Sympathy for the devil

Sister Helen Prejean talks about the condemned men who inspired "Dead Man Walking."

By Marc Bruno

Published January 28, 1996 6:08PM (EST)

"'Dead Man Walking' is a sustained meditation on love, criminal violence, and capital punishment. In a larger sense, it is about life and death itself. Are we here to persecute our brothers or bring compassion into a world which is cruel without reason?"

So says Sister Helen Prejean of her 1993 account of her relationship with Matthew Poncelet, a Death Row inmate in Louisiana. The year after Prejean's book came out, Susan Sarandon met the nun while filming "The Client" in New Orleans. Sarandon purchased the rights to the book and Tim Robbins, her longtime partner, agreed to write and direct.

The 55-year-old Sister of St. Joseph was initially reluctant to allow her book to be made into a film, but Robbins convinced her. "Tim had the right idea from the beginning," says Prejean in a phone interview from Hope House, her order's priory in the midst of a New Orleans housing project. "I asked him if he thought he could transport his audience right here to Louisiana, to see and hear the reality of death row without distractions."

Prejean contends that the effect of capital punishment on the men who administer it is as destructive as it is on the sentenced criminal. She dedicates many pages of her book to interviews with death crew guards and administrators who frankly question the moral and punitive justice of "pulling the switch."

Prejean attended many death row executions, "to pray for the man who would be killed, as well as for the victims and the executioner."
Her presence made her a target of verbal abuse by capital punishment advocates protesting outside the prison gates. "I never understood what those people were protesting. The state was already on their side," she says.

Some victims' families launched a letter writing campaign to the New Orleans Archdiocese to protest Prejean's public stance against the death penalty. Many of the death penalty advocates in her native Louisiana are in fact Catholic.

"It is hurtful to see Catholics with this sort of hate in their eyes," says Prejean. "I wasn't raised to hate. That is not what my church is about, but they have made me feel their pain, also. I cannot imagine losing a loved one to violence. Even after it happens, the insurmountable loss remains unimaginable. One is left with a gigantic "Why?'

Robbins says that the screenplay for "Dead Man Walking" was a collaborative effort. "Helen is someone whom I respect for what she has chosen to do, as well as her opinions," he says. "She had some great ideas for the film and I had no reason to hide anything from her when I was writing. I showed her my drafts, and her contributions were significant."

"We looked at the issues from all sides, not only what actually happened to me, but what might have happened," says Prejean. "'How would you feel if you lost a brother or sister at the hands of someone you had to help?' Tim asked. This is something I struggle with every time I walk into prison. It's not easy to relive the past. Tim made me see my life in a new light, looking at the criminal personality through the imagination."

In the film, the condemned prisoner, who has been convicted of killing a teenage couple, is played by Sean Penn. The character is actually a composite of the many men Prejean has come to know on Death Row, including a convict named Patrick Sonnier, the first man she saw executed. "Seeing this was like a second baptism for me," she says. "It is not just horrible. It's revealing. The core of our inhumanity and ability to hate. It's all there laid out in a single moment -- or unfortunately, in a series of moments until the prisoner dies.

"Sean's character is difficult to pity because he has no pity for himself," says Prejean. "His is a real moral test for Susan, me, in the film. The real Patrick Sonnier was more helpless -- not angry but needy. I talked with him about guilt for what he had done. He was defeated, but human. Sean captures this and adds to it also. He cut no corners in making the prisoner an out-and-out . . . word I will not say.

"Robbins did not want to be obvious," continues Prejean. "He did not want the film to be labeled as 'anti-death penalty.' That's why we see so much about the crime in the movie. Tim shows the horror of what Poncelet did to balance out the possible view of the prisoner as victim. I have no doubt some people will leave the theater saying 'Fry 'em' about everyone on death row."

"Dead Man Walking" is not an easy movie to watch, says Prejean. "Nothing's hidden. The emotions are laid bare, as only Robbins and his actors could do it. It is my hope that by presenting things bluntly and visually, Tim's movie will open a place in the human heart to ask: 'Is this really the type of people we want to be?' I mean, killers?"

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