At Death’s Door
Sister Helen Prejean ruminates on America’s obsession with retribution and prays for an end to state-sanctioned murder
Sister Helen Prejean
Grant-Guerrero Photography / www.grantguerrero.com
Since 1977 more than 1,200 people have been executed in the United States, with the overwhelming majority of those executions taking place in Southern states. One of those killed was Elmo Patrick Sonnier, convicted by a Louisiana jury of murdering David LeBlanc and Loretta Ann Bourque on the night of their high school homecoming. While Sonnier was on death row, he began corresponding with Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun in New Orleans. Their correspondence, Prejean says, turned her life upside down. Today she is one of the world’s foremost death-penalty abolitionists.
Prejean was born into privilege and entered the convent intent on seclusion. It wasn’t until a fellow nun asked “What are you doing to stop the suffering in the world?” that Prejean decided to leave the cloister and help the urban poor. After moving into a housing project in New Orleans, Prejean became Sonnier’s spiritual adviser. She visited with him in person, right up to the last hours of his life. Sonnier was electrocuted before her eyes, and his story led her to write the Pulitzer Prize–nominated book Dead Man Walking (Vintage).
Prejean has since served as spiritual adviser to five more death-row inmates and travels the world to speak in opposition to the death penalty. Her second book is titled The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions (Vintage), and she is at work on a spiritual autobiography, River of Fire. She also assists families of murder victims in New Orleans through Survive, a victims’ advocacy group that she founded.
According to Amnesty International, 93 percent of the world’s executions take place in five countries: China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, and the United States. Why is our government on such a list?
The death penalty is a natural outgrowth of our long history of using violence to achieve our ends. We’re a very young country, and violence has worked for us in the past. It began with the settling of this continent and the genocide against Native Americans, then continued when we brought slaves over.
But capital punishment has been practiced for centuries. Is it part of human nature?
It’s part of a cultural understanding that says the only way to subdue evil is with violence, but it’s not part of human nature. Look at all the countries that don’t have the death penalty. The first act of the new Constitutional Court in South Africa, after it got rid of apartheid, was to banish the death penalty. To some extent violence is part of our nature, but compassion is too. Seeking justice for everybody is also part of human nature.
Page: 1 | 2
| Next >>