Would Jesus Pull the Switch?
Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J.
I was scared out of my mind. I went into the women's room because it was the only private place in the death house, and I put my head against the tile wall and grabbed the crucifix around my neck. I said, "Oh, Jesus God, help me. Don't let him fall apart. If he falls apart, I fall apart."
I had never watched anybody be killed in front of my eyes. I was supposed to be Patrick Sonnier's spiritual advisor. I was in over my head. All I had agreed to in the beginning was to be a pen pal to this man on Louisiana's death row. Sure, I said, I could write letters. But the man was all alone, he had no one to visit him. It was like a current in a river, and I got sucked in. The next thing I knew I was saying, "OK, sure, I'll come visit you."
He had suggested that on the prison application form for visitors I fill in "spiritual advisor," and I said, "Sure." He was Catholic, and I'm a Catholic nun, so I didn't think much about it; it seemed right. But I had no idea that at the end, on the evening of the execution, everybody has to leave the death house at 5:45 p.m., everybody but the spiritual advisor. The spiritual advisor stays to the end and witnesses the execution.
Vengeance is whose?
People ask me all the time, "What are you, a nun, doing getting involved with these murderers?" You know how people have these stereotypical ideas about nuns: nuns teach; nuns nurse the sick. I tell people to go back to the gospel. Look at who Jesus hung out with: lepers, prostitutes, thieves—the throwaways of his day. If we call ourselves Jesus' disciples, we too have to keep ministering to the marginated, the throwaways, the lepers of today. And there are no more marginated, thrown-away, and leprous people in our society than death-row inmates.
There's a lot of what I call "biblical quarterbacking" going on in death-penalty debates: people toss in quotes from the Bible to back up what they've already decided anyway. People want to not only practice vengeance but also have God agree with them. The same thing happened in this country in the slavery debates and in the debates over women's suffrage.
Religion is tricky business. Quote that Bible. God said torture. God said kill. God said get even. Even the Pauline injunction "Vengeance is mine, says the Lord, I will repay" (Rom. 12:19) can be interpreted as a command and a promise—the command to restrain individual impulses toward revenge in exchange for the assurance that God will be only too pleased to handle the grievance in spades. That God wants to "get even" like the rest of us does not seem to be in question.
One intractable problem, however, is that divine vengeance (barring natural disasters, so-called acts of God) can only be interpreted and exacted by human beings, very human beings. I can't accept that. Jesus Christ, whose way of life I try to follow, refused to meet hate with hate and violence with violence. I pray for the strength to be like him.
I cannot believe in a God who metes out hurt for hurt, pain for pain, torture for torture. Nor do I believe that God invests human representatives with such power to torture and kill. The paths of history are stained with the blood of those who have fallen victim to "God's Avengers." Kings, popes, military generals, and heads of state have killed, claiming God's authority and God's blessing. I do not believe in such a God.
But here's the real reason why I got involved with death-row inmates: I got involved with poor people. It took me a while to wake up to the call of the social gospel of Jesus. For years and years when I came to the passages where Jesus identified with poor and marginated people I did some fast-footed mental editing of the scriptures: poor meant "spiritually poor."
When I read in Matthew 25, "I was hungry and you gave me to eat," I would say, "Oh, there's a lot of ways of being hungry." "I was in prison, and you came to visit me,"—"Oh, there's a lot of ways we live in prison, you know."
Other members of my religious community woke up before I did, and we had fierce debates on what our mission should be. In 1980, when my religious community, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille, made a commitment to "stand on the side of the poor," I assented, but only reluctantly. I resisted this recasting of the faith of my childhood, where what had counted was a personal relationship with God, inner peace, kindness to others, and heaven when this life was done. I didn't want to struggle with politics and economics. We were nuns, after all, not social workers.
But later that year I finally got it. I began to realize that my spiritual life had been too ethereal, too disconnected. To follow Jesus and to be close to Jesus meant that I needed to seek out the company of poor and struggling people. So in June 1981 I drove a little brown truck into St. Thomas, a black, inner-city housing project in New Orleans, and began to live there with four other sisters.
