FEATURE STORIES

Sister Helen Prejean
Urges Cincinnatians to Act


by Christine Grote
October 2009

 

Cintas Center September 21

I arrive at the Cintas Center at Xavier University in Cincinnati just a few minutes before Sr. Helen Prejean is scheduled to speak on the evening of September 21. A small woman dressed in a no-nonsense navy pants suit and crisp white blouse exits the car in front of me and I instantly recognize her as Sr. Helen Prejean.

I take the opportunity to shake her hand and then watch as she briefly meets others and then strides into the building and down the steps. I overhear her admit that the traveling is tiring for her, but she enters the room as a burst of energy none-the-less.

She approaches the table where two of the program organizers sit who immediately stand up as Sr. Helen says, “Hi! And what are you doing with your bright young lives?”

Sr. Helen is clearly a woman on a mission. “Let’s get to work,” are the first words out of her mouth as she takes the podium when she is introduced. She is here to talk about the death penalty, but she talks about issues much broader than capital punishment alone. She talks about human dignity, poverty, racism, compassion, and justice.

Sr. Helen is here to set off sparks hoping to ignite a fire in us. Those who are watching and listening closely can almost see the flicker of light and hear the fizzle.

“I wasn’t always against the death penalty,” Sr. Helen says as she recounts her journey of enlightenment. She admits that earlier in her life she doesn’t remember even hearing about an execution.

“When our consciousness unfolds and we get it about something,” she says, “it’s always grace.” You can’t force yourself to be enlightened; it’s more than the intellect, and it’s not about will power she explains.

“It’s about catching on fire the way Isaiah caught on fire, the way Jeremiah caught on fire . . . and the way Jesus caught on fire,” she says. “And so we want to talk about catching on fire.”

Sr. Helen is a natural story-teller and over the next hour or so, she walks us through her own journey with humor, and with vivid and poignant descriptions of events delivered at times with a loud, strong, even angry voice that at other times drops to a mere whisper.

Always attentive, sometimes the audience responds with laughter. Sometimes the audience responds with total silence as each person suspends motion to reach out and grasp the whispered words from the microphone when Sr. Helen leans in close and hands us a secret from her heart.

Sister Helen’s Journey

“The way it began was first understanding that being and following Jesus meant being with the poor,” Sr. Helen says. “I didn’t always get it about this thing called justice and being with the poor.” But she moved into the St. Thomas housing project in New Orleans, “and now I got it,” she says.

She learned about “the way it is if you’re a young black kid and the police stops you.” She learned about the schools that were just passing students through without educating them when she met a young man in the 11th grade who wanted to get his G.E.D. but couldn’t read a third grade reader.

She saw what was happening with the kids and the drug dealers. “And so the kids are going to go and work at McDonalds in a minimum paying job and here comes a guy driving in with a gold chain around his neck and in a nice car,” she says. “You can see the kids getting sucked into it.” She began to learn about “mitigating circumstances” and true compassion.  

Sr. Helen describes bumping into a man from a prison coalition on the street one day who asks her, “Do you want to write somebody on death row here in Louisiana?” and he gives her Patrick Sonnier’s name. 

“I never dreamed they were going to kill this person,” she says. And she takes us on her 2-½ year journey with Patrick Sonnier who she later writes about in Dead Man Walking.

When she eventually visits Patrick on death row and his brother Eddie who has a life sentence for the murders of Loretta Borque and David LeBlanc she thought that “they would look mean—they would look different—,” she says “anybody who murders somebody is not like us.” What she encountered instead was their humanness and says, “They were human.”  

Many of her other preconceived ideas became challenged. “I thought there were two places in the world where everyone told the truth: one was in church and the other was in court,” she says and is rewarded with the laughter she seeks. But she began to wonder “how can you have a murder and the one brother gets death and the other brother gets life?”

Sr. Helen later learned that it was that Eddy who was very volatile that night and killed the two kids, but she also finds out about co-defendants and state’s evidence and how he testified against his brother Patrick and in return received a reduced sentence. “And how do we know we’re getting the truth?” she demands.

Sr. Helen journeyed with Patrick Sonnier 2 ½ years and accompanied him on the night of his execution, even though he told her he didn’t want her to be scarred by seeing him electrocuted. She told him she would be there to  “be the one face of somebody who cared about him,” she says.

