At Death’s Door

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Grant-Guerrero Photography /
Sister Helen Prejean

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.

The death penalty is the most important civil rights issue of our time. It’s a deeply symbolic issue, because it says that the way we’re going to solve problems is by violence. It says that some among us are such a danger to who we are and what we stand for that they must be eliminated. To arrive at this mind-set, human beings have to flip a switch inside themselves. Deep down we know we are brothers and sisters and are all connected. For the death penalty to exist, we have to throw some switch that says “The Other is not human like us,” and so we can do whatever we want to him. And of course the execution must be removed from the public eye. The chamber is behind prison walls, and we don’t hear about what goes on inside it.

If we went to death row, who would we find there?

Less than 1 percent of the roughly 15,000 people who commit homicide each year are selected for death. Ninety percent of the prisoners who do end up on death row were abused as children. Nearly 100 percent are poor. We haven’t tried hard enough to solve the problem of poverty in this country. We have mentally ill people on death row. The Supreme Court has said that it’s unconstitutional to execute an insane person. So what do the states do? They give legally insane prisoners medication to make them appear sane enough to stand trial. We have some people on death row who don’t know how to read and write. But you also meet people on death row who read books and write profound reflections. Some of them will try to teach their fellow death-row prisoners how to read and write.

I used to think that people on death row would support and love each other, since they’re all in the same boat, but you also see people get into fights over tobacco or coffee and sometimes even throw their feces at someone walking by. There is fierceness and cruelty side by side with kindness.

In your years of public speaking, what arguments have you most often encountered in favor of the death penalty?

The most common argument is that death is a just punishment for those who have taken the lives of innocents. The murderer did not respect the life of the victim and therefore deserves what he or she gets. Anything less would devalue the victim’s life.

I’ve heard district attorneys say something like “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, we are going to ask you for the death penalty, because that is the only way to show how much we respect the innocent life that’s been taken.” Most people who make those kinds of rhetorical statements have never been there in the final hours and watched what it means to take people who are alive and strap them down to a gurney or in a chair and kill them. They are removed from the results of their actions.

I also hear religious arguments. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has said that Christians should support the death penalty because we expect to be punished for our sins. He believes that part of Christianity is to suffer pain and pay atonement. Scalia has also called execution by lethal injection “a quiet death” and “enviable” compared to how the victim died.

Some people approve of the death penalty because they think it is cheaper than life imprisonment. Actually, the death penalty is more expensive. That’s why more and more states with budget crises are doing away with it. 

In response to these arguments, I share stories about people I know. When New Jersey did away with the death penalty, 62 murder victims’ families testified that the death-penalty process had only prolonged their agony. They had been told it would provide “closure,” but in reality it meant they had to witness the death of another person, often after waiting 10 or 15 years to do so, and this death would do nothing to bring back their loved ones. During the waiting process, their story is in and out of the spotlight. It makes their wound public, and the healing doesn’t come. Many murder victims’ families have been prominent in the abolition movement. 

I also point out that the death penalty is not reserved for the most terrible murders. It’s more common in cases where the victim is white, for example: Approximately 80 percent of death-penalty cases involve the murder of a white person, yet 50 percent of all homicide victims are people of color.

You’ve said that if executions were made public, people would realize the brutality of this system and work to end it. Yet in our past, crowds would show up for public executions, some with picnic lunches.

There would be some, no doubt, who would pull out a beer and cheer that this terrible murderer had been killed. But for most people who see it up close, capital punishment is very unsettling. The head of the department of corrections in Louisiana has to arrange the protocol for executions, and part of that is gathering witnesses. At first he thought he’d have a line of people stretching across the Mississippi River waiting to get in, but soon he realized that no one who witnessed an execution asked to come back. When you’re in the death chamber, you see when they have to jab the needle 18 times into the arm of the condemned. You hear the stumbling last words of those who are killed: “Mama, I love you,” or “I’m so sorry.” Imagine an ordinary American family having their evening meal, and the news comes on and the kids ask their parents, “Isn’t this murder too?” and “Why are they putting antiseptic on his arm if they’re going to kill him?” It would not take long for people to cry out against this, and that’s why it will never be public.

You have served as spiritual adviser to six men who were executed. What were their last days, their last hours, like–for them and for you?

Being with someone who’s about to die is surreal. When you’re with someone in the hospital who is dying, it’s a natural process; you can see them leaving you. When someone is fully alive, and you’re talking to him the way you and I are talking, you cannot get your mind around the fact that in two hours, now one hour, now 45 minutes, he’s going to be killed.

