CI: Sister Helen Prejean, Abolition, and The Power of One Voice

July 10, 2013 at 6:59 pm by: nancy a heitzeg Category: Anti-Racism, Arts and Culture, Civil Rights, Corrupt Judiciary, Corrupt Legislature, Criminal Defense, Criminal Injustice Series, Intersectionality, Poverty, Prison Industrial Complex, Prisoner Rights

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Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.

Sister Helen Prejean,  Abolition, and The Power of One Voice
by nancy a heitzeg

Every week, Criminal InJustice details the systemic and structural oppressions that characterize our legal system. Challenging the entailed web of inequality that creates and connects the prison industrial complex and all its’ tentacles seems daunting indeed. The system is monstrous, in both scope and scale. Certainly the work of dismantling it requires collaboration, coalitions and as Michelle Alexander has called for, a new social movement that both organizes and mobilizes many.

In the face of sometimes seemingly insurmountable odds, it is always important to remember the power of  a single voice. Always crucial to recall that we can and we must speak out, and that we can never calculate the change that may flow from our doing so.

Sister Helen Prejean is such a voice. June marked the 20th Anniversary of the publication of Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States, and it is no under-estimation to say that with it, Sister Helen changed the course of the death penalty debate.

Certainly, much work remains. Texas — the most killing of all states — recently executed #500. Florida — the state with the largest number of exonerations – recently passed legislation to further fast track executions. Georgia is preparing to execute Warren Hill – an inmate with a documented IQ of 70 – in violation of Atkins.Torturous conditions remain; LSP Angola inmates recently filed suit over extreme heat, citing heat indices on death row of between 126 and 195 degrees. . The Missouri Attorney General is calling for the return of the gas chamber.

Nonetheless, the death penalty landscape has seismically shifted; in no small part due a lone nun who answered both a single letter and the larger call.

This one’s for Sister Helen…


“Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” ~ Dorothy Day 1952

It began- as it often does- with a seemingly simple question. Such seemingly simple questions often begin our longest, our most arduous and most transformative journeys. So it was for Sister Helen Prejean;

“When Chava Colon from the Prison Coalition asks me one January day in 1982 to become a pen pal for a death row inmate, I say, sure. The invitation seems to fit with my work at St. Thomas, a New Orleans housing project of poor black residents. Not exactly death row, but close…I’ve come to St Thomas to serve the poor, and I assume that someone occupying a cell on Louisiana’s death row fits that category.” (Prejean 1993 p.4)

Sister Helen (b.1939), a Sister of St. Joseph of Medaille since 1957, was well acquainted with issues of injustice. Leaving first, a privileged life in Baton Rouge and later an “ethereal faith” focused on inner peace, acts of charity, and the world beyond, Sister Helen had already chosen the path of justice, although “it would take me a long time to understand how systems inflict pain and hardship in people’s live and to learn that being kind in an unjust system is not enough.” (Ibid p 7).

Originally a teacher, she had come to St. Thomas in 1981 as part of her Order’s commitment to stand with the poor. Through her interactions with the residents- many whom had a relative in prison – and The Prison Coalition, she was already aware of the race and class disparities in police-citizen encounters, incarceration rates, and the application of the death penalty. And she was opposed to the death penalty, both her Christian faith- “Jesus Christ, whose way of life I try to follow refused to meet hate with hate and violence with violence”  – and the philosophy of Albert Camus  – “resist, do not collaborate in any with a deed you believe is evil”- guided her opposition.

Still, no one, certainly not Sister Helen, could anticipate that the response to the letter-writing request would mark the beginning of a long journey “I don’t know yet that the name on this tiny slip of white paper will be my transport into an eerie land that so far I have read only about in books.” (Prejean 1993, pp3-4) –a journey that would lead from the St Thomas Housing Projects of New Orleans to the death chamber at Louisiana State Penitentiary to international fame as a tireless advocate for the abolition of capital punishment.

Elmo Patrick Sonnier #95281 was the name on that slip of paper. Sonnier, a troubled youth with a past ridden with criminal activity, was convicted, along with his brother Eddie,  for the November 5, 1977 rape and murder of Loretta Ann Bourque, 18, and the murder of David LeBlanc, 17. While both brothers were initially sentenced to death in Louisiana’s electric chair aka “Gruesome Gertie”, Eddie was sentenced to life in prison upon re-trial. In spite of her horror at Sonnier’s crimes, Sister Helen wrote.

