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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 had pulled the trigger. There had been procedural errors—as tends to happen in the emotionally charged atmosphere of a capital trial. (Between 1976 and 1990, federal court review of capital cases led to reversal of half of them.)

Sister Helen opposes the death penalty as such, not just in cases of inequitable procedure. But her only way of showing concern for Pat’s life was to work with the lawyer who took up his case. She thought there was hope. The head of the pardon commission established by the governor to review cases was an African American who expressed great sympathy with the misrepresented poor, like Pat, who face death while those with expensive legal help get lesser sentences. The man’s name is Howard Marsellus, a name to remember.

Sister Helen was trying to help Pat face death even as she worked to save his life. She wanted him to express remorse to the parents of his victims, for his own soul’s health as well as their possible comfort. By this time, she had learned that the victims’ parents resented her attempt to save a killer’s life, and she was conscience-stricken that she had not tried to reach them earlier, offering help to them—a bad mistake she resolved not to repeat.

Pat would express remorse to Sister Helen, but his macho attitude made him bristle at the idea of “groveling” to the parents, one of whom had called him an animal on television. In the end, Sister Helen won only a half-victory. In some last words, with all the parents present as witnesses to his death, he directed his apology to the father who had not denounced him. But at least he did not die defiant and mocking, as he had originally planned. Indeed, Sister Helen persuaded him to confess his sins and die repentant. After going to confession to the prison chaplain, he shook his head in disbelief as he told Sister Helen that after confessing his lifetime of crime—“you know, the heavy-duty stuff”—the priest asked him: “Have any impure thoughts?”

Pat wanted Sister Helen, not the chaplain, to walk him toward his death. When the priest offered him the last sacraments, he asked Sister Helen to go to communion for him after it was over. The priest would later try to block Sister Helen from returning to death row, saying she had prevented Pat’s reception of the final sacraments.1

After watching the grisly procedure of judicial death—the shaving of all hair, even eyebrows; the diapering; the tying of the jaws to prevent shouting; the jolts of electricity that twisted one hand around—Sister Helen was picked up by friends at one o’clock and driven off, with a stop to retch by the roadside. She vowed not to get involved with this shattering business ever again—except to keep writing Eddie, Pat’s brother, who had confided to her that he really did the killing, and the two boys’ hapless mother, and as many of Pat’s victims as would talk with her.

But within six months the troublesome friend at the Prison Coalition had two new names of difficult men on death row needing friendship from somewhere. Reluctantly she took up the most urgent case—in part, because of her reluctance. No one wants to do this work—which is why someone must. First, she had to face a new warden’s objections to her presence, based on the chaplain’s complaint against her. Firmly she reminded the warden that a prisoner has a right to choose his own qualified spiritual adviser. Then the warden objected that she might be upsetting the good order of death row—on one early visit to Pat she had fainted, which led to a hasty use of prison vehicles to get her to a hospital. But the doctors found that she had fainted from hunger—after her long drive to the state prison, she was not allowed to have any food inside the prison walls. (Ruefully she admits that the only real reform she has ever accomplished in the prison system is that visitors can now eat there.) If she were the fainting kind, she told the warden, she would have fainted when she saw Pat die. The warden realized that her fainting was the least of the threats she might offer to the system. Various officers were already coming up to her to say they did not agree with the system they were administering.

Her new “pal” was another teamkiller, who with a friend had raped and murdered a teen-age girl. This criminal, Robert Willie, was cockier than Pat. He had traded insults with the stepfather of the victim in the court room, and that man was now a public advocate of the death penalty, boasting that he would see his stepdaughter’s killer fry. The man, Vernon Harvey, had already criticized Sister Helen for her vocal opposition to capital punishment, and she shuddered at the accident that gave her the name of the convict who killed Harvey’s beloved stepdaughter.

But she went to visit the Harveys, and listened to their agonized, compulsive reliving of their daughter’s death, reduced to tears herself as they cried for the thousandth time. Her sympathy would later make them accuse her of betrayal when she continued to support Robert’s appeals from the death verdict. Robert claims only to have held the girl’s hands while his partner stabbed her (seventeen times)—not an exculpation, by any means. Yet his partner, who was at least his equal in crime, got a life sentence (like Eddie in the first case). The two men’s cases had been severed for trial, and the partner had a defense that screened jurors well, emphasized his drug addiction, and brought in family testimony. Robert’s defense lacked all these elements—so he would die, and one equally guilty would live. The cases of the first two men Sister Helen saw executed show how arbitary is the death penalty’s use.

Robert was altogether a tougher customer than Pat had been. While serving time in another state’s prison, he had joined the Aryan Brotherhood. A racist, an admirer of Hitler, Robert told reporters he would have become a state terrorist rather than a private criminal if he had it all to do over again. Strange company for a nun to be keeping. The public barrage of statements by Vernon Harvey made Robert bristle with reciprocal hate.

