[This transcript is provided as a service of Journal Graphics. The WGBH Educational Foundation is not responsible for any errors or mischaracterizations in this transcript. JES]

FRONTLINE Show #1414

Air Date: April 9, 1996

[The following program contains graphic language and descriptions of violence. Viewer discretion is advised.]

Angel on Death Row

ANNOUNCER: The critically acclaimed movie Dead Man Walking told her story, a nun working on death row. Now FRONTLINE tells the rest of the story_ the killers, the victims and the real woman who's rekindled the debate on the death penalty. "Angel on Death Row" tonight on FRONTLINE.

TOM HANKS: The dream starts on the page. The vision takes shape in the director's imagination. The producer makes it happen. And the actors bring it to life.

NARRATOR: One of the most closely watched categories on this year's Oscar telecast was that of Best Actress.

TOM HANKS: Here are the nominees for Best Actress in a Leading Role: Susan Sarandon in Dead Man Walking_

NARRATOR: The front-runner was Susan Sarandon for the portrayal of a nun's spiritual journey with a death row inmate.

SUSAN SARANDON: [Dead Man Walking ] You look at me. I'll be the face for love you.

TOM HANKS: And the Oscar goes to Susan Sarandon in Dead Man Walking.

NARRATOR: For Sarandon, who had been nominated four times before, this was a personal triumph. But the first person she chose to thank was the woman she had portrayed, Sister Helen Prejean.

SUSAN SARANDON: _people that are so dear to my heart for making this happen. First of all, Sister Helen Prejean, who's here tonight, for trusting us with your_ with your life and bringing your light and your love into all of our lives.

NARRATOR: The real Sister Helen Prejean has been spiritual advisor to five men over the last 14 years. Three of them have been executed. For Helen Prejean, the argument over capital punishment boils down to a simple moral question.

Sister HELEN PREJEAN: Execution is the opposite of baptism into a community. Baptism into a community means "We are all connected, we are all one family and you are part of us." And execution is removing a person from the human family, step by step, saying, "You are no longer part of us. You are not human, like we are, and so we can terminate you."

When you hear of the terrible things people have done, you can say they deserve to die, but the key moral question is "Do we deserve to kill?"

NARRATOR: Sister Helen's unexpected journey to death row began here, in the St. Thomas projects of New Orleans. In 1981, Prejean came to St. Thomas, a poor black enclave in the heart of New Orleans notorious for its crime and its poverty. For three years she lived at Hope House, a Catholic support center on the project's edge. A chance encounter there started Prejean on a journey that would become her life's work.

Sister HELEN PREJEAN: One day, I'd come out of the adult learning center and Chava Collen, who was at the Prison Coalition office, was coming down the street. He had a little project going. He had a little clipboard. Anybody he was seeing that day he was asking to be part of this project. And it_ the project was, "Would you write to a death row inmate?"

So I'm going between one thing and another and I_ I said, "Sure," you know, and he_ so he scribbles down the name of this guy for me on an envelope and it's Elmo Patrick Sonnier. And I took that name home and I wrote that first letter to him and it all unfolded from there. I thought that's all I was going to be doing was writing him letters. But then he had no one to come and see him.

NARRATOR: A hundred twenty-five miles north of New Orleans lies Angola State Prison, the largest prison in the country, where 57 men now wait on death row.

Sister HELEN PREJEAN: Each inmate has so many visitors and you apply and so the categories were "friend," "family," "spiritual advisor." Later found out that when he was executed, the only person who could be with him to the end was his spiritual advisor. I'm sure if I had known all that from the beginning, I never could have said yes, but I didn't know.

He's done the worst thing that a human being can do. He's killed somebody. But I didn't know yet the details, but I knew I had to find that out. So then I went back to the Prison Coalition office and I said, "Could I see the files? I want to get some background on the Sonnier case."