Growing up a Southern white girl right on the cusp of the upper class, I had only known black people as my servants. Now it was my turn to serve them. It didn't take long to see that for poor people, especially poor black people, there was a greased track to prison and death row. As one Mama in St. Thomas put it: "Our boys leave here in a police car or a hearse."
It didn't take long to see how racism worked. When people were killed in St. Thomas and you looked for an account of their deaths in the newspaper, you'd find it buried on some back page as a three-line item. When other people were killed, it was front-page news. Drug activity took place in the open, but when the sisters went to the mayor's office to complain, the officials would just shrug their shoulders and say, "Well, you know, Sister, every city has a problem with drugs. At least we know where they are." I began to understand that some life is valued and some life is not.
One day a friend of mine from the Prison Coalition Office casually asked me if I'd be a pen pal to someone on death row in Louisiana. I said, "Sure." But I had no idea that this answer would be my passport to a strange and bizarre country.
God is a mystery, but one of the definite characteristics of God is that God is sneaky.
When I began visiting Patrick Sonnier in 1982, I couldn't have been more naive about prisons. My only other experience with prisoners had been in the ‘60s when once Sister Cletus and I went to Orleans Parish Prison to play our guitars and sing with the prisoners. This was the era of the singing nuns—"Dominique-nique-nique."
The guards brought us all into this big room with over 100 prisoners, and I said, "Let's do ‘If I Had a Hammer,'" and the song took off like a shot. The men really got into it and started making up their own verses—"If I had an Uzi"—laughing and singing loud, and the guards were rolling their eyes, and Sister Cletus and I weren't invited back there to sing any more.
I wrote Patrick about life at Hope House in St. Thomas, and he told me about life in a 6-by-8-foot cell, where he and 44 other men were confined 23 hours a day. He said how glad he was when summer was over because there was no air in the cells. He'd sometimes wet the sheet from his bunk and put it on the cement floor to try to cool off; or he'd clean out his toilet bowl and stand in it and use a small plastic container to get water from his lavatory and pour it over his body. Patrick was on death row four years before they killed him.
I made a bad mistake. When I found out about Patrick Sonnier's crime—that he had killed two teenage kids—I didn't go to see the victims' families. I stayed away because I wasn't sure how to deal with such raw, unadulterated pain. I was a coward. I only met them at Patrick's pardon-board hearing. They were there to demand Patrick's execution. I was there to ask the board to show him mercy. It was not a good time to meet.
Here were two sets of parents whose children had been ripped from them. I felt terrible. I was powerless to assuage their grief. It would take me a long time to learn how to help victims' families, a long time before I would sit at their support-group meetings and hear their unspeakable stories of loss and grief and rage and guilt.
I would learn that the divorce rate for couples who lose a child is over 70 percent—a sad new twist to "until death do us part." I would learn that often after a murder friends stay away because they don't know how to respond to the pain.
I don't see capital punishment as a peripheral issue about some criminals at the edge of society that people want to execute. I see the death penalty connected to the three deepest wounds of our society: racism, poverty, and violence.
In this country, first the hangman's noose, then the electric chair, and now the lethal-injection gurney have been almost exclusively reserved for those who kill white people. The rhetoric says that the death penalty will be reserved only for the most heinous crimes, but when you look at how it is applied, you see that in fact there is a great selectivity in the process. When the victim of a violent crime has some kind of status, there is a public outrage, and especially when the victim has been murdered, death—the ultimate punishment—is sought.
But when people of color are killed in the inner city, when homeless people are killed, when the "nobodies" are killed, district attorneys do not seek to avenge their deaths. Black, Hispanic, or poor families who have a loved one murdered not only don't expect the district attorney's office to pursue the death penalty—which, of course, is both costly and time-consuming—but are surprised when the case is prosecuted at all.