Yet Sister Helen quietly worked to bring Robert’s mother to the prison, to reawaken his love for his young brothers. He wanted to take a lie detector test to prove to his mother that he had not done the actual stabbing. By the time Sister Helen walked him to the chair, reading from the Gospel of John, Robert was able to look at Vernon Harvey through the plexiglass and say, “I would just like to say, Mr. and Mrs. Harvey, that I hope you get some relief from my death.”

But they did not. Vernon Harvey went out into the postmidnight air exultant, and toasted his victory. But soon that triumph turned empty. At first the revenge had come too slow—four years after the murder. Then it had gone by too fast. He wished Robert had died in prolonged struggle, like his stepdaughter. Opposed as the Harveys were to Sister Helen’s work, they asked her to visit them—it was an opportunity to talk about the murder; other friends were apparently not up to this continual rehashing of the horror.

Vernon Harvey told the nun how he had considered, on two different occasions, killing Robert himself. He waited for the state to do it, and then found that unsatisfactory. Only an exact repetition of the stabbing of his daughter could have pleased him. After admitting the state would not do that, he proposed that Robert should have been shaved, strapped in the chair, his jaws tied—and then released, to repeat the ritual again and again. Harvey did not realize how well he was demonstrating the insatiability of revenge. Rather than surcease, Robert’s death had given him new grievances—which he tried to work off by founding a victims’ rights organization. Harvey’s anger had shifted, now, to the state, which had not given him the services he wanted. Many of the protests he worked out with other victims’ relatives were reasonable, and Sister Helen added her name to the group’s petitions. Harvey showed up as a counter-demonstrator at her own marches against the death penalty, a friend because she at least showed an interest in the subject of his obsession.

Never did Harvey arrive with any but white counter-demonstrators, though most victims of violent crime are black. When Sister Helen helped some Mennonite friends set up a victims’ counseling service (called Survive, to avoid the word victim), it included blacks. Sister Helen had kept visiting and praying with the family of one of Pat’s victims—in fact, when Pat’s mother needed financial help, the father of one of her son’s victims offered it to her, joining hands for life all around the act of death.

Sister Helen’s book mentions along the way all the arguments against the death penalty—that it does not deter; that it is inflicted unequally on the poor, on southerners, on blacks; that it is expensive (the average state cost of a capital trial, review, sentencing, and execution is three million dollars, against half a million dollars to incarcerate a person for forty years); that it does not statistically reduce crime; that revenge is an evanescent and spiritually imprisoning satisfaction.

The arguments are familiar, though they take on new force in the situations in which she raises them. But it is her experience that is important in the book—the need to serve life in a context of death. She tells her story with a quiet eloquence, not indulging in diatribe or personal attack. Yet we learn, by the narrative’s cumulative force, how the killing process hardens, coarsens, corrupts, or deadens those who serve it, from governors down to the anonymous executioners who do not even want to be identified with what they do.

Recall, in this connection, Howard Marsellus, the black head of the pardon commission who had agreed with Sister Helen on the inequality of death convictions. Though Marsellus showed sympathy, his board never once recommended pardon to the governor of Louisiana in a death-penalty case. When, nine years later, Sister Helen tracked Marsellus down to ask him why, he admitted that his political appointment had been conditioned on the understanding of his real role, which was to take pressure off the governor by giving him a panel to point to as having shown a regard for clemency—but not in this case.2 It was a corrupt and corrupting arrangement, Marsellus admitted, and he had set out to get his own advantage from a situation that provided for other politicians’ comfort. In the interval between their conversations, Marsellus had served eighteen months in prison for taking bribes to pardon people convicted of less-than-capital offenses. He told Sister Helen that such bribe-taking was common, and he was only one recipient in a system of pardon-for-pay.

Right-wingers like to say that the government cannot be trusted to deliver mail, much less health services. Yet they trust it to be efficient enough, free enough from corruption, to ascertain guilt infallibly and punish it finally by death. No one should have that power, says this nun. She soldiers on, against polls, derision, and hate mail (accusing her of sexual attraction to prisoners, among other things). Here is one voice for life. We should really need no other.

  1. 1

    There is something very strange about a church that considers priests like that chaplain full ministers of Jesus, but not a woman like Sister Helen.

  2. 2

    The effect of the system on governors would make an interesting study. Governor Edmund (Pat) Brown was so disturbed by the execution of Carroll Chessman that he later wrote an eloquent book on the moral futility of executions, Public Justice, Private Mercy: A Governor’s Education on Death Row (Grove, 1989). Governor Reagan was pleased that he introduced death by lethal injection, since he had been a rancher and saw how much better it was to kill superannuated horses by a veterinarian’s needle than by shooting them in the head, as in his earlier days. (As President, Reagan called Vernon Harvey to assure him the federal courts would ask the death penalty for the killer of his stepdaughter.) Governor Bill Clinton executed a man, Ricky Ray Rector, who had blown much of his own brain away and was not competent to defend himself.

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