Sister Helen Prejean said Jesus is sneaky.
Prejean was working in a ministry in a impoverished area of New Orleans when someone approached her about writing letters to a man on death row.
She accepted, but she did not know then this simple act would land her in the death chamber at Louisiana State Penitentiary and at the forefront of the battle against the death penalty.
Prejean is the author of “Dead Man Walking,” the book on which the movie by the same name was based. The movie starred Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, and Sarandon won an Oscar for her portrayal of a character based on Prejean.
Prejean spoke to a group Sunday night at the McPherson Church of the Brethren in McPherson as a part of McPherson College’s Religious Heritage Lecture series.
‘I was in prison’
Prejean began writing letters to convicted murder and death-row inmate Elmo Patrick Sonnier.
Prejean studied the Bible daily. She said she remembered reading a passage in Matthew 12:5.
“Then I’m reading theses words for the day, and I am now writing this man,” she said. “I could tell from his letters he didn’t have anyone to visit him.
“It was too hard on his mother — too mentally hard. She had already almost had a nervous breakdown. She couldn’t make herself walk into the place with the people who were trying to kill her son. He was alone and had no one to visit him, and I heard the words — ‘I was in prison and he came to me.’”
Belly of the beast
As Prejean entered Louisiana State Penitentiary for her first visit with Sonnier, she said she was scared to death.
“They kept clanging the gates behind me. There are no soft sounds in prison. There are all these cement floors and clanging and bars — no muzak — people yelling, ‘Woman on the tier. Woman on the tier.’ I thought ‘What have I done? I am in the belly of the beast ...”
Prejean finally came to a green door with a red sign that said “Death Row.”
She was locked in a room while she waited for the guards to bring Sonnier for their 2 1/2 hour visit. She was frightened. She clenched her cross. Then she heard a Cajun voice in the corridor.
“I looked through the grate and looked into his face and he was getting close so he could see me through the grate and there he said smiling, ‘Sister you came. You drove all that way. Thank you.,’” she said. “And I looked at him, and I guess I thought if you murdered someone your face would look a little different. And I [thought] ‘He is a human being.’
Page 2 of 3 - “It was a grace, because it was going to be tested sorely because I am soon going to find out what he and his brother did.”
Prejean sought out the Sonnier’s court records and those of his brother, who was serving two life sentences for the same crime.
When she opened the file, she saw a picture of Loretta Ann Bourque, 18, and of David LeBlanc, 16. Their parents had submitted their prom pictures to the newspaper for a story about their murders. Patrick Sonnier and his brother lay in wait for the couple near a popular make out point for teens.
The Sonniers were convicted of raping Bourque and then shooting both teens execution style in back of head and leaving their bodies in a nearby field.
“The first thing I felt was horror. I was so chilled by the enormity of the evil of killing two innocent kids and then right behind that ‘I’m with them. I am the spiritual adviser to the two people who did this?’ And then I thought of the parents.”
Prejean was reluctant to contact the victims’ families. She thought they couldn’t possible want to hear from the woman who was the spiritual adviser to the man that killed their children.
Polls at that time indicated more than 85 percent of Louisianans supported the death penalty.
She said she made a mistake by not reaching out to the families.
She did meet the families of the victims at the pardon board hearing one week before Sonnier was executed. She met the families in the hall, and Bourque family averted their gazes and walked right by Prejean.
David LeBlanc’s father, Lloyd, stopped Prejean in the hall.
“We lost our boy David,” Lloyd LeBlanc said to Prejean. “Sister, all this time you have been visiting those two brothers, and you don’t once come and see us. Sister, you don’t understand the pressure we are under with this death penalty thing.”
Prejean agreed to drive to LeBlanc’s church and pray with him during his regular prayer time at 4 a.m.
“Forgiveness is not about what you do for someone else,” but it was about saving his own life,” Prejean said.
LeBlanc was originally very anger at the Sonniers, but he is kind mind, Prejean said. He said he was losing that kindness to his bitterness and hatred.
“They killed our son, but I am not going to let them kill me,” LeBlanc said. “I am going do what Jesus said.”
Page 3 of 3 - The pressure on the LeBlancs to support the death penalty was immense.
“Sister, when I said pressure on us about the death penalty. Everybody was saying to us, ‘You have to be for the death penalty or its going to look like you didn’t love your boy. You had the ultimate loss. Look at the suffering of your wife, and look at Vickie, your daughter. Look at what has happened to your family, and you’re not going to ask for the ultimate penalty?”
Prejean said this is how we show we honor life — by killing the killer.
Prejean attended Patrick Sonnier’s execution by electrocution. Sonnier asked her not to attend, but Prejean knew there would be no one there for him. She told him to look into her face, and he did.
“I told him, ‘I will be the face of Christ for you,’” she said.
Prejean said she became physically ill immediately following the execution, but it lit a fire under her to minister to other death row inmates and fight against the death penalty.
“I have traveled this country, and I know the people are not wedded to the death penalty,” she said. “If the death penalty does not hit you personally, it is not something we think about. We need to dig spiritually to the roots of what it means to follow Jesus. Love is stronger than hate.”