when they do this, and I’ll be the face of Christ for you.’ When I walked out of the execution chamber, I was changed for the rest of my life.”
The death penalty, said Prejean, “is a secret ritual behind prison walls, not many people get to see it […] and I realized that I had to be a witness, to tell my story to the world.”
Prejean also spoke about how the emotions of the victims’ families played into her belief of the ineffectiveness of the death penalty to bring closure to the families and justice for the victims. She cited Lloyd Leblanc, the father of one of Sonnier’s murder victims, as a model for forgiveness and true closure, and of “going through a crucible […] and coming out whole on the other side.”
Prejean quoted Leblanc: “He said: ‘Everybody thinks forgiveness is weak, they say Lloyd, you gotta be for the death penalty…you went through the ultimate loss so you have to ask for the ultimate penalty…I wanted to pull the switch…But then I began to notice something about myself that I didn’t like. They killed my boy. But I’m not gonna let them kill me.’ Lloyd Leblanc is the hero of Dead Man Walking.”
Prejean said that families of murder victims who testify at death penalty trials repeatedly say “Don’t kill for us.” Many of them see this long, painful trial for their loved one’s killer on death row as a constant reminder of their loss, and prolongs the still-open wounds “as they testify in tears over and over in order for their loved one’s killer to come to justice.” It was the ordeals of these families that inspired Prejean to start Survivors, a counseling program for the families of victims.
The father of a murder victim whose killer was another of Prejean’s spiritual advisees repeatedly spoke to the press about how happy he would be once the criminal was executed. After this was done, Prejean spoke to him and realized that he was not satisfied with the way the execution played out, and wished it was more drawn-out and emotionally painful. To Prejean, this was a sign that vengeance can never truly bring closure.
“He kept saying ‘if only they had strapped him in a half an hour before the execution, then set him loose and put him back in his cell, only to bring him back in later,’” said Prejean. “I realized that this man was thirsty, and that he had just had a long drink of salt water.”
Many students responded positively to Prejean’s lecture. “Everyone seemed to be hanging on to her every word,” said sophomore Bridgette Brunk, “I certainly was moved by what she had to say, and all the people I’ve talked to about it feel the same way.”
From the enthusiastic applause from the audience, and the dozens of people at the reception following the lecture filling out cards asking their Maryland delegates to repeal the death penalty, it seems that Prejean certainly struck a chord at St. Mary’s.
Prejean will give a second lecture about the effects of film and the arts on her cause on Thursday, Feb. 21 at 8:00 PM in St. Mary’s Hall.