Thursday, July 19, 2012

Dead Man Walking

This next TRULY compassionate tale is what one courageous nun, Sister Helen Prejean of the Sisters Of St. Joseph Of Medaille's life was changed when in the 1980s. Beginning as a pen pal to an inmate evolves into something remarkable to a man in Chava Colon Prison Coalition Death Row, Eddie Sonnier.

Sister Helen Prejean, who has witnessed frightening treatment by police, young men picked up, verbally abused, handcuffed and beaten.  Their story begins in the 1980s when she begins writing to inmate Eddie Sonnier who is shortly due to die on death row. The crime Eddie was charged w/ was that he and his brother, Patrick, posed as security officers. They went parking and "accused" a young couple of trespassing. They were handcuffed together in the backseat 20 miles to nowhere. The car was stopped in an abandoned oilfield. The girl was taken by herself in the woods and raped. Then the couple was ordered to lie face down on the ground and shot. They died instantly. Patrick confessed to the murders over several days. One denies the rapes, claiming consent. The other denied it period. At separate trials, each brother was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Sister Helen Prejean
In the months ahead, Patrick was confined to his terror to Sister Helen. She couldn't take that the state of CA killing Patrick in cold blood. She noticed that Patrick's letters to her express gratitude and appreciation for his case. Patrick listed her as a spiritual adviser. When Sister Helen is asked why does she want to do this and become his spiritual adviser? She stated "because Patrick has no one else and visiting prisoners is a Christian work of mercy". Her first visit w/ Patrick is on Sept. 15TH. Even though Sister Helen is nervous to be at the Death Row portion of the prison, Patrick is REAL grateful she came. Even if it's someone to talk to!

After awhile she begins to ease up at the prison, but she wonders how to keep conversation and realizes that all she has to do is listen. She was surprised to see how human and likable he was. They continue to write and her visits continue monthly. He talks about his brothers since the prison doesn't allow for each others' visit. Sister Helen visits Eddie for the first time in March 1983. Pat(rick)'s execution is scheduled for Friday Aug. 19TH. He has stopped eating, running on coffee and cigarettes. They talk for their 2 hrs. Nervousness and prayer as they wait for a call to hold the execution. He consents for Sister Helen to be there if he is due to die. After awhile, he talks to her about the murders.

Eddie was upset. They had just gotten out of jail. He was unglued over a girl who was pregnant w/ his child. No body was supposed to get killed. Patrick felt so much guilt from his crimes, he tried to slit his wrists in prison. In Oct. 1983, Pat's time was running out. Sister Helen heard of a lawyer in Atlanta, defending death-row inmates and she makes a call. Sister Helen was steadily to get Pat a new trial before it was too late.

When Sister Helen returned to the prison, Patrick is shaven and his hair is combed. She returns w/ Millard. Millard finds a discrepancy that the judge omittedly instructed the jury to find Pat guilty to relieve the State of it's burden to prove intent to kill, which made it easier for a jury to convict. After his meeting w/ Pat, Millard explains his chances w/ Sister Helen. On Feb. 21ST, the Supreme Court denied Pat's petition. When going in front of a meeting w/ Governor Edwards, they argue their case of NOT having Pat put to death, but life in prison. That the death penalty DOES NOT deter the crime. Millard, Kimellen, Joe & Sister Helen work around the clock to prepare for the Pardon Board.

Through MULTIPLE transcripts, there are a few discoveries: 1. Eddie claimed that it was Pat who raped the girl. Later he admitted to having doing it too! Pat's most insistent point w/ Helen was that he did NOT rape the girl. 2. The bodies were found 6-to-8 hrs after their deaths w/ the autopsy following shortly after. 3. Semen was found in the girl, Loretta, but then there was no report of semen identification. 4. The exact point in frame from which the kids were shot (up close or from a distance). On March 30TH, they file the petition w/ the Parole Board. They meet w/ the chairman, Howard Marsellus, and he agrees to study the petition and is more sympathetic to the cause. Sister Helen was so elated.

