Living Others’ Deaths

Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States

by Helen Prejean C.S.J.
Random House, 278 pp., $21.00

Sister Helen Prejean, of the Catholic order of St. Joseph of Medaille, was working for the poor in a black neighborhood of New Orleans when a friend on the Prison Coalition asked her to become “pen pal” to a man on death row. The man was a loner who would not write to others; but he was a Cajun Catholic who might respond to a nun. For a nun in her fifties, who came late to social work, it was an intimidating suggestion—which is, perhaps, one reason she acted on it. Her religious order encourages its sisters to deeds of self-testing.

She read the Coalition’s file on the inmate’s crime, which she found sickening—with his younger brother, he had kidnapped a high-school couple, raped the girl, and shot both the girl and her date three times each in the back of the head. After the arrest of the brothers, other young women came forward to say they had been raped by them. The two told badly concerted stories on who actually pulled the trigger, trying to confuse authorities; but a jury had decided that Pat Sonnier, the elder, bore responsibility. He was condemned to death and Eddie was given life imprisonment.

Sister Helen began her correspondence with Pat, simply to give some comfort and human contact to a prisoner whose family was too poor and debilitated to visit or write him. But she would not give Pat the impression that she condoned what he did. Nonetheless, his letters multiplied, and his loneliness ached from them. She asked to visit him.

When she reached the prison, after a long drive, she was taken to see the Catholic chaplain, a priest who rebuked her for not wearing a nun’s habit. She works in a poor neighborhood, wearing plain clothes, and had come to the prison in that “habit.” What was wrong with that? “The inmates,” said the priest, “know that the Pope has requested nuns to wear the habit, and for you to flout authority will only encourage them to do the same.” He also warned her not to trust prisoners, since every one of them is a con man who will take advantage of her. “Your job is to help this fellow save his soul by receiving the sacraments of the church before he dies.”

Her first job, she thought, was to show some level of human concern for Pat—something the priest had clearly not done. This meant, in Sister Helen’s case, taking part in Bible readings and prayer with Pat, but also trying to get his mother in to see him, and visiting the brother who was in the same prison but unable to communicate with Pat. It also meant keeping up her contact with the Prison Coalition, which was trying to interest a good lawyer in Pat’s appeal. Like most of those on death row, he was poor and had been poorly represented. There was good reason to doubt that Pat …

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