And there in the new library were the pictures of these two beautiful teenage kids and the scowling, terrible pictures of Pat Sonnier and his brother, Eddie, and talking about how these kids had been abducted from a lover's lane. The brothers had posed as security officers, told the kids they were trespassing, then brought them through the night_ what terror the kids must have felt!

And Loretta was raped and the kids were found lying face down and they had both been shot in the back of the head at very close range, like an execution-style murder.

NARRATOR: On September 15th, 1982, Sister Helen first met Patrick Sonnier.

Sister HELEN PREJEAN: And lo and behold, there he is, and he's shaved and his hair's combed. And he was so glad to see me. He was like a little boy, in a way. People do evil things, but the person, Pat Sonnier, I couldn't call him a totally evil person. There was more to him than that.

And I think maybe I was the first piece of steady sunshine that came into his life and he began to trust me. And one of the last things he would say to me before he died was, "You know, it's a shame a man has to come to prison to find love."

NARRATOR: Sister Helen continued to visit Patrick Sonnier for two years.

Sister HELEN PREJEAN: We would spend the hours of the day together, with the sun bright in the morning and then, as the sun would set in the evening, and know that was another day_ "Well, that was his last Wednesday. This is his last Thursday. This is his last Friday."

And to be in that crucible, not just to prepare to die_ if it was simply that, in a way, you can get ahold of that. "I'm going to the hospital. This man has cancer. He knows he's going to die. I know he's going to die. And we're going to prepare for this death." But it was to live or to die because at any moment the phone could ring and he could be given a stay of execution and he'd begin it all over again.

NARRATOR: But this time his lawyer, Millard Farmer, could win no more stays for Patrick Sonnier. He was to die on April 5th, 1984, in the electric chair.

Sister HELEN PREJEAN: What I always remember is as the sun began to set, when it began to be dark, because you know this is the night. When the sun sets today, this night is when it's going to happen.

Right at midnight, the warden came, accompanied by the strap-down team, said, "It's time to go, Sonnier." And we walked. And he had said, "I just pray that God holds up my legs," because the last thing he hoped for is that he wouldn't faint and they'd have to drag him_ that dignity.

From the chair, as they were strapping him in, he_ he looked at my face and he saw me and his last words from that chair were to me and they were words of love. And I reached my hand out. I remember going toward that plexiglass that separates the witnesses, you know, toward him.

And then they put the mask over his face. That's the last thing they do. And I knew he couldn't see me anymore and I closed my eyes and heard as they pulled the switch three times, the 1,900 volts, and then they let the body cool, then 500 volts, then 1,900 volts. And when I did look up, one hand had grabbed the chair. The other, the fingers were kind of curled upwards, and he was dead.

And I walked out of that execution chamber that night, in the middle of the night_ it was all dark and_ and Millard said, "Look. Look at the secret thing that's done in the middle of the night. Nobody can see it but us. And what has been accomplished here tonight other than another human being has been killed?"

And that fire has been burning in me ever since. I remember, distinctly, saying to myself that night, "If the people of Louisiana really knew what was going on here, they'll reject the death penalty."

People have no idea how inhuman and imperfect and frail and biased and_ you know, the whole thing is.

NARRATOR: Almost 15 years after her first visit with Patrick Sonnier, Sister Helen Prejean has become America's leading crusader against the death penalty.

Sister HELEN PREJEAN: _watch how they keep adding to the laundry list of who can be executed. Look what Congress did_ the anti-crime bill_ 60 crimes now for which you can get the_ the death penalty. Somebody threw in poultry inspector somewhere. I don't know why. But it's almost like a kind of pork-barreling with the death penalty. Well, I want_

When you witness and see, as I have witnessed, what the death penalty entails, the suffering, the pain, the injustice of it, you either just say, "I'm just going to minister to private individuals and comfort them" or you begin to pick up the issue and see it as an issue of justice and begin to move it wider, that we need to change something socially here, and then you become an activist. And that's what I've become.

