VANCOUVER (CCN) — The harrowing and powerful story of a sister meeting a man on death row in Dead Man Walking has captured audiences in print, film, and opera for more than two decades, but many are more familiar with actress Susan Sarandon’s Academy Award-winning role as Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, than they are with the real-life sister and activist behind the tale.
Sister Prejean wrote Dead Man Walking, a true, personal account of befriending inmates she would later see put to death. She was in Vancouver in April to watch the Vancouver Opera perform her story and to speak on a social justice panel.
She sat down with The B.C. Catholic April 29 to explain her involvement in the issue of capital punishment.
The B.C. Catholic: How does a religious education teacher start visiting inmates on death row?
Sister Helen Prejean: I was in my 40s. I had grown up in a privileged life. I became a sister. I was prayerful. I was the director of religious education in a parish, but I was always in the suburbs. We had 10 major housing projects where African-Americans were suffering (but) I was oblivious.
This is the way I thought: “If the poor have God, they have everything, no matter how much they have to suffer in this life. One day, their reward will be great in heaven.”
Well, you can make those kinds of arguments when your family is not suffering, you’re not suffering, you have health care, you have education, and you have everything you need. I was sincere, but I was not awake.
The awakening happened when we were at a conference and a sister — Sister Marie Augusta Neal — was giving a talk and it was about being women of social justice.
I’d been on the other side of the debate, the “spiritual” camp. We’re sisters. We’re not social workers. Then here comes this social justice sister.
On the second day, she was talking about Jesus. She said integral to the Good News Jesus preached to poor people is that they would be poor no longer. It’s not God’s will for them to be poor and to suffer.
Everything changed then. It was like tectonic plates, everything shifted. I thought: “I don’t even know any poor people.” I woke up and moved into the St. Thomas housing projects. African-American people became my teachers.
One day I came out of that adult learning centre called Hope House and somebody asked me: “Would you like to write someone on death row?” I didn’t know anything about prisons!
BCC: You began corresponding with inmates Patrick Sonnier and then Robert Willie, combined to create Matthew Poncelet in the film and Joseph De Rocher in the opera. What was it like meeting these men in prison?
SHP: I had never talked to someone who had murdered anybody before. (Sonnier) wrote nice letters. I thought: “Anybody can write nice letters.” It was very scary!
They lock you in a room, and they go get your man, and I have two hours with this guy. What is he really like? I didn’t even know the crime. I would find out he and his brother killed two teenage kids.
The guards brought him in and they had this heavy metal screen between us. I looked in through that latticework and I saw his face for the first time. He was smiling. He was so glad I had come. I thought: “Oh my God, he’s human!”
Then it came and it never left me: no matter what he has done, he’s worth more than the worst thing he’s done in his life. As we all are.
Two-and-a-half years later, I accompanied him to execution. That was a moment that sealed my soul. When you’re watching this protocol of death, all thought out, each step, to take a human who is alive and walk him down a hall, strap him in an electric chair and kill him, you come out of that changed forever.
People are never going to get close to this. They’re going to hear on TV or read in papers tomorrow: here were two teenage kids killed, and here this guy was executed for his crime. They’re going to say justice was done and their minds will shut off, end of discussion. How will they know unless somebody who has been a witness, as I have just been, takes them there?
Then, my mission was born. I began to give talks and that’s how I came to write the book. When Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon wanted to do the film, I was delighted, because you can get to a lot of people through film.
When (Jake Heggie) wanted to do an opera, I was really delighted because that’s the fullness of the art form. It brings people close and doesn’t spare them.
BCC: How close does the Dead Man Walking film follow your book?
SHP: The movie is pure film genius. We had other death penalty films in the United States, but they followed a formula. All of the energy of the film was around whether the person was guilty or not. They are guilty, so justice will be done, and it ends with the execution . . . until Dead Man Walking. It became the flagship of another whole way of doing films about the death penalty.
It’s right at the heart of the Gospel message because here are people who have had great pain — their children have been killed — and they’re caught between this struggle to get even and the other part of their hearts and their souls. In the movie, that’s Earl Delacroix (the father of the teenage boy who was murdered by Matthew Poncelet). He’s torn between what he knows he’s learned from Jesus and what his own faith calls him to be and how Jesus called us to forgive (versus) everything else around him, where everybody is saying he has to be for the death penalty. He’s struggling in his own soul.
That’s the difference between art and propaganda: in art, you open the curtain and bring people to both sides of an issue, the crunch of the conflict.
BCC: Since you watched Sonnier die in 1984, you’ve become a vocal opponent of the death penalty. What’s your main message?
SHP: Facts and statistics don’t move hearts. I could give a whole talk on why only people who kill white people are chosen for death. How they’re always poor. How 90 per cent of them were abused as children. I can lay out the geography of death — the southern states that practised slavery do 70 per cent of all executions.
I could bring them through all of that, and they would be unmoved because statistics don’t change hearts. I tell stories, through the lens of my own experience as a sister getting in over her head.
That’s just what happens with this opera. The people are coming along with this sister who doesn’t know what she’s doing. She gets caught between the victim’s family on one hand saying you don’t know what it’s like, and the mother of (the inmate) who had to appeal at the pardon board for the life of her son.
BCC: How many executions have you witnessed?
SHP: They are etched forever on my soul. Six. I’ve accompanied six people to execution and half of them were innocent.
(The system) is so broken. Poor people have to get the defence given to them and if the truth doesn’t come out at your trial, if you don’t have a really good lawyer pressing the prosecutor to show the evidence, or to get expert witnesses to come on your behalf, or to summon eyewitnesses that can help you, all of those things that have to be done — they don’t have a chance.
We now have 158 wrongfully convicted people on death row who have been exonerated. It’s a lot of mistakes.
BCC: Have you seen any changes in the U.S. since you started speaking out against the death penalty?
SHP: Big changes are happening. It’s become very clear that a small percentage of persecutors, like two per cent, are responsible for over 65 per cent of people being on death row. It comes to geography — the Deep South states that practised slavery — and the politics where you have racism and the legacy of slavery and politics driven by “elect me and I’ll be tough on crime.”
There were only five states last year responsible for executions. Death penalties are handed out very rarely and executions are way down. We’re on our way. The wave is about to hit the shore, but caught in the pipeline of death are people like in Arkansas, where we just heard the governor (Asa Hutchinson) say we’re going to kill eight people.
Part of the dynamic is the people (responsible for executions) are losing hard in doing it. Deep down, to have a defenceless man you helped kill, in their gut they know something is wrong with this.
Sister Helen Prejean also wrote The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions, and is currently working on a prequel to Dead Man Walking called River of Fire.