By Patricia Meade
The nun’s pen pal was a murderer and a rapist.
BOARDMAN — The author of “Dead Man Walking” never talked to anyone who had committed murder until she visited a pen pal inmate on death row in Louisiana in 1982.
“I looked into the face of a human being,” Sister Helen Prejean told 350 people who came to hear her speak Thursday at Antone’s Banquet Centre on Market Street. “I looked into his eyes and thought, ‘He’s worth more than the worst he’s ever done.’”
Patrick Sonnier was executed in Louisiana in 1984 for the rape and murder of Loretta Bourque, 18, and the murder of her date, David Le- Blanc, 17. Sonnier’s brother, who was not the triggerman, is serving two life sentences for the 1977 crimes.
In a soft Southern drawl, Sister Prejean led up to her anti-death penalty advocacy by giving the First Friday Club audience a little background on her life and times in New Orleans. She was dressed in black pants, white top and black patterned jacket, a cell phone clipped to a pocket.
The 69-year-old nun said her father was a successful lawyer and while growing up, she knew black people as servants, by their first names only.
“That’s the way it was.”
As a nun, she taught English and religion, but had never been in New Orleans’ inner city until after a debate in the community about religious orders’ involvement with social justice — poor people. She then learned about a “whole other America” from poor black people in the St. Thomas housing development. They talked about who was in prison.
She discovered kids in 11th grade who read on a third-grade level, most of whom didn’t have a chance to succeed. Drugs, she said, became a sub economy.
Along came a request from her Order to write to death row inmates.
“I said, ‘Sure.’ I wrote, he wrote back,” Sister Prejean said of her first contact with Patrick Sonnier. “He was glad somebody had found him.”
When she offered to visit, Sonnier sent forms to fill out. She checked the spot marked “spiritual adviser” to let prison officials know their relationship. When Sonnier was electrocuted 21‚Ñ2 years later, only his spiritual adviser was allowed in.
New Orleans, she said, is very Catholic — “nuns ride buses free — that’s how much they love us.” At the prison, though, she knew she couldn’t “play the nun card” to avoid all the searches required for entry.
Sonnier didn’t talk about the murders during their first meeting. Sister Prejean later reviewed his files, coming across a newspaper story that had the prom photo of “two beautiful kids.” The teenagers had gone to a homecoming game and then parked in a lover’s lane.
“They didn’t come home — every parent’s nightmare,” Sister Prejean told her Catholic audience. “The two brothers, who had been rabbit hunting with guns, said they were security and if the girl had sex with them, they wouldn’t report [the trespassing] to the owner.”
After the rape, the victims were made to lie face down and each was shot in the back of the head several times.
Sister Prejean said prosecutors vying for the death penalty will tell juries “We need you to give the family justice; we owe it to them.”
She said the great awakening for her came from victims’ families. The father of the teenage boy shot to death by Sonnier prayed for the condemned man’s mother, who was subjected to hatred in the community.
“He said people think forgiveness is weak. He grew up a kind man,” Sister Prejean said. “He forgave the two people who killed his only son.”
She said he was not letting love be overcome by hate. The approach to the death penalty, she said, is to dehumanize people, like some try to do with terrorists.
“It’s ethical to think outrage when innocent people are killed, but what’s our response?” the nun asked. “They kill so we kill?”
“Dead Man Walking” became a movie, opera and play. Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn starred in the movie.