“The image in my mind was that if people were in prison they must be really bad and the people on death row…they’ve done the worst possible crimes. I think there is a kind of notion that people on death row are people who have killed and will kill again…they are just violent killer people. When I looked into Patrick Sonnier’s face the first time I visited–I knew there was goodness in him from his letters, but when I visited him, I was so nervous and I was amazed when I looked into his face and saw how human he was and that we could talk to one another, just two human beings. It was such an amazing experience that has been confirmed in so many ways since.”

Published 1993

Published 1993

Sister Helen’s correspondence with Sonnier inevitably led to visits with him at the Death House at Louisiana State Penitentiary. It is here that she is transformed from pen-pal to spiritual advisor, a metamorphosis that was not without considerable pain and doubt. She becomes more convinced than ever that the State of Louisiana is involved with legitimated murder, murder which is tacitly supported by the Warden, the guards, the chaplains, the priests, the Governor, murder which is explicitly supported by the public at large and many of the families of the victims. She struggles with guilt and grief for the LeBlancs and the Bourques -families of the murdered teens – the vengeance they feel towards Sonnier and the anger they feel towards her. Has she betrayed, abandoned them, as she consoled their children’s killer?? And what of the family of the offender – are they not victims too?

Beyond the moral dilemmas presented by the particular case of Patrick Sonnier, the structural injustices of incarceration and capital punishment are further revealed to Prejean. As she sees firsthand the composition of the inmate population at Angola, the racial dynamics of incarceration become clearer. LSP Angola is the largest prison (the only one to boast its’ own Zip Code) in the United States – over 5000 inmates on over 18,000 acres. 90% of them are African American – the majority from New Orleans and Jefferson parishes – and 90% will die there.. Angola is the site of the old Angola Plantation, which following the Civil War immediately became a prison, where inmates continue to labor for free due to the loophole that negates the liberatory promise of the 13Th Amendment – “Slavery and involuntary servitude-except as a punishment for crime – shall be abolished.”

Prejean similarly becomes increasingly aware of the role of race in the death penalty and the prevalence of its use in the South; race of victim and race of offender remain the best predictors of prosecutorial decisions to pursue the death penalty who will be executed. African Americans are over-represented on death row relative to both their percentage of the population and their participation in the crime of murder. And cases involving white victims are most likely to be prosecuted as capital cases; 80% of all murder victims in case involving an execution were white, even though whites represented only 50% of murder victims .

Prejean comes to agree with the assessment of scholars who argue that the death penalty is yet another mechanism for controlling blacks, especially in the South, where some have argued that the lynch mob has merely been replaced by the “killing state” And yes, even though Sonnier is white, he is poor as are 99% of the more than 3200 death row inmates, whose reliance on public defenders in essence provides no defense at all. Sonnier and the other indigent inhabitants on death row illustrate the saying Prejean has heard often in the housing projects of St Thomas, “Capital punishment means those without the capital get the punishment.” Inadequate defenses, an appeals process that is fraught with roadblocks for the accused, and endless personal trauma for both offenders and victims mark the way from trial to death.

On April 5 1984, Sister Helen is a witness to the execution of Sonnier, the first of 4 death row inmates that Sister Helen would eventually accompany to execution. Shortly after Sonnier’s sentence was carried out, she began to organize, first with trainings for spiritual advisers, the creation of a legal aid office, a public awareness march from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, the founding of Survive – an organization designed to support families of victims of violence, and finally the decision to devote herself completely to the abolition of the death penalty.

“I realize that I cannot stand by silently as my government executes its citizens. If I do not speak  out and resist, I am an accomplice……No one in the entire State of Louisiana is working full-time to talk to the public about the death penalty. I will do this. The decision unfolds like a rose.” (Prejean 1993, p.115,117)

Prejean later served as spiritual advisor to Robert Lee Willie. Willie was executed by electrocution on December 28 1984 for the kidnap, rape, and murder of 18 year old Faith Hathaway. His case, like that of Sonnier’s, is filled with similar anguish, legal challenges and losses, and great struggles with the issue of vengeance felt by the victim’s family. In 1993, Sister Helen chronicled her experience with both men in Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States. In the introduction (Ibid p xi), she writes

“I stepped quite unsuspectingly from a protected middle-class environment into one of the most explosive and complex moral issues of our day, the question of capital punishment…I began naively. It took time- and mistakes- for me to sound out the moral perspective, which is the subject of this book. There is much pain in these pages. There are, to begin with, crimes that defy description. Then there is the ensuing rage, horror, grief, and fierce ambivalence. But also courage and incredible human spirit. I have been changed forever by the experiences that I describe here.”