And when she left the execution chamber in the middle of the night, she threw up and then she thought, “The American people are never going to be brought close to this. I’ve been a witness. I’ve got to tell the story.”

The Other Arm of the Cross

Although initially Sr. Helen was hesitant to reach out to victims’ families for fear of their rejection of her ministry to the accused, eventually she met the parents of Loretta and David and her journey with victims’ families began.

She learned about the pressure some victims’ families are under with the death penalty. She began to go to parents of murdered children support groups and she learned how alone parents feel with their grief. 

“There are two arms on this cross and it stretches us on this issue of the death penalty,” she says. “There’s the person who’s done the crime and their dignity, which we have to work at, and there’s the suffering victim.”

Sr. Helen sees the suffering of the victims’ and their families, but she also sees the basic human dignity of everyone, even the guilty. Speaking in the voice of angry proponents of the death penalty she yells, “What did they do to their victims? Look at the suffering of their victims!” 

And she asks, “What does it really mean for a society to say to somebody who’s been through the trauma and grief of losing a child, or losing a loved one, ‘You’re going to get to sit in the front row. And you’re going to get to watch as we kill the one who killed your loved one, and that is going to heal you.’”

In Texas there are three witnessing chambers: one for the state, one for the victims’ families or their representatives and the other “is where the mother stands, and the family stands, to watch her child be killed by the state,” Sr. Helen explains. “This is not who we are.” She adds, “It is a betrayal of the soul of who we are to say that this is what we’re going to call justice.”

A Call to Action

“We’ve been at it for 30 years in this country,” Sr. Helen says,

“Overwhelmingly the people we’ve executed, the people on death row, killed white people. Racism is in it. Poverty is in it. It’s only poor people.  .  . Yes, and some of them did unspeakable crimes, but it’s only poor people who are chosen to die. One percent out of all 15,000 homicides are given the death penalty.”

Sr. Helen talks about the “pockets where politicians or prosecutors are going to go for the death penalty” and places “right next door” where no one ever goes for the death penalty.

“It is arbitrarily and capriciously applied,” she says.

“It’s not a question of being tough on crime. It’s a question of whether or not we can allow government to take into its hands the killing of human life,” Sr. Helen says.

She tells us she believes most people are simply too removed from the death penalty and executions. “Who follows that?” she asks. Individuals can make a difference by writing letters to legislators and judicial committees asking them to abolish capital punishment.

“If we are silent,” Sr. Helen says, “what they say is, ‘The people want it.’”

Finally Sr. Helen reminds us of what St. Basil said in the 4th century, “Annunciations are frequent. Incarnations are rare.” She explains that to become an incarnation means we stretch our hands out and “we begin to act.” She leaves us with the words, “I urge you to be involved.”

On that September night in Cincinnati, Sr. Helen sent out the sparks. Will the fire catch?

Sister Helen Prejean:
Dead Man Walking; The Journey Continues

Presented at St. Xavier University Cintas Center September 21, 2009
Sponsored by

Xavier Peace and Justice Programs
Students for Life

Ohioans to Stop Executions

Archdiocese of Cincinnati

 

Watch slide show of Xavier event

Sister Helen Prejean

Sister Helen Prejean

Sr. Helen's Website
Sr. Helen's Blog

In an exclusive interview with RED! Webzine, Sister Helen Prejean explains the Supreme Court's ruling on the right to a federal appeal in the case of Troy Davis of Georgia when seven witnesses recant their testimony.
Watch video now.

Death Penalty Facts
from the Death Penalty Information Center

States with the death penalty - 35
States without death penalty - 15

Total executions since 1976 - 1158

Executions in 2009 (April 17) - 22

According to a survey of the former and present presidents of the country's top academic criminological societies, 84% of these experts rejected the notion that the death penalty acts as a deterrent to murder. (Radelet & Akers 1996)

A 1995 Hart Research Poll of police chiefs in the U.S. found that the majority of the chiefs do not believe that the death penalty is an effective law enforcement tool.

Download pdf of facts from the Death Penalty Information Center

 

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Interview with Sister Helen - part 1

Jeff Hillard's Blog
(Scroll to September 22nd)