At the hearing, after hearing all sides, the jury sits out for a verdict. But while in waiting, Sister Helen is approached by the victims families. Lloyd LeBlanc, father of David LeBlanc, asked her "how can she present Patrick's side w/o out going to the LeBlanc's side to hear point?" Sister Helen thought it would just add to their pain. Something she regrets not doing. Clemency was denied 4-to-1 in Elmo's favor. Later that evening, Sister Helen calls Lloyd LeBlanc. She told him to call her if he/his wife need anything.

After Patrick is moved to another section of the prison, he tells Sister Helen that "he doesn't want his Momma or anyone from his family coming to this place". That means Sister Helen is all he's got. She tries to be upbeat. But she couldn't take it if he drops anchor and breaks down. He expresses a letter to the governor that Sister Helen pens. Mentally she can't help but count the days until Pat's execution.

Back in the official offices, Millard and others have been working around the clock drawing up petitions. They included Pat's affidavit stating the circumstances that led him to making the confessions. They are throwing everything they can into this last shot w/ the courts. After talking to the head of Dept. Of Corrections, she is told for the "overall process" to approve of the witnesses. She contends w/ the rules. Her first obligation to be w/ Pat every minute she can. With all the people she comes in contact with at the prison, one thing hits her, "They're getting ready to kill someone."

One thing that Sister Helen did help to change was that when prisoners were in the death house, it would help if the prison fed the visitors of the inmates. After an incident w/ Sister Helen's health and not feeling very well, Patrick was afraid and nervous for her and pleaded for her to take care of herself. Here they are, 36hrs away from death. Sister Helen encourages Patrick to share his feelings and not feel he has to put up a front. She feels humbled that he showed her so much love and no one showed him any. On the day of the execution, her sister, Ann, tells Helen that some of the Sisters plan to come out & protest the execution.

While they await anxiously w/ word from the Governor to stop this execution, every minute, every step, voice, sound makes them nervous of a word heard back. It's 6:00p, time for Pat's last meal. Official word comes in that Pat's bid to the Fifth Circuit Court has turned him down and to proceed w/ the execution.

Looking at her own tray of food that Sister Helen was to eat while Pat ate his last meal, she knows she won't be eating any of it. She had iced tea. Feeling these moments were too unreal. After hearing Pat's telephone conversations w/ Millard, she for sure knows that he is going to die. While talking to Sister Helen, he makes out a will giving Sister Helen all of his possessions. After that, he works on a letter to his brother, Eddie. After coming through and being prepared w/ a shaved head and left pant leg at the knee. A tattooed number in case he was killed in prison. After writing in the Bible and hands it to Sister Helen, she wants to weep due to being there and trying so hard to save his life.

As they are leaving to head to "the chair", Pat has his last cigarette. Sister Helen walks w/ Pat, holding his Bible. He asked that the Warden allow Sister Helen to touch his arm. They walk. When they get there, Sister Helen is moved to the witness room. She silently prays as they pull the switch. Patrick Sonnier dies at 12:15A. His eyes happen to look at Sister Helen's. She then goes about filling Pat's last wish for communion. When they are pulling away from the prison to leave, Sister Helen, Ann & Bill Quigley have to pull over for Sister Helen to vomit.

The next morning after the execution,  Sister Helen's shock & numbness is wearing off. Afterwards, she is LITERALLY being thanked for being there for Pat. Several reporters locally call Sister Helen because they have heard she was a witness at Pat's execution and interview her over the phone. Pat's funeral was following the next day at Rabenhorst Funeral Home. After Sister Helen calls the warden, permission is granted for Eddie to attend Pat's funeral. Pat's mom doesn't attend, due to it being too much for her. The TV cameras are outside. Sister Helen walks w/ a tightly cuffed Eddie to Pat's coffin. Tears run down his face as he feels that 3 people are now dead because of him. Eddie is not allowed to the graveyard. After the services, a man from the postal service asks for Sister Helen. What she receives are 3 large boxes filled w/ Pat's possessions. Sister Helen, her mom & her sister go through and arrange his possessions. Sister Helen begins to think "Who is responsible for this man's death?" Some would say he asked for it or a job was being done. But NO ONE feels any personal responsibility for this man's death.

