Friday, November 12, 2010

At Death’s Door

interview by David Cook

The Sun
November-December 2010

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.