The book becomes an international best seller translated into twelve languages, an opera, and an Academy Award nominated film in 1995 (Susan Sarandon won Best Actress for her portrayal of Prejean). Always searching for new ways to increase public dialogue about the death penalty, Sister Helen continued to write, speak, and organize. She founded the Death Penalty Discourse Center and the Moratorium Project as ways of promoting the national discourse on the death penalty and as a resource for abolitionists. And, she urged director/producer Tim Robbins to create a version of Dead Man Walking for the stage:

“Through the film, then the opera, I was convinced of the power of the arts to stir reflection and deepen public discourse…early in 2002 Tim wrote the play. He called me up to New York for a reading, and he and I and everyone in the room were blown away by its power, even though it was simply read.”

Prejean along with Tim Robbins, founded The Dead Man Walking School Theater Project. Originally directed by Sister Maureen Felton, OP, The Play Project allows high school and college students easy access to performance rights for Dead Man Walking. The play has been performed by nearly 200 high schools and colleges.

Published 2005

Published 2005

Continuing as a spiritual advisor to death row inmates, Prejean tells the stories of Dobie Gillis Williams (executed by Louisiana in 1999) and Joseph O’Dell (executed by Virginia in 1997) in her 2005 book, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions: She writes in the introduction, (ibid, p.)

“As in Dead Man Walking, this is my eyewitness account of accompanying two men to execution – but with one huge difference: I believe that the two men I tell about here – Dobie Gillis Williams and Joseph Roger O’Dell – were innocent. The courts of appeal didn’t see it that way. Once the guilty verdicts were pronounced and the death sentences imposed every court in the land put their stamp of approval on the death sentences of these two men without once calling form a thorough review of their constitutional claims. The tragic truth is that you as a reader of this book have access to truths about forensic evidence, eyewitnesses,, and prosecutorial maneuvers that Dobie’s and Joseph’s jurors never heard.”

Through the cases of Williams and O’Dell, Prejean expands upon her previous moral and social analysis of the death penalty. In addition to the pervasive issues of race and class bias, Death of Innocents raises questions about the execution of those who are actually innocent, an issue that was coming to public attention at the time this book was written. Between 1973 and 2004, work by Innocence Projects, mostly lead by college students, had lead to the exoneration of 117 death row inmates in 26 states. Today the number stands at 140.

Death of Innocents contains a detailed history of the Catholic Church’s position on the death penalty, which for 1600 years – from Augustine to Aquinas to the mid 20th century -supported the state’s right – in self-defense- to kill those who had committed grave crimes. Prejean chronicles the slight but significant shift in position post Vatican II, and her on-going dialogue with church officials, many who remained vocal supporters of the death penalty. It is the late Pope John Paul, responding to a growing global abolition movement, who signals the change in course. In Evangelium Vitae (1995), he urges church leaders to become more courageous in opposing the use of capital punishment. The pope also speaks out on behalf of Joseph O’Dell in 1997, and Prejean writes to him calling for a shift in the church’s official position “I pray for the day when Catholic opposition to government executions will be unequivocal.” (Prejean 2005 p 127). Less than a week later the Vatican announces an official change to the Catechism; all language referring to the death penalty as an option is removed. It is not Prejean’s letter alone but the combined efforts of over Catholics world-wide who had continuously and consistently expressed their opposition for decades. In the end, Prejean (2005 p 130) notes this about her interpretation of the shift in the language of the Catechism:

“The omission changes everything, because Catholic teaching now says that no matter how grave, terrible, outrageous, heinous, cruel the crime, the death penalty is not to be imposed…. Whom then might governments kill?? No one.”

"Joseph R. O'Dell III, beloved husband of Lori Urs O'Dell, honorary citizen of Palermo, killed by Virginia, U.S.A., in a merciless and brutal justice system."

“Joseph R. O’Dell III, beloved husband of Lori Urs O’Dell, honorary citizen of Palermo, killed by Virginia, U.S.A., in a merciless and brutal justice system.”

To argue that the death penalty is morally wrong is one matter;; it is another to document the blatant racism, classism, legal error and sheer ineptitude play in the application of the death penalty in the United States. Prejean does that in Death of Innocents as well, detailing the recent history of Supreme Court rulings from the famed 1972  Furman v Georgia ruling to the present. Between 1967 and 1977, there were no executions in the United States as the Supreme Court heard a series of legal challenges to the constitutionality of the death penalty. All cases came from Southern states, including the landmark cases of Furman v Georgia (1972), Gregg v Georgia (1976), and Coker v Georgia (1977). All cases involved black men and raised legal questions with regard to the 8th Amendment prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment’ and the 14th Amendment clauses of ‘due process” and “equal protection of the laws”, in essence, issues of racial discrimination.