In Louisiana, murder victims' families are allowed to sit in the front row in the execution chamber to watch the murderer die. Some families. Not all. Almost never African American families. Ask Virginia Smith's African American family. She was 14 when three white youths took her into the woods, raped her, and stabbed her to death. None of them got the death penalty. Their fathers knew the district attorney, and they had all-white juries.
In regard to this first and deepest of America's wounds, racism, we'd have to change the whole soil of this country for the criminal-justice system not to be administered in a racially biased manner.
The second wound is poverty. Who pays the ultimate penalty for crimes? The poor. Who gets the death penalty? The poor. After all the rhetoric that goes on in legislative assemblies, in the end, when the net is cast out, it is the poor who are selected to die in this country. And why do poor people get the death penalty? It has everything to do with the kind of defense they get.
When I agreed to write to Patrick Sonnier, I didn't know much about him except that if he was on death row in Louisiana he had to be poor. And that holds true for virtually all of the more than 3,000 people who now inhabit death-row cells in our country. Money gets you good defense. That's why you'll never see an O.J. Simpson on death row. As the saying goes: "Capital punishment means them without the capital get the punishment."
I had to learn all this myself. My father was a lawyer. I used to think, "Well, they may not get perfect defense, but at least they get adequate defense." I tell you it is so shocking to find out what kind of defense people on death row actually have had.
The man I have been going to see on death row now for over six years is a young black man who was convicted for the killing of a white woman in a small community in Many, Louisiana. He had an all-white jury, and he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death in just one week. Dobie Williams has now been on death row for 10 years, and I believe he's innocent. But it is almost impossible for us to get a new trial for him. Why? Because if his attorney did not raise any objections at his trial, we cannot bring them up in appeals.
Finally, the third wound is our penchant for trying to solve our problems with violence. When you witness an execution and watch the toll this process also takes on some of those who are charged with the actual execution—the 12 guards on the strap-down team and the warden—you recognize that part of the moral dilemma of the death penalty is also: who deserves to kill this man?
On my journey with murder victims' families, I have seen some of them go for vengeance. I have seen families watch executions in the electric chair and still be for vengeance. I have also witnessed the disintegration of families because some parents got so fixated on vengeance that they couldn't love their other children any more or move on with life.
But I have also watched people like Marietta Jaeger of the group Murder Victims for Reconciliation or Lloyd LeBlanc, the father of one of Patrick Sonnier's victims. Although they have been through a white-hot fire of loss and violence, they have been healed by God's grace and been able to overcome their desire for revenge. They are incredible human beings with great courage, and to me they are living witnesses of the gospel and the incredible healing power of Jesus in the midst of violence.
Circle of light
Patrick had tried to protect me from watching him die. He told me he'd be OK. I didn't have to come with him into the execution chamber. "The electric chair is not a pretty sight, it could scare you," he told me, trying to be brave. But I said, "No, no, Pat, if they kill you, I'll be there."
Then I remembered how the women were there at the foot of Jesus' cross, and I said to him, "You look at my face. Look at me, and I will be the face of Christ for you." I couldn't bear it that he would die alone. I said, "Don't you worry. God will help me."
And there in the women's room, just a few hours before the execution, my only place of privacy in that place of death, God and I met, and the strength was there, and it was like a circle of light around me. If I tried to think ahead to what would happen at midnight I came unraveled, but there in the present I could hold together and be strong. And Patrick was strong and kept asking me, "Sister Helen, are you all right?"
Being in that death house was one of the most bizarre, confusing experiences I have ever had. It wasn't like visiting somebody dying in a hospital, where you can see the person getting weaker and fading. Patrick was so fully alive, talking and responding to me and writing letters to people and eating.
I'd look around at the polished tile floors—everything so neat—all the officials following a protocol, the secretary typing up forms for the witnesses to sign afterwards, the coffee pot percolating, and I kept feeling that I was in a hospital and the final act would be to save this man's life.
It felt strange and confusing because everyone was so polite. They kept asking Patrick if he needed anything. The chef came by to ask him if he liked his last meal—the steak (medium rare), the potato salad, the apple pie for dessert.
