“When I walked out of the execution chamber, I had just watched a man electrocuted to death. He looked at my face before they killed him. The cold protocol that all the guards followed shocked me. I came outside the prison into the dark and vomited.”
Sister Helen Prejean’s remarkable life has had many turning points, none greater than early on the morning on 5 April 1984, when she witnessed the execution of a man who had become her friend.
It was a defining moment for Sister Prejean, whose life was changed forever when in the early 1980s she went to live among poor African Americans in New Orleans. She left a comfortable middle-class life in the suburbs to discover “another America, one which my eyes had been blind to”. She remembers vividly her shock at seeing so much poverty, injustice and police abuse.
Soon afterwards, she became a pen pal to Patrick Sonnier, who was on death row. The letters soon became visits, and two and a half years later came the moment from which there was no turning back – being with Patrick Sonnier when he was executed.
“It just took my life and turned it inside out. I had been a witness to a state killing so I had to tell the story. I also became involved with the victim’s family and saw their suffering and how the death penalty had nothing to do with their healing. If anything, it prolonged their waiting for this illusory healing, which was supposed to come to them by sitting on the front row and watching Patrick die.”
Her involvement with Patrick Sonnier turned Sister Prejean into a formidable opponent of capital punishment. She translated her experiences into a Pulitzer Prize nominated book, Dead Man Walking, which then formed the basis of the film written and directed by Tim Robbins.
Sister Prejean also took on, with considerable success, two of the world’s most powerful institutions – the Roman Catholic Church and the US state ¬– and shows no signs of relaxing. Now approaching her 70th birthday, she is still tirelessly campaigning around the world to end capital punishment. She gives around 100 talks a year and continues to visit men and women on death row.
Sister Prejean talks passionately about the many levels of injustice she believes are associated with capital punishment – the racism, the scapegoating of the poor, the damage it does to those who administer it and to society at large, the killing of innocent people and the robbing human beings of their dignity.
“There is no dignity in killing a defenceless person,” she says. “This was the heart of my dialogue with Pope John Paul in 1997. I said that Amnesty International has a principled stand, no exceptions, but the Catholic Church doesn’t. I showed him where he had left a loophole for the death penalty – in his encyclical called The gospel of life – ‘in cases of absolute necessity’. I said to him that you can’t leave it up to governments because they’ll always say it’s absolutely necessary.
“When the Pope came to St Louis in 1999, for the first time he put the death penalty along with all the other pro-life issues. He said no to the death penalty because it is cruel, and unnecessary because we have prisons, and then he added that ‘even those among us who have done a terrible crime have a dignity’.
“So our task is to teach people, now we’ve got the policy straight!” says Sister Prejean. “There are 65 million Catholics in the USA. The states that have the most Catholics in them are the states that use the death penalty the least. We can end the death penalty by mobilizing the 65 million Catholics.”
She says Amnesty International taught her that human rights are inalienable, that they are not given by governments to people for good behaviour and cannot be taken away from them for bad behaviour.
“Amnesty became my teacher – far quicker than my own Catholic church, which [at that point] had a compromised position on the death penalty. Amnesty has also taught me about spirit and about how you organize people, and how you go about educating people.”
One of the main lessons Sister Prejean learned was to begin with simple methods. “Write a letter to someone,” she suggests. “If we let that rose fully unfurl it will change our whole life because it is about standing up for the dignity of each person. It is not so much they [the prisoners on death row] who need to be changed. It is us. It will teach us we have one life – and it counts. We’ve got to do essential things, not trivial things.”