In sum, the Court ruled in Furman that capital punishment was cruel and unusual if it was applied in an “arbitrary and capricious manner” (Furman v Georgia , 1972) The result was a revision of state statues, affirmed by Gregg, as that allowed for the death penalty if 1) there were guidelines outlining capital offenses and allowing for consideration of aggravating and mitigating circumstances and 2) there was a two-part trial where the imposition of sentence as separated from the finding of guilt.( Gregg v Georgia 1976) These cases form the framework for the current application of the death penalty which is currently available in 32 states and at the federal level, with the United States remaining as the only so-called First World nation where the death penalty has not been abolished

Sister Helen and Dobie Gillis Williams

Sister Helen and Dobie Gillis Williams

Prejean decries these decisions as well as the ensuing cases, which ignore statistical evidence of institutionalized racism (McCleskey v Kemp 1987), split hairs over whether 15 or 16 or 17 year olds are mature enough to be executed (Thompson v Oklahoma 1986, Stanford v Kentucky 1989 ), allows for the execution of the mentally ill and the mentally retarded (Penry v Lynaugh 1989, Murray v Giarrano 1989), permits court-appointed attorneys to be defined as “competent” even though they may be unqualified, asleep or even drunk at trial (Herrea v Collins 1993), and increasingly limits the avenues of appeal for death row inmates (Strickland v Washington 1984), even in cases like that of Dobie Gillis Williams or Joseph O’Dell where procedural error and evidence of actual innocence hang like a dark pall over the cases. She quotes 18th century philosopher and prison reformer Cesear Beccaria; she argues with elected Supreme Court justice and death penalty advocate Antonin Scalia in the New Orleans airport; regrets that elected officials cannot be moved to compassion even in the face of inmate redemption, and in the end, urges the court to stand with the late Justice Harry Blackmun, who after 20 years of wrangling with the with the legal minutia of death penalty cases, finally and firmly declares, “I will no longer tinker with the machinery of death.’ (Callins v Collins 1994)

In the 30+ years since she responded to Chava Colon’s request to write Sonnier a letter, much has changed. Over 150 countries have abolished the death penalty in the law or in practice. Every year since 1997, the UN annually passes a resolution calling for a moratorium on the death penalty, and the International Criminal Court has banned its use in any crime. The U.S. Supreme Court has deemed the execution of juveniles (Roper v. Simmons 2005), the mentally retarded (Atkins v. Virginia, 2002) and non-murderers (Kennedy v Louisiana 2008) unconstitutional. Legal challenges to the use of lethal injection continue and Nebraska has banned the use of the electric chair as cruel and unusual punishment. Illinois, New Jersey, New York, New Mexico, Maryland, and Connecticut have abolished the death penalty. Public support for the death penalty is declining as are U.S. executions and death sentences. Religious and secular organizations from the U.S. Bishops to Amnesty International to the Innocence Project continue to call for abolition.

And Sister Helen carries on. In an early interview, she was asked about the course her life had taken. Referring to her first intentions when she entered religious life, Prejean said that her life actually has not taken that different a course.

“’I still feel like I am a teacher,” she said. “My classroom’s bigger now, it includes the United States and Europe and the United Nations and a lot of media interviews, but basically it’s living the Gospel message the best that I can and sharing what I learn along the way’.”

And so it is. Yes, Sister Helen carries on. Speaking, writing – now her spiritual memoir, River of Fire – expanding the Play Project, collaborating with a wide range of abolitionist organizations, engaging the death penalty discourse in any and all ways possible, always moving towards social justice, always in that on-going process of reflection on experience, social analysis, moral judgment and action.

The injustice of oppressive social structures must be named and must be challenged. In matters of justice, there is no neutral ground; we all stand -by design or default, by action or inaction- with the either oppressors or the oppressed. Those who wish to stand on the side of justice are compelled to act, for there can be no justice without action. The story of Sister Helen Prejean – and the stories of countless activists, some well-known and many not – illustrates this: moving towards social justice, moving towards an end to structural oppression, is an ever-emerging, always evolving process where new insights are continually gained, and new actions imagined and undertaken.

Moving towards social justice requires the recognition that each day, each setting, each circumstance provides new opportunities for action in any number of arenas. It requires the recognition that each of us can contribute in ways small or large. In the very last lines of the introduction to The Death of Innocents (2005 p xvi), Sister Helen closes with these words, which bear repeating here –

“…May you be impassioned to devote your life to soul-size work.

I hope what you learn here sets you on fire.”

Bob Phillips
Bob Phillips 2 Like

Hey, Nancy, great piece! Sister Helen deserves every kind word and far, far more.