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Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States.

NEW ORLEANS -- Around 1980, Sr. Helen Prejean began writing to inmates on Louisiana's death row. She became a spiritual adviser to them, she watched them die and she even befriended the families of the men's victims. Today, the Sister of St. Joseph Medaile is bringing many people on her journey into the dark corridors of death row -- with the hope that capital punishment supporters will see the light.

She has written a book about her experiences, published by Random House, called Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States. With a 30,000-copy first edition, book and author have been profiled in The New York Times Magazine, Vogue and in several television news programs. Jason Epstein, her editor, sent copies to all the Supreme Court justices.

"This is unreal, it must be in a movie," said Prejean recently on the "Today Show," where she described what it was like to witness executions.

Recently, Prejean spoke with NCR at Hope House, where she lives in a drug-ravaged neighborhood, an area she moved to in the early 1980s when her order began to shift its focus toward social justice ministry.

She reflected on the late Justice Thurgood Marshall. "He said that if more people were aware of the facts surrounding capital punishment, they would consider it shocking and unacceptable."

For Prejean, the facts reveal a terrible tangle of pain and injustice.

If society is opposed to torture and murder, she reasons, then the state has no right to inflict it. "One piece of moral bedrock on which I am absolutely certain: if I were to be murdered I would not want my murderer executed ... especially by government -- which can't be trusted to control its own bureaucrats or collect taxes equitably or fill a pothole, much less decide which of its citizens to kill," she writes.

In 1982, she befriended Elmo "Pat" Sonnier, a death row inmate whose brother Eddie received a life sentence for complicity in the same kidnap-murder of a teenage boy and girl. The Sonniers' father was a convict and their family life had been fraught with pain.

As Prejean began visiting Pat, another nun told her: "Don't be so absorbed in fighting for him to live that you don't help him die." Although she chose to advocate on his behalf, Prejean felt that, "The sheer weight of loneliness, his abandonment, draws me. I abhor the evil he has done. But I sense something, some sheer and essential humanness, and that perhaps is what draws me most of all."

Eddie Sonnier, who killed the young couple, is guilt-ridden as his brother Pat goes to the electric chair. Pat does so with spiritual resolve, telling the dead boy's father, "Mr. LeBlanc, I don't want to leave this world with any hatred in my heart. I want to ask your forgiveness for what me and Eddie done." LeBlanc nods -- and eventually comes to forgive.

Dead Man Walking examines what executions do to those involved in its machine -- from guards on death row, taught to be numb to inmates' feelings, to a former corrections chief, who admits that "never in a million years" would he attend one. She portrays Edwin Edwards as a Louisiana governor who dislikes sending men to die, and so turns as much of the task as possible over to his pardon and parole board.

Howard Marsellus, who chaired the board in the mid-1980s, was convicted of pardon selling. In an interview, he told Prejean: "Driving home after [an innocent man's] execution down that dark, curvy road, my hands were shaking and tears were running down on my face and I said to my wife, 'Why did I ever get out of education? How have I let myself get involved in all this horror?' ... I sat in judgment on these men like that -- the guilty and the innocent. But who was I to sit in judgment? It still bothers me ... I'm really sorry.'"

On July 7, Marsellus, who now lives in Texas, will speak at a Loyola University of New Orleans forum against the death penalty. Prejean helped organize the event. Other speakers are Jesuit Fr. James C. Carter, the university president, and Dale Brown, the popular LSU basketball coach, who changed his mind about the death penalty after watching an electrocution at Angola prison.
COPYRIGHT 1993 National Catholic Reporter
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Berry, Jason
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 2, 1993
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