New Orleans nun's crusade goes to Hollywood

Published Dec. 29, 1995|Updated Oct. 5, 2005

Before convicted killer Elmo Patrick Sonnier died in Louisiana's electric chair, the last person he talked to was Sister Helen Prejean.

Sonnier had helped his brother kidnap a high school couple from lover's lane. They raped the girl and killed both teenagers.

On death row Sonnier developed a deep remorse for what he'd done. Now, as the minutes ticked down to the time for him to die, he was worried about Prejean, the nun who more than two years ago had become his spiritual adviser. He warned her that watching his execution might scar her for life.

But Prejean, who radiates serenity the way the sun radiates warmth, told Sonnier that God would give her the grace to witness the electrocution.

Then she promised him: "I will tell your story across this country, and perhaps your death will be redemptive."

When Sonnier went to the chair Prejean watched.

Later she counseled another death row inmate, Robert Lee Willie. He and another man had gone on an eight-day crime rampage that included the rape and murder of a young woman.

Like Sonnier, there was some question about whether he or his co-defendant committed the murder. Like Sonnier, the co-defendant got life in prison while he got death. Like Sonnier, he expressed regret for his crimes.

Prejean watched him die too.

The nun kept her promise to Sonnier, telling the story of his and Willie's executions as she campaigned against the death penalty.

She wrote a book about them, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States. Reviewers praised its honesty in describing what happens when a man is condemned to die, and it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

The 56-year-old Prejean (pronounced pray-ZHAN) regards each copy of her book as a seed she has scattered to the wind. The seed took root in one very special reader: Susan Sarandon, who is almost as well known for her political activism as for her acting.

Sarandon wanted to make Dead Man Walking walk off the page and onto the big screen. Six months ago a film crew descended on New Orleans. They hired local people as extras. They shot take after take of Sarandon striding through the housing project where the nun once lived. They even filmed inside the state prison.

The movie version of Dead Man Walking opens in New York and Los Angeles today, and goes nationwide next month. But if you go see the movie, don't look for Sonnier. Or Willie. Or even the electric chair.

For the movie version of Dead Man Walking, the filmmakers invented an inmate named Matthew Poncelet, portrayed by Sean Penn as a tattooed racist with no remorse for his crime. There is no question he did it. And when he dies, he dies by lethal injection.

Prejean is not the least bit disturbed by these alterations. In fact, she worked with director Tim Robbins in crafting the screenplay.

Ask her why they changed the facts and she just shrugs. Movies are different from books, she explains. What is paramount is pushing a strong anti-death penalty message within the limits of the art form.

"You've got two hours," she says. "Tim said we have to press all the moral questions, so (the inmate) can't be innocent. He's not contrite. He's a racist. . . . But he comes to grips with his responsibility."

Relatives of Sonnier's and Willie's victims are upset that no one consulted them about the movie. Some fear it will dredge up painful memories and give Prejean a bigger pulpit to preach against the death penalty.

The movie also has infuriated lawyer Millard Farmer, an old friend of Prejean's who handled appeals for Sonnier and Willie. Farmer is convinced the film will wipe away any qualms viewers may have about executing every inmate on death row. He has even come up with his own name for the movie:

"I call it More Dead Men Coming."

Thelma & Louise

& Helen

Sarandon defended the movie as "true to the spirit of the book." She said she and Robbins, her live-in companion, had to fight to make sure the film didn't get shoved a lot further away from the facts.

A previous Robbins film, The Player, featured a scene spoofing the typical Hollywood take on an issue like the death penalty: Bruce Willis smashes a window in the gas chamber to rescue Julia Roberts, saving her life with a smile and a snappy one-liner.

That's exactly the kind of scene studio executives wanted for Dead Man Walking, Sarandon said. Penn's character and execution troubled them.

"They wanted him to be saved, or to be innocent, or for us to fall in love," she said. (They did get one wish granted, although Sarandon says the love between her character and Penn's is "very pure.")

Sarandon was drawn to Dead Man Walking by her own work on behalf of a Texas death row inmate named Gary Graham, whose conviction was based on the testimony of a single eyewitness. A reporter later discovered that none of the other five witnesses could identify Graham as the killer and three were certain that he was not the man.

Sarandon was writing letters supporting Graham's bid for a pardon when someone sent her a newspaper column about him that mentioned Prejean's book. While filming scenes for The Client in New Orleans, Sarandon phoned Prejean and suggested they talk about turning her book into a movie. Prejean suggested they meet at a seafood place.

Then Prejean scrambled to find a videotape of Thelma & Louise so she would know what Sarandon looked like. But she got Louise mixed up with Thelma and watched the movie with some bafflement.

"You don't know how disconcerting it was to see Geena Davis and say, "Well, I guess she could play me . . .," Prejean said. "I was so relieved when Susan walked into that restaurant."

The big skillet

Sarandon, a lapsed Catholic, knows well how deceptive Hollywood images can be.

"I grew up on the nuns played by Debbie Reynolds and Ingrid Bergman," she said. "I thought being a nun was the epitome of romance."

She discovered Prejean is more down-to-earth. "She was a big laugher, a great eater and a great storyteller," Sarandon recalled.

