Sister Helen Prejean filled Hall Auditorium with tears and laughter on Tuesday during her discussion of her vivid experiences with death row inmates.
Prejean's efforts to reach out to death row inmates were detailed in her book Dead Man Walking and the 1995 film of the same title. The movie garnered Susan Sarandon a best actress academy award for her portrayal of Prejean, and made Prejean one of the most notable activists against the death penalty.
Father Edward Kordas, Oberlin's Catholic Chaplain, introduced Prejean with reflections on what the film has done for her notoriety. The first time Prejean visited Oberlin, before the making of the film, she spoke to a crowd of 20 in Finney Chapel. On Tuesday, a crowd of well over 100 showed up for Prejean's talk. "I think [the audience's] presence here is a testament that God can do whatever he wants with the help of Susan Sarandon," said Kordas.
Kordas described Prejean with words of adulation. Kordas said, "Sister presents us with a specific challenge: can we as human beings find it in us the capacity to forgive."
Prejean then took the stage and began a compelling narrative of her experiences. "Well, I'm a storyteller, and I'm going to take you to some places tonight," said Prejean.
Speaking with a thick New Orleans accent, which she turned on and off for affect, Prejean demonstrated a great talent for public speaking.
Prejean said that there are two ways to "catch the passion about injustice:" having experienced it first hand, or having been told stories about it. Prejean has experienced the injustice of the death penalty first hand, and made it her crusade to tell stories about those injustices she has witnessed.
She dwelled mostly upon the subject of her book, her accompaniment of convicted murderer and rapist Patrick Sonnier to the electric chair. Prejean first made contact with Sonnier when someone asked her to be his pen-pal. "I thought all I would be doing is writing letters ... but God is sneaky," said Prejean.
As his only contact with the outside world, Prejean quickly endeared herself to Sonnier. A writing relationship developed, and she agreed to visit the lonely young man.
Slipping into story-teller mode, Prejean humorously described the first trip she made to see Sonnier. "New Orleans is real Catholic. Dogs and cats are Catholic in New Orleans," said Prejean. Unfortunately, her clerical occupation did not protect her from the intimidating prison. "You sure can't play the nun card here. They don't give a hoot," said Prejean.
Prejean went into full detail of the sights and sounds of her look inside the prison walls, in which there are "no soft sounds." The first thing she ever associated with Sonnier was the sound of his leg irons dragging on the floor to the visitation room. He greeted her completely shackled, but with a bright smile shining through the destitute exterior. Prejean said, "What appealed to me about this man was that he was so human."
As the visits continued, Prejean's interest in Sonnier's crimes was piqued, and she decided to look into his background. Prejean found that Patrick and his brother Eddie had set up a scheme to rape women in the remote countryside of Louisiana. Posing as security guards, the two men would approach young couples parked at the nearby lover's lane, and tell them they were trespassing. They threatened to turn the couples over to the police if the women did not have sex with them. One night their scheme turned bloody, when Eddie shot and murdered the young couple they had sequestered.
After their arrest, six couples came forth as victims of their ploy. In the trial, Eddie fingered his younger brother as the trigger-man, and Patrick was given the death penalty while Eddie received a life sentence.
Outrage overcame Prejean when she first learned of the atrocities committed by the Sonniers. Prejean said, "I was holding on in principle with the tips of my fingernails that the state shouldn't execute this man."
Copyright © 1999, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 127, Number 24, May 14, 1999
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