At Death’s Door

Sister Helen Prejean ruminates on America’s obsession with retribution and prays for an end to state-sanctioned murder


| November-December 2010



Sister Prejean

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?  

rodeen
11/11/2010 9:08:23 AM

Well I found this article slightly more compelling than the one yesterday. Oddly it made me realize that I am not so much against the death penalty. If this story is the maxium amount of sympathy my mind is capable of generating for people who commit these heinous crimes then I have no problem putting them to death. No what I still get hung up on is killing one innocent man. That is the only thing that keeps me on the fence.


rodeen
11/11/2010 9:03:40 AM

Well I found this article slightly more compelling than the one yesterday. Oddly it made me realize that I am not so much against the death penalty. If this story is the maxium amount of sympathy my mind is capable of generating for people who commit these heinous crimes then I have no problem putting them to death. No what I still get hung up on is killing one innocent man. That is the only thing that keeps me on the fence.