By Rob Howe
February 05, 1996 12:00 PM

ELMO PATRICK SONNIER DROPPED TO his knees in his death row cell at Louisiana’s Angola state penitentiary and looked up at Sister Helen Prejean. “I’m going to die,” he said. Watching him, says Prejean, “a chill went through my heart.” An hour later, the Roman Catholic nun clasped her hands in prayer while guards bound Sonnier, 34, to the electric chair and strapped electrodes to his shaved scalp and bared left calf. Then the warden nodded, and Sonnier’s body stiffened with current until at last he hung lifelessly in his restraints.

That was 12 years ago, but still “the images haunt,” says Prejean (pronounced PRAY-jawn), 56, who for two years had given counsel—and friendship—to Sonnier. “To see them strap him into the chair, it stays with you forever.” After the experience, she swore she would never relive the horrors of Angola. But something gnawed at her—”a belief,” she knows now, “that no one should be judged solely by their worst actions.” Eventually, opposed to “state-sponsored killing,” she returned to the prison to aid four more death row inmates, and served 10 years on the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

Prejean recorded her experiences in Dead Man Walking, a 1993 book that is the basis for the Tim Robbins film starring Susan Sarandon as Prejean and Sean Penn as Matthew Poncelet, a composite of two inmates Prejean counseled in the 1980s. The film, a likely Oscar contender, has been praised for handling an explosive subject evenly—”By the end, you can’t tell if the movie is for or against capital punishment,” Prejean says—and for its portrayal of Prejean’s mission to help inmates prepare for death.

Prejean isn’t always so earnest. She occasionally pushes her aging car over the speed limit, she was once a guest bartender in a French Quarter club, and she tells a wicked joke. Says friend Idella Casimier: “She’ll bring a smile to your face whenever you look like you’re down.” When not counseling inmates at Angola, she attends prayer sessions with a local group of sisters, spends quiet evenings in the house she shares with two women friends and works on her second book, a history of women in the Catholic Church. Raves for the movie haven’t changed the way she lives. “She’s not the kind of person who’s going to get impressed by Hollywood,” says Robbins. “She’s operating on a whole different level.”

Sister Prejean answered religion’s call early. A New Orleans native and second of three children, she entered the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille at 18 with the blessing of her parents, Gusta Mae, a nurse, and Louis, a lawyer. “My family was very Catholic,” she recalls. “We said the rosary every night.” Her devotion was tested in 1966 when, while studying in Canada, she fell in love with a priest and considered marriage. “I had my first real question of whether I would leave [the order],” she says. But, uneasy because she began to “feel responsible for his happiness,” she ended the relationship to focus on her teaching career.

She was doing just that in 1982, at an adult education center in New Orleans’ St. Thomas housing project, when a friend in an outreach project asked if she would correspond with Sonnier, who with his brother had abducted a teenage couple, raped the girl, then shot the two youths in the head. Despite the horror of Sonnier’s crime, Prejean agreed to counsel him because, she says, “nobody is disposable human waste.”

Her work hasn’t always been popular. Just before the 1984 execution of Robert Lee Willie, who had brutally murdered an 18-year-old girl, she prayed aloud in the witness room that God would forgive all those who pressed for Willie’s execution. Vernon Harvey, the father of the victim, was livid. “[Prejean] only looks at the side that [the state is] going to kill somebody—not at how brutal the killing was,” he said. Realizing she had sometimes forgotten the victims, Prejean in 1988 cofounded Survive, a victims’ assistance group in New Orleans.

Dealing with Hollywood hasn’t been easy for Prejean, who doesn’t see many movies. She felt “apprehensive” when Sarandon called in 1994 and set up a meeting to talk about filming Walking. Not knowing Sarandon, the nun rented Thelma & Louise but confused the actress with her costar, Geena Davis. “I don’t know how that happened,” Prejean says with a laugh. “I thought, ‘I guess she can play me, but I like [Sarandon’s] Louise character more.’ ” Prejean came to trust Sarandon and Robbins, who invited her to the set as an adviser. Far from rejecting Robbins’s balanced approach, Prejean applauds it, feeling objectivity will inspire debate. As Prejean, whose income from the book and movie goes to her order, notes: “Think of it as plowing the soil—some dirt’ll land on one side, some on the other, but the earth has been broken.”


RON RIDENHOUR in New Orleans