Sister Helen couldn't help but notice the severance of personal values from public duty. Ex. - a governor personally objects to the death penalty, but allows it to be carried out. She wants him to answer that "if a policy/law is morally wrong, aren't they bound in conscience to oppose it?" He responds saying that "if he's opposed to doing any part of his job, he should quit or refuse to accept it in the first place." When Sister Helen goes to C. Paul Phelps, the Head Of Corrections, how the execution process is designed? After hearing his facts, she states that "she disagrees w/ the rights of a man being killed are protected b/c the witnesses to his death are expected to be polite." She can tell that he isn't that agreeing w/ this bent on revenge, at heart he's a social worker. She was devastated by this meeting.

After Pat, for her there will be no more involvement w/ death row inmates, except Eddie, she believes she is the only one he has.No more visits.When Sister Helen is going to visit the Sonnier family, she is told of them being completely misrepresented by the press. Sister Helen promises to write a strongly worded letter to the editor. They chatted about Pat & his last day. Back in Baton Rouge, Sister Helen packs her things as she prepares to return to Hope House. She works w/ kids and she feels good about being in the flow of normal life again. Due to the articles printed in various papers, she receives personal letters sent to her. The letters possess outrage from consumers of why she would show compassion/be there for Patrick Sonnier. A week after arriving back at Hope House, Sister Helen gets a call from a reporter wanting her to express her side. From Pat's experiences, she begins to see that death-row inmates have a decent attorney for their appeals.

After the training session, Millard, Tom & Sister Helen create a legal office just for death-row inmate appeals. After they enlist a few people, the office is in operation September 1984. After a much needed retreat, Sister Helen calls Bill Quigley and she is invited to a meeting in New Orleans on the death penalty. It becomes time for public education & public witness.

Six months after Pat's death, Millard asks Sister Helen to become spiritual adviser to 2 inmates. After the horror w/ Pat, Sister Helen can only agree to one. It's Robert Lee Willie. Willie and Joseph Vaccaro killed and 18-yr-old girl, Faith Hathaway. After they plead guilty, they were sentenced to 3 consecutive life sentences. They had indigent lawyers. The next day, she writes to him and asks if he would like her to be his spiritual adviser. After a long talk w/ the Warden of this prison, Sister Lilliane is approved to serve as a spiritual adviser to an inmate. The most this transaction has cost her is moving from her residence at St. Thomas.

Since Pat's execution, Sister Helen has continued contact w/ Eddie, his mother & his aunt. When Sister Helen first goes into meeting Robert Willie, she tells him that she never thought she'd come back to death row after Pat. She notices how polite he is in his manner and speech. When they talk about his case in the courts, he's been reading every law book he can get his hands on. He was a complete opposite of what she just met. She expected a crazed, paranoid type. But she found a soft-spoken, intelligent & polite young man. On Oct. 26TH, a group of 40 to gather to walk 80 miles to Baton Rouge. Along the way, Sister Helen uses every possible media outlet to provide facts on the death penalty.

When they do the walk, it's a mix of different people. During a 3 day "peacekeeping" march, Sister Helen runs into Vernon Harvey. When she expects him to rage at her, he shows concern for her safety. The next week she meets him at his house. When she meets him and his wife, Elizabeth, they talk about their daughter, Faith. Hearing the pain in their voices, Sister Helen wishes she could take their pain away. When Vernon is crying, reliving this horror story, Sister Helen cries from the horror of this story. Vernon is sternly upset w/ his reasons, but seems talking about the case infuriates him more. Sister Helen becomes his spiritual adviser. The rage & pain from Vernon eclipses everything else. A month or so later, their friendliness is shattered. At Robert Willie's parole hearing, because of Sister Helen's visits/sympathy, they expect to also want to see him die.

