Sister Helen Prejean compares the death penalty to the crucifixion of Jesus and uses the cross to illustrate her argument against it.
“This is a really conflictual, really hard, moral issue — and you have to start with the crime,” Prejean said. “Somebody in cold blood has taken the life of innocent people, and what as a society are we going to do with them?
“How much power do we give our state and our government over lives?” she recently asked a group of Baton Rouge Community College student actors preparing to perform a theatrical version of her award-winning book, “Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States.”
“There are two arms on the cross,” the 76-year-old Baton Rouge native says, spreading her arms wide as she speaks. “On the one side are the victims and their families and all their pain and suffering, and on the other side is the perpetrator. But he has a momma and family, too.
“Jesus was killed by the state — by the Romans for being a troublemaker,” said Prejean, a sister of the Congregation of St. Joseph. “You have to take the audience on a complicated journey.”
Her own complicated journey began in 1981, while working with the poor in New Orleans. She began writing letters to Elmo Patrick Sonnier, convicted of rape and murder, awaiting execution on death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
She became Sonnier’s spiritual adviser and was a witness to his execution in the electric chair in 1984. She then befriended and became spiritual adviser to Robert Lee Willie, also convicted of rape and murder, who was electrocuted in 1985.
The book, written as if she is telling her story to a small group, details her relationships with the offenders, the traumatized families of both the perpetrators and the victims, and a larger examination of the death penalty issue. It has sold more than a half-million copies and is translated into 10 languages, according to Prejean’s website.
Hollywood actor and writer Tim Robbins in 1995 developed the book into a movie starring Susan Sarandon as Prejean. Robbins combined and fictionalized the stories of Sonnier and Willie into Matthew Poncelet, portrayed by Sean Penn. Robbins also fictionalized the families of both Poncelet and the victims to distill a 245-page book into a two-hour movie.
While the book is historically factual, Prejean said, “all the names in the film are different except for my name.”
The executions are also different. In the book, the men are electrocuted, but when the movie was produced in 1995, Louisiana had changed to lethal injection, and that is how Poncelet is executed.
A polarizing issue
Nancy Litton, an accomplished local actor who portrays Prejean in the BRCC production, said people she talks to either strongly support or strongly oppose the death penalty.
“There is not a lot of gray area there. It is a very polarizing thing,” Litton told Prejean, adding that people have told her they don’t even want to see the play because it is too disturbing.
“We have to stand with people in the outrage of the crime, but then we have to go into what does it mean to tell the state you can kill the person who did this,” Prejean replied.
Aaron Fontanilla portrays Poncelet and took that role, he said, because he is already familiar with a similar character — his stepfather has been serving a life sentence since 1988 at Angola for second-degree murder.
“I’ve been going up there my whole life,” Fontanilla said. “Going up there and visiting him has made me who I am today.”
One of the hardest acting challenges, Fontanilla told Prejean, is to be remorseful for what his character has done.
As the execution draws near, Prejean explained, the offender experiences what she calls “the God space,” when Poncelet expresses remorse for his actions. In the book, Sonnier’s last words are an apology to the families of his victims. Prejean said in her book that Sonnier and his brother, Eddie, abducted a teen couple near St. Martinville, on Nov. 4, 1977. They raped Loretta Bourque and then shot both her and David LeBlanc multiple times in the back of the head with a .22 rifle. Eddie Sonnier died at the age of 57 in Angola, a few days before Christmas in 2014. Willie, she said, died unrepentant. He and Joseph Vaccaro abducted, raped and stabbed to death Faith Harvey, 18, of Hammond, on May 28, 1980, a few days after she graduated from high school. Willie and Vaccaro were on an eight-day, drug- and alcohol-fueled crime spree across four states where they also kidnapped and raped several other girls. Vaccaro was sentenced to life.
“The God that I understand, through Jesus, loves us in spite of all we have done,” Prejean said. “I’ve been with six men at their executions, and their families and the victims’ families, and everyone is worth more than their worst act.”
The actors’ conflict
Megan Robertson, a 23-year-old BRCC junior from Plaquemine, portrays a guard, a member of the Pardon Hearing Board and a member of victim support group the Sisters organized in New Orleans.
“I see the death penalty both ways,” Robertson said. “I am for and also against it.”
Lizz Haik, 26, a BRCC senior, portrays the mother of the rape/murder victim, and also the nurse who inserts the needle into Poncelet’s heavily tattooed arm.
“I couldn’t do it (insert the needle). I’m a Catholic so I am against the death penalty,” Haik said. “But if it was part of the job, I don’t know … The play definitely leaves you with an open-ended question, and it even made me call into question the way I feel because I can see both sides, I play both sides.”
The play has been performed in more than 235 colleges and high schools, according to the play’s website. “The production does not take sides; rather, it seeks to promote discourse and discussion about the death penalty and all human rights issues.”
Theater professor and director Tony Medlin said there are 21 actors in the ensemble and 76 separate scenes and transitions, requiring a large cast and lots of technical requirements.
Usually the female actor portraying Prejean narrates transitions, but for this production Prejean recorded them herself in the college’s recording studio.
“This makes it real. It is actually in her voice,” Medlin said. “She is someone who has made a great impression on the world and made a very positive change.”
Prejean, who lives in New Orleans, said she was glad to be back in Baton Rouge and is working toward what she calls racial justice.
“When I was growing up under ‘Jim Crow,’ the only black people I knew were maids,” she said. “The race thing is huge for me right now.”
She cited state budget crunches and a growing disparity between the poor, inner-city public schools and the well-funded, private schools in the area.
“We can see the dividing lines in the schools,” Prejean said. “I went to St. Joseph’s Academy. It is an excellent school, but we need all schools to be excellent schools.”
“The Gospel of Jesus is about justice and being on the side of people who struggle,” Prejean said. “We have to work for justice for everybody.”