Unlike those movie nuns, Prejean hasn't worn a habit in years. In this deeply Catholic city, that still offends some people.

"I had one man say to me, "How am I going to know you're a nun?' " she recalled. "And I said, "Talk to me for a minute, you'll find out what I am.' "

Prejean joined the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille at age 18, right out of high school. Although the Baton Rouge native grew up in a comfortable middle-class home where no one ever questioned the status quo, she evolved into an activist nun, going to Nicaragua, reading Gandhi. People asked if she was a Communist. She would say no, she just wanted to help the poor.

In January 1982, while she was living in the projects and teaching English to dropouts, someone from a human-rights group asked her to become a pen pal for Sonnier. One letter led to another, then to prison visits, then to becoming his spiritual adviser. When she wrote that first letter she had no plans to become a crusader against the death penalty.

"At each stage I thought that was all it was going to be," Prejean said. "If I knew what was at the end of the road I would've gone running the other way."

Once naive about the legal process, she now easily rattles off the standard arguments against the death penalty: It's more expensive than life in prison. It's mainly handed out to poor people who can't afford good lawyers and whose victims were white. It is wrong for the government to kill, especially a government she doesn't trust to fill a pothole.

"When the state kills, it's imitating the violence it says we can't have in society," she says. "When people do heinous acts, all of us feel the rage, and maybe in some book of justice the people who commit those acts have forfeited their right to live. But who deserves to kill them?

"Louisiana hires 10 people in the middle of the night to be their hired assassins. We ought to require all the legislators who support this kind of thing to witness an execution. Instead they're all home sleeping in their beds when it's carried out."

She does not believe murderers will burn in hell after they are executed.

"Is your image of God one who wants to see them fry in a big skillet for all eternity?" she asked. To believe that, she said, "makes of God a monster, a torturer, an executioner. I don't believe in a God who is less merciful than I am."

A blinded deer

Prejean is already writing her second book _ on the role of women in the Catholic Church _ but she still goes to visit inmates on death row. The one she's working with now, Dobie Gillis Williams, has been there for 10 years. She hopes he still has a chance.

"Maybe I'm just saying to myself that Dobie can't die," she said. "This can't happen again."

Thanks to Robbins and Sarandon she is now fluent in film lingo, tossing out phrases like "locking the reels." She proudly displays snapshots of herself with the stars. She mentions that the title tune for the movie is by Bruce Springsteen, and jokes that she also offered to record a song for the soundtrack.

"They said they'd call me," she drawls. "So far I haven't heard from them."

Her old lawyer friend, Millard Farmer, is not amused. "The bright lights have blinded her like a deer on the side of the highway, and she ran right out in front of them," he said.

Farmer helped educate Prejean on the death penalty and plays a large role in her book. He had few quibbles with what she wrote, but is outraged over the liberties taken by the movie, which he calls "gutter trash entertainment."

He has accused Prejean of betraying the people she vowed to help. He fears the movie audience will regard all death row inmates as racist, anti-Semitic thugs, making life harder for death penalty opponents like himself.

Farmer predicts moviegoers will say, "If these are the kinds of people they're killing then I can understand it. It's not worth having a cow over."

"Do you pray?'

In her book, Prejean said her biggest mistake was reaching out to two killers while ignoring the families of their victims. She ends the book with a scene in which she prays with Lloyd LeBlanc, the father of one of the Sonniers' victims, and they talk of forgiveness.

LeBlanc still meets Prejean to pray. It has been 18 years since the death of his son, David, but the pain is as fresh as when it happened. He said no one asked him about showing that pain on film.

"They made this movie and never asked any of the families of the victims if it would be all right with them," LeBlanc said.

But LeBlanc can forgive the filmmakers. He even likes the idea that much of the movie is fiction. It may spare his family from reliving the anguish.

Vernon Harvey cannot forgive. In 1980 his daughter, Faith, was stabbed 17 times. Like Prejean, Harvey went to see Willie executed for that crime. He was not happy about Prejean's behavior as they waited for the electrocution.

"She went to praying for this son of a bitch," he said. "I was ready to punch her in the mouth."

A supporter of the death penalty, Harvey contends Prejean is always trying to portray killers as the victims of abuse. He figures the film will do the same.

Goldie Bourque's 18-year-old daughter Loretta was murdered by the Sonniers. Because of the publicity about Dead Man Walking, she said, "I've been having lots of mental problems lately."

"I think anybody who is a human being and has feelings would realize it's not right," she said.

Mrs. Bourque is against the death penalty, but not for the same reasons as Prejean. She would prefer to see murderers spend their lives in prison doing hard labor. Death, she said, "is too easy and too fast."

Healing is slow, especially when the story keeps being revived.

"Our daughter is in heaven now," Mrs. Bourque said. "I'm sure she is at peace. We'd like to be left alone and try to live the rest of our lives. It's awfully hard to forget about a child who's been brutally murdered _ not forget her, I mean, but we only want to remember the good times."

Talking about the movie and about life and death, she was overcome by emotion and apologized.

"Are you Catholic?" she asked suddenly. "Do you believe in God? Do you pray? Then pray for our family."

_ Researcher Carolyn Hardnett contributed to this article.