When she became pen pals with an inmate on Louisiana’s death row, Sister Helen Prejean said she did not know much about the law or the U.S. Constitution. She was not aware of constitutional protections or how the Supreme Court of the United States was interpreting them.
Prejean, a Catholic nun, chronicled her subsequent education about the justice system and the death penalty in her book “Dead Man Walking.” She has since become an internationally recognized opponent of the death penalty, but said when she started writing letters to convicted murder Patrick Sonnier, she did not understand what she was getting into.
“I didn’t have any idea how broken this thing was,” she said of the judicial system. “I didn’t have any idea what a difference it makes to have a lawyer on your side when you’re on trial for your life.”
Personable and humorous, Prejean gave a compelling account of her experiences working with death row inmates and victims’ families during her visit to Valparaiso University Jan. 13. A capacity crowd of students, professors and community members attended her evening presentation – which was laced with a Cajun accent – and spent time afterward sharing their stories with her.
She was invited to speak by Valparaiso University Law School Dean Andrea Lyon, who has represented defendants in 19 death penalty trials and was the first woman in the United States to serve as lead counsel on a death penalty case.
Prejean advocates not only for those currently on death row but also for the families of the victims.
Early in her work with murder convicts, she did not contact the surviving relatives because, she later realized, she was fearful of what they might say or do. However, she literally bumped into the families of the two young adults Sonnier was accused of killing and went on to develop a friendship with Lloyd LeBlanc, who lost his son David.
From LeBlanc she learned about the suffering and pressure to support the death penalty that victims’ families face. She also began to reflect on what society is doing to help people heal from violence.
“What made us think,” Prejean asked, “that we would be able to set up a process of justice whereby we would select the worst of the worst and execute them?
“When you look at it, we are imitating the worst possible behavior of the people who kill, but we do it legally and we even tell the victims’ families, ‘You get to come and watch,’” she said.
Born and raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Prejean described her childhood as privileged. She did not question the Jim Crow laws which forced African-Americans to sit in a separate section of church and take communion separately nor did she understand the hardships of those living in poverty.
She told the Valparaiso crowd she had to wake up. She began to see the causes and consequences of being poor and she saw the injustice that permeates modern society when she moved into the St. Thomas Housing Project in New Orleans.
Prejean said she wishes the justices on the Supreme Court would wake up and realize the guidelines they established for the death penalty are being administered in a manner that is unjust and racist. Virtually all of the death row inmates are poor, and most of them killed white people, she said.
“We have a Supreme Court that cannot reconcile that to take a human being and put him in a cell for 20 years and then take him out and kill him is an act of cruelty, an act of unusual punishment that the vast majority of the countries in the world no longer do,” she said.
After her lecture, Prejean reiterated her point about the importance of the defense attorney. She said a key reform the judiciary needs to enact is to make sure that the poor who are charged with the death penalty have a trained attorney who has the help and funding to mount a defense.
She also called for changes at the appellate level that would reverse some of the decisions from the Justice William Rehnquist era on the Supreme Court that limited a death row defendant’s ability to appeal. In particular, she said defendants trying to get a conviction overturned because of ineffective counsel now have an almost impossible task.
“So for the appeals process to work, we have to take those constitutional protections that you’re supposed to have and we have to make them available to people,” Prejean said.
In her second book, “The Death of Innocents,” published in 2006, Prejean delves more deeply into the legal issues and judicial process of death penalty cases. She holds special regard for lawyers, calling them healers and agents of justice. And at Valparaiso, she had a special message for the law students.
“Whatever law you go into,” she said, “however you fill your professional hours, always make sure there’s room for poor people because they have no one by their side.”