Louisiana Nun and Capital Punishment Opponent Visits UW Campus

Author of “Dead Man Walking” talks to law students about her continuing journey

At first, Sister Helen Prejean does not look like a heroine. Then you hear her story. On Tuesday, April 19, Sister Helen was on the University of Washington campus to speak about her ongoing campaign against the death penalty. In a Q&A session with UW law students she explained how a Roman Catholic nun from an upper-class southern family became “involved with murderers.”

It all began in New Orleans in 1981, when she became pen pals with Patrick Sonnier, a convicted killer of two teenagers who had been sentenced to die in the electric chair of Louisiana’s Angola State Prison. The letter exchange turned into visits, and ultimately Sister Helen agreed to become Sonnier’s spiritual advisor, which meant that she had to witness his execution. “I walked out of the death chamber and threw up,” she said thoughtfully. But as gruesome as the execution surely was, it was also the start of a remarkable journey to expose a system she calls arbitrary and capricious.

Capital punishment was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976, and many states—including all southern states—have the death penalty on their books. “Texas has the highest number of executions; it has the climate for executions. How is this equal application of the law? How is this equal justice under the law?” she asked her captive audience.

Jackie McMurtrie and Helen Prejean
Innocence Project Northwest Clinic Director Jackie McMurtrie and Sister Helen Prejean

Sister Helen also addressed varying sentencing guidelines and crimes that would almost ensure a death penalty conviction, such as murders of police officers and children. She also exposed how racism still plays a role, stating that eight out of 10 African Americans convicted of murder receive the death penalty. In Louisiana, Sister Helen told assembled students, staff and faculty, prosecutors get the ‘prick award’—a pelican with a hypodermic needle in its talons—when they win a death penalty conviction.

Today, most executions occur through lethal injection. The subject is injected with a short-acting anesthetic, followed by a chemical that paralyzes skeletal muscles—usually pancuronium bromide—and eventually the drug that will cause cardiac arrest. While the individual will appear calm and tranquil, the anesthetic may be insufficient, and leave the person in excruciating pain and unable to cry out or move. “Many veterinarians no longer use it [pancuronium bromide] because they can’t tell if an animal suffers when they put it to sleep,” said Sister Helen.

Sister Helen also had words of encouragement for the next generation of lawyers, reminding them that students first started innocence projects and saved many wrongly convicted people’s lives. DNA evidence has already exonerated 158 people, according to the Innocence Project, many of whom were on death row in various states.

“It was an extraordinary experience for my IPNW Clinic students and I to meet with Sister Helen,” said Jackie McMurtrie, director of the Innocence Project Northwest Clinic who co-sponsored the visit. “Her incredible humanity and the power of her example encourage us to continue to be impassioned about our work on behalf of the disadvantaged and disenfranchised."

Sometimes, change has small beginnings, and for Sister Helen change is directly linked to teaching: “Teaching people about the death penalty makes a big difference, and my job is to keep the discourse going.”

Prejean is certainly keeping the discourse going—fulfilling a promise she made to Sonnier more than 20 years ago—through speaking engagements and activism across the United States. She is also currently accompanying her seventh death row inmate. Heroism comes in many forms, including the ability to show compassion to those whom society has condemned and forsaken. Because of those qualities, Sister Helen is a true heroine to her many supporters and friends.