When the warden with the strap-down team came for him, I walked with him. God heard his prayer, "Please, God, hold up my legs." It was the last piece of dignity he could muster. He wanted to walk. I saw this dignity in him, and I have seen it in the three men I have accompanied to their deaths. I wonder how I would hold up if I were walking across a floor to a room where people were waiting to kill me.
The essential torture of the death penalty is not finally the physical method of death: bullet or rope or gas or electrical current or injected drugs. The torture happens when conscious human beings are condemned to death and begin to anticipate that death and die a thousand times before they die. They are brought close to death, maybe four hours away, and the phone rings in the death house, and they hear they have received a stay of execution. Then they return to their cells and begin the waiting all over again.
The role of the church
The U.N. Universal Declaration on Human Rights states that there are two essential human rights that every human being has: the right not to be tortured and the right not to be killed. I wish Pope John Paul II in his encyclical "The Gospel of Life" had been as firm and unconditional as the U.N. The pope still upholds the right of governments to kill criminals, even though he restricts it to cases of "absolute necessity" and says that because of improvements in modern penal systems such cases are "very rare, if not practically nonexistent."
Likewise, the U.S. Catholic bishops in their 1980 "Statement on Capital Punishment," while strongly condemning the death penalty for the unfair and discriminatory manner in which it is imposed, its continuance of the "cycle of violence," and its fundamental disregard for human dignity, also affirm in principle the right of the state to kill. But I believe that if we are to have a firm moral bedrock for our society, we must establish that no one may be permitted to kill—no one—and that includes government.
I have been told, although not by any official sources, that the pope has seen "Dead Man Walking" and that he was very taken with it. In fact, last year he interceded on behalf of three people scheduled for executions in the U.S. Most recently he spoke up for Joseph O'Dell, a death-row inmate in Virginia who is probably innocent.
I am encouraged to see the leadership of the Catholic Church become engaged in this and some other cases. But overall I am afraid I haven't seen a lot of moral energy coming from Catholic leaders on the issue of the death penalty. I don't hear many sermons preached about it. The death penalty is still foremost a poor person's issue, and of course it's very controversial. But I've learned that if you try to live the gospel of Jesus, controversy will follow you like a hungry dog.
In this last decade of the 20th century, U.S. government officials kill citizens with dispatch with scarcely a murmur of resistance from the Christian citizenry. In fact, surveys of public opinion show that those who profess Christianity tend to favor capital punishment slightly more than the overall population—Catholics more than Protestants.
True, in recent years leadership bodies of most Christian denominations have issued formal statements denouncing the death penalty, but generally that opposition has yet to be translated into aggressive pastoral initiatives to educate clergy and membership on capital punishment. I do not want to pass judgment on church leaders, but I invite them to work harder to do the right thing.
I also believe that we cannot wait for the church leadership to act. We have to put our trust in the church as the people of God; things have to come up from the grassroots. The religious community has a crucial role in educating the public about the fact that government killings are too costly for us, not only financially, but—more important—morally. Allowing our government to kill citizens compromises the deepest moral values upon which this country was conceived: the inviolable dignity of human persons.
I have no doubt that we will one day abolish the death penalty in America. One day all the death instruments in this country—electric chairs, gas chambers, and lethal-injection needles—will be housed behind velvet ropes in museums. Today, however, executions are still the order of the day, and people are being executed at an ever-increasing rate in this country.
People are scared of crime, and they've been manipulated by politicians who push this button for all it's worth. For politicians, the death penalty is a convenient symbol and an easy way to prove how tough they are on criminals and crime. It allows them to avoid tackling the complex issue of how to get to the roots of crime in our communities. But we may be close to bottoming out, which has to happen before momentum can build in the other direction. Right now we may be at just the beginning of the dawning of consciousness.
The death penalty is firmly in place, but people are beginning to ask, "If this is supposed to be the solution, how come we're not feeling any better? How come none of us feels safer?" People are beginning to realize that they have been duped and that the death penalty has not so much to do with crime as it has to do with politics.
