Death is a reality for Sister Helen Prejean, and hardly a new one at that. During her charity work as a nun, Prejean often visited with terminally ill patients, comforting them during their final moments.
“They’re losing consciousness, they’re not eating, they’re not talking,” she reflected. “But when I was with Pat before he died, he was talking and drinking black coffee and smoking like he always did.”
Despite her previous work as a nun, nothing could have prepared Prejean for the day in 1984 she witnessed Patrick Sonnier electrocuted to death at Louisiana’s Angola State Penitentiary.
“I was an eyewitness and I had to tell this story,” Prejean said to an audience of several hundred at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel this past Saturday. The event was a part of a weekend-long convention hosted by the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and the Illinois and University of Chicago chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
“I couldn’t believe they killed Pat. I didn’t know what to do, but I knew I couldn’t walk away from it,” she added.
Prior to his death, Prejean knew Sonnier, who was convicted of rape and murder, for seven years as his spiritual adviser. The relationships she forged with Sonnier and other death row inmates eventually led her to chronicle her experiences in her 1993 book Dead Man Walking, which has since been adapted to film, opera, and theater. Prejean published her second book, The Death of Innocents, in 2004, which relates her conversations with death row inmates she believes were wrongly convicted and executed for crimes they did not commit.
Yet Prejean said that finding creative and effective outlets for exposing the injustices of the death penalty has hardly been easy. The media and government officials often “don’t want the public being brought close to the reality of people being killed for their crimes,” she said.
One of the first press conferences Prejean organized with the Sister of St. Joseph of Medaille and the ACLU was ignored by most major media houses, Prejean recalls.
“We couldn’t get the media to come. We had a press conference and nobody came. No one wanted to hear a ragtag group of a bunch of nuns and ACLU people,” she said.
But the spirit and compassion of Martin Luther King, Jr., inspired Prejean and a small group of attorneys and activists to continue working to abolish the death penalty.
“From [King] and that spirit, we began. This is the new abolitionist movement. First it was slavery and now it’s to keep the government from killing people,” Prejean said.
The racial connections between King’s civil rights movement and the current work being done to end the death penalty are hardly coincidental. While one in 32 adults in the United States is currently in the prison system, this number jumps to one in three for black men between the ages of 20 and 29, Prejean said.
“Eighty percent of the executions done in this country are done in the 10 states that practiced slavery,” she added.
The legacy of Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary where Sonnier was killed, is particularly chilling, Prejean said. The prison is built on land that once comprised three separate plantations that were run by slave labor imported from Angola.
“Today the population [of Angola penitentiary] is 75 percent black men with hoes on their shoulders sent to work in the fields,” Prejean said.
Prejean grew up in a white suburb of Baton Rouge and attended a predominantly white church during a time when Jim Crow legislation was a reality in the South. As a young girl, she never bothered to question the reasons behind segregation.
“The emphasis was always charity, be sweet and nice, but I never questioned why blacks had to sit in a separate section in church and why they had separate communion dishes. I wasn’t thinking about social justice,” she said.
Her sheltered upbringing compelled Prejean to seek out ways of understanding the lives of those in the inner cities who live just miles away from where she spent her childhood.
“The suffering had been going on right at my back door,” she said.
The belief that the most important advocacy is done from the ground up has guided Prejean’s work throughout her campaign against the death penalty. Through her talks both with the families of death row inmates and with families of victims, Prejean said that she came to new understandings of the underlying factors that perpetuate racial inequality and discrimination.
“I got to listen to mothers. Every time there was a gun shot, they were at the doors, [asking] ‘Where is my child, where is my child?’” she said.
“I listened to their stories and I think, ‘I’ve lived in the United States of America, but what United States of America did I live in?’ You can say you live in Chicago, but what bubble of Chicago are you living in?” she asked of the audience.
For Prejean, linking these experiences to human lives has been her central goal as both a writer and an advocate. She believes that humanizing the statistics is a prerequisite for the empathy necessary for prison reform.
“The problem with this country is that we don’t feel outrage at the deaths of everyone, only of people of status who look like us,” she lamented.
And while telling stories is the first step in capturing the imaginations and attention of the public, Prejean insists that facts and research play an integral role in the campaign to end the death penalty.
“I’ve been through six human beings being executed and I’m convinced that the last two were innocent,” she said. “The structural reason why we have so many innocent people on death row is because poor people can’t choose their lawyers.”
“Procedures are killing people,” she added. “You got to file on time. How can you access your constitutional protections if they’re going to kill you with procedures?”
She also added that many of the legal statutes governing the penalty are arbitrary. Prejean witnessed the 1999 execution of Dobie Gillis Williams, a mentally challenged man with an IQ of 65, whom she believes was innocent of the murder charges.
“Two years later, the government decided it can’t kill mentally retarded people. Look how long it took to recognize that, along with killing of juveniles. We are the only country along with Somalia to still be killing kids,” she said, citing both the United States’ and Somalia’s refusal to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
“If you were under the age of 18…you couldn’t witness an execution, but you could be executed yourself.”
While much progress has been made so far to end the death penalty, “things are not happening fast enough,” Prejean said. The stories and accounts of current and exonerated death row inmates inspire her to continue advocating for prison reform, she added.
Several former death row inmates and family members of inmates also spoke Saturday.
“I spent nine years, one month, and 17 days on death row,” recounted Darby Tillis, who was wrongfully convicted by a Cook County jury for a 1977 Chicago murder. He was tried five times before his release from death row in 1987.
“Death row is a place of pain, hurt, and torture. The death penalty is the most powerful weapon of the state… You suffer the most cruel and unusual punishment that any man can suffer.”