NARRATOR: In 1993, Sister Helen Prejean wrote about her experience accompanying Patrick Sonnier and a second inmate, Robert Lee Willie, to their executions. Two years later, Tim Robbins adapted the book,Dead Man Walking, into a feature film, combining aspects of both cases into a composite story.

Sean Penn's character, Matthew Poncelet , is largely based on the real-life Robert Lee Willie.

SUSAN SARANDON: [Dead Man Walking ] Well, Matthew, I made it.

SEAN PENN: [unintelligible] Never thought I'd be visiting with no nun.

Sister HELEN PREJEAN: Robert Lee Willie said when I walked in, he went, "Never thought I'd be talking to no nun before." You know, it was, like, "I'm not very religious myself," and there was_ there was an honesty in him about religion. I would slip, when I met Sean_

SEAN PENN: [Dead Man Walking ] Ain't you going to ask me what I done?

Sister HELEN PREJEAN: _and I would slip sometimes and call him "Robert" because he's a dead ringer, if you'll excuse the expression, for Robert Lee Willie. And some characteristics of Robert are in the character, like the tattoos on his arm, being so tough. All of those kinds of things are_ are true about_ about Robert Lee Willie.

NARRATOR: The film has been hailed as a balanced treatment of the death penalty debate, but in real life Prejean's efforts to humanize the plight of convicted killers has brought her criticism. The families of victims and others say she pays too much attention to the criminals and too little to their crimes.

Mike Varnado is the deputy sheriff who investigated the crimes of Robert Lee Willie.

MIKE VARNADO: A young girl by the name of Faith Hathaway had been kidnapped in Mandeville. Two boys _ we later find out their names to be Robert L. Willie and Joseph Vaccaro_ kidnapped the girl outside of a local lounge there.

We're at Frickie's Cave. This was a very common picnic area and some people had come down the day after she was kidnapped and was picnicking and they found her purse and some other items. They brought it to the sheriff's office and they turned it in.

And the Mandeville police, St. Taminy deputies, the FBI and a lot of the family and stuff came up here and searched the area. And they searched for about four days and they never found her. They never found anything.

So being familiar with this area_ I've hunted in here and I've lived here all my life. This is my home. So I decided to come back down and take a look and started to search over from where the clothes were found. A terrible smell hit me_ very, very strong. And it was just a matter of following the smell to where I come up on Faith's body.

The girl was spread out, spread-eagled flat on her back, completely nude. Her legs were stretched as wide as they could go and her arms were held up above her head, like this, and her head was cocked back and her mouth was wide open.

This is the picture, really, the thing that I saw when I first come up here, that I couldn't_ couldn't quit looking at. It appears that the lady_ Faith was screaming. And this also shows the wound, how massive the wound is. And I could just imagine this woman screaming and the echo you hear down here and everything else. I just don't_ I don't know any other way to say it, but it had to be horrible.

According to Willie, he took this knife and he cut her throat, like this. And in his version he gave me in the confession, he said Joe was between her legs, taking the knife and jugging her as deep as it would go in her throat.

I was outraged immediately that they would bring this girl up in here _ this is her home _ and do these_ do these vile things to her. I'm still outraged about it. I don't like it. I don't know what to say to you other than it's affected my life since this has happened. I've worked a lot of violent crime, like I told you before, since then and_ a lot, but it's_ it's been nothing like this. Nothing.

NARRATOR: When Willie was picked up by police in Arkansas, Varnado went up there to question him about Faith's murder.

MIKE VARNADO: And the key to him confessing is_ he asked me a question. He said, "I guess I'm a big man" or "I'm making the headlines down there a lot" and things like that. And I said, "Yeah." I said, "You are." I said, "You could be like Jesse James," you know? And he said, "Yeah, I'll tell you about it. Yeah, I killed her."

ROBERT LEE WILLIE: [police audiotape] I asked her, I said, "Do you want a ride?" She said yes. So she got in the middle