The bottoming out that has to happen is kind of like in the 12-step program: the first step is to admit that as a society we have a problem and need help. People are capable of change, and the beauty and the power of the gospel is that when people hear it, they will respond to it.
When people support executions, it is not out of malice or ill will or hardness of heart or meanness of spirit. It is, quite simply, that they don't know the truth of what is going on. And that is not by accident. The secrecy surrounding executions makes it possible for executions to continue. I am convinced that if executions were made public, the torture and violence would be unmasked and we would be shamed into abolishing executions.
When you accompany someone to the execution, as I have done three times as a spiritual advisor, everything becomes very crystallized, distilled, and stripped to the essentials. You are in this building in the middle of the night, and all these people are organized to kill this man. And the gospel comes to you as it never has before: Are you for compassion, or are you for violence? Are you for mercy, or are you for vengeance? Are you for love, or are you for hate? Are you for life, or are you for death?
And the words of Jesus from the gospel kept coming to me that night: "And the last will be first" and "This too is my beloved son, hear him." On death row I grasped with such solidity and fire the grace of God in all human beings, the dignity in all human beings.
I am not saying that Patrick Sonnier was a hero. I do not want to glorify him. He did the most terrible crime of all. He killed. But he was a human being, and he had a transcendence, a dignity. He—like each of us—was more than the worst thing he had done in his life. And I have one consolation: he died well. I hope I die half as well.
That night I walked with him, prayed with him through Isaiah 43, "I have called you by your name, you are mine." I played for him the tape "Be Not Afraid," which we had also played at the communion service we had before he died. In his last words he expressed his sorrow to the victims' family. But then he said to the warden and to the unseen executioner behind the plywood panel, "but killing me is wrong, too."
At the end I was amazed at how ordinary the last moments were. He walked to the dark oak chair and sat in it. As guards were strapping his legs and arms and trunk he found my face and told me that he loved me. His last words of life were words of love and thankfulness. I took them in like a lightning rod.
I kept thinking of the execution of Jesus. I said to myself, "My God, how many times have I looked at that crucifix? How many times have we heard that story? How many times have we heard that Mary was there?" I was watching a person being killed with an electrical current, in a few seconds. I couldn't imagine what it must have been for Jesus to be executed, hanging there on the cross, dying slowly. It gave me an entirely new awareness of what it means to have an executed criminal as a savior. What a scandal that must have been!
I held on to the Bible Pat had given me. I closed my eyes because I knew Pat couldn't see me any more. I heard them clank the switch. They pulled it three times. Then I looked up. One hand had grasped the chair. The fingers on the other were kind of curled. The doctor went in. They removed the mask. He was dead. And I began to pray to him.
I came out of the execution chamber that night having watched a man die in front of my eyes, whose last words were words of love. And when I turned to his Bible, thumbworn and underlined, I found that in the front of his Bible, where births, marriages, and deaths are recorded, he had written in his own handwriting the date of his own death. It reminded me of Jesus' words: "You don't know the day and the hour." But when you die at the hands of the state of Louisiana, you do know the day and the hour very well.
Out of this experience has come a fire that has galvanized me and that cannot die in me. In the Catholic Church, when we receive sacraments, we say that an indelible mark is left on our souls. Being present at Pat's death has left an indelible mark on my soul. I think of it as a kind of second baptism in my life, for it forever committed me to pursuing the gospel as it relates to poor people and the quest for justice.
And it is this that has made me speak out about the death penalty ever since, and I will continue to do so to my dying day. I cannot not tell this story and proclaim the gospel message as I came to understand it that night. And it was this experience that led me to write the book Dead Man Walking. How the book got published, the movie got produced, and how both have been received—to me it's nothing short of a rip-roaring, Old-Testament, Yahweh-split-the-Red-Sea miracle.
I made a promise to Patrick before he died: "Patrick, I will tell your story across this land." I didn't know what I was saying. "Perhaps then your death can be redemptive for other people."
Sister Helen Prejean is a noted death penalty abolitionist and author of Dead Man Walking.
Reprinted with permission.