The death itself is almost scripted: Now they’re walking in. Now I’m telling him good-bye and kissing him on the back. I’m praying for him and asking him to remember me to God. Now the guards have me by my arms. They are sitting me down in a witness chair. A lawyer who’s on our side takes my hand. I hold my Bible. Now they’re strapping him in the chair. There’s the big clock on the wall. There’s the exhaust fan, already turned on, that will suck from the room the stench of the human body burning. There’s the blank glass with the executioner on the other side. They’ve already tested the chair. The lights are bright fluorescents. There are two red telephones on the wall: If one rings, it is the court issuing a stay of execution. If the other rings, it’s a pardon from the governor. Neither phone rings. The victim’s family is sitting in the front row to watch. The other witnesses and I are sitting behind them. There are the two newspaper reporters writing vigorously on narrow spiral pads. And the condemned man is looking at me. I put my hand out. He can see my face. Then they put the leather mask over his face, so tight I worry he can’t breathe. How quickly they strap him in the chair and step away. It’s an oak chair. They put a cloth soaked with saline solution on his shaved head and then the metal cap. A thick, curled wire runs from the cap to the generator. And then the straps go across his chest.

I didn’t look the first time, because I knew with the mask on he couldn’t see me anymore. With lethal injection he can see me, but not with the electric chair. I closed my eyes and heard the sound of it. This huge, rushing, powerful, grinding sound of the fire being shot through his body. Three times. They run 1,900 volts, then let the body cool, and then 500 volts, and then 1,900 volts again. What’s terrifying is that they’ve done autopsies of people who have been electrocuted, and the brain is mainly intact. We don’t know what they feel.

You believe that the days leading up to an execution amount to torture.

I don’t say this lightly. According to Amnesty International, torture is “an extreme mental or physical assault” on someone who’s been rendered defenseless. Just imagine if people took you hostage and kept you in a room and said that in 24 hours they were coming in to kill you. And, when that time comes, they put the gun to your head and pull the trigger. It clicks. It is an empty chamber. They laugh and walk out and say, Not today. Maybe tomorrow. That’s torture.

Everybody I’ve known on death row has had the same nightmare: They dream it is their time, and the guards come and drag them out, and they are screaming and sweating, and then they wake up and realize they are still in their cell. Just think about when you have to go to the dentist for a root canal. If the appointment is on a Friday, all week you are living in dread. That’s just for a root canal.

Lloyd LeBlanc is the father of David LeBlanc, who was murdered by Patrick and Eddie Sonnier, the men whose stories are told in Dead Man Walking. You’ve said that Lloyd is your hero. When Ms. Sonnier was being harassed by neighbors for her sons’ actions, Lloyd came to her door with a basket of fruit. He told her he was a parent too, and that children make their own decisions, and he didn’t hold her sons’ actions against her. How does the parent of a murdered child do such a thing?

Lloyd embodies forgiveness–not just as something we can do for others, but forgiveness as an act of self-preservation that says, I am not going to let this anger and hatred kill me. I’m going to remain kind and loving. It is a path, not a single act. One’s commitment to it has to be renewed every day.

Lloyd told me how the sheriff had taken him to the morgue to identify his son’s body. David was a beautiful kid, 17 years old. He had been shot in the back of the head, and when the sheriff pulled his body out on the cold tray, David’s eyes were bulging; they were “sticking out like marbles,” Lloyd said. Lloyd–who was good with his hands and could fix things–looked down at his son and thought, I can’t fix this. And he began to pray. He came to the line in the Our Father about forgiving those who trespass against us. “I didn’t feel it,” he said, “but I knew that was where I had to go.” And that’s where he went.

Some parents of victims see that the path to healing is found in reconciliation and not in seeking more pain. The mothers understand this best. They realize that after the execution, another mother will be burying her child, and nothing will have been accomplished.

What happens to those who are able to forgive?

They become engaged with life again. They begin to focus on their other children, if they have any, and on their spouses, who are suffering with them. They take part in something bigger than themselves. One woman had a child who was kidnapped and never seen again. Now she goes to schools and talks to children about the importance of not going anyplace with strangers. People also find healing by realizing what values their child or loved one treasured and then working to keep those values alive. 

Recent polls suggest that an increasing number of Americans are against the death penalty. Fifteen states have abolished it. Do you think we will see the end of capital punishment in the United States in your lifetime?

A lot depends on whether I keep taking my vitamins. (She laughs.) It is going to end. It’s impossible to put a day or an hour on it, but I see the practice diminishing. Even Texas is killing fewer people. We are using more DNA testing, and 138 innocent people on death row have been released. This has shaken the confidence of the American public.

Excerpted from The Sun (Aug. 2010), which for more than 30 years has used personal essays, short stories, interviews, poetry, and photographs “to invoke the splendor and heartache of being human.”

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