After an evening w/ the Harvey's, Sister Helen had never had so much unrequited grief. When Sister Helen goes for her first visit w/ Robert Willie, he seems to be in a world of his own, oblivious to the pain he has caused others. Visiting Robert, Sister Helen is asked to do what they, the prison, asked her to! Accompany him, treat him w/ dignity - but also challenge him to take some responsibilities. When discussing his crimes w/ her, Vaccaro told him to do what he did. Even though they were loaded on drugs & alcohol. They discuss various points of his case. Re-reading his entire case history after a court appearance, during one of his stints in prison, Robert Willie meets Joseph Vaccaro. In August 1984, the Fifth Circut Court Of Appeals denied his petition for a rehearing. On Nov. 12TH, the Supreme Court refused to hear his case. Now the only thing that stands between Robert & "the chair" is the Govenor and the Pardon Board.

John Craft, someone working on local counsel on Robert's case, received help from the newly formed Louisiana Capital Defense Project. Sister Helen is dreading this meeting. This was the same group that denied Pat Sonnier and executed someone else after their denial just a week ago. Straight from this meeting, Sister Helen went right to the Parole Board. Robert's mother, Elizabeth and she felt that since she is the only one w/ Robert, aside from Sister Helen, their case is sunk. After speaking to the Board, Robert is TRULY grateful to Sister Helen for speaking. After about 20 minutes, the Board recommended that their decision for execution stands.

When Sister Helen goes to visit Robert, they talk about those he's hurt and what peace will come of his death to the families. A few days shy from his execution, Robert will only be visited by Sister Helen. When Robert's mom visits him in the death house w/ her other children, that will be hard enough. It still gets to Sister Helen going to the Row, KNOWING what happens to these inmates. Robert made a special request from Sister Helen. That she could bring in a polygraph test for him to take. At times while visiting Robert, some of his actions/mannerisms reminded her of Patrick Sonnier. When it's time to leave, Sister Helen goes w/ a small prayer and promises to be back at 2:00p tomorrow w/ his family. The night before the execution, a close friend/reporter wanted to offer Sister Helen his support. After a complete night of good sleep, the prior days' feelings washed away.

On Dec. 27TH, at 2:00p, Sister Helen arrives at the prison. When she walks in Robert's family is already there. A few hours prior to the execution, Robert confided that he saw that Sister Helen was a good friend he could talk to! It's close to 11:00p-11:30p, at 12:07A, Robert is strapped to the chair and is gone. This time Sister Helen watches intently.

Sister Helen responds to Robert's death by the fact(s) that 2 people are now dead instead of one, with another mother burying her child. She later on receives a call from ABC News w/ Peter Jennings for a story about Robert Willie's execution.While Sister Helen does understand why a family would accept the death penalty for vengeance, she still ponders why if another person is still dead? After Robert's execution, the best thing Sister Helen can think to do is leave and give the family space.

When Sister Helen runs into Elizabeth she wonders why all of the avoidance from her? When Sister Helen is actually told that they wanted to see her she is there for them. What happens is for them to rejoin the living after their daughter's death. Sister Helen meets w/ the Harvey's again on the steps of Congress and speaks against cutting funds for victims' assistance. Sister Helen, the Harvey's & a few of Helen's fellow nuns  are there to see this. After this demonstration, Sister Helen goes to learn and find where she can bring peace w/ going to a Parents Of Murdered Children Support Group. While she's there, she nervously sits w/ the Harvey's hearing these horror stories from parents. She really did learn so much from this.

Beginning from this, she starts an assistance program for murdered victims' families. Lloyd LeBlanc, David's father, spoke for both families at the Pardon Board. After the execution, Lloyd prays for Patrick& Eddie Sonnier's mother, Gladys. Shortly before Gladys' death in 1991, Lloyd went to comfort her. Lloyd would've been content for Patrick Sonnier's imprisonment. At the execution, all Lloyd wanted was an apology which he received. Lloyd forgave him due to the amount of feelings/bitterness remembering the son he would never know.

In 1995, an film was made based on this book and this period in Sister Helen's life w/ the OUTSTANDING Sean Penn as Patrick Sonnier/"Matthew Poncelet" and the REMARKABLE Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen Prejean.

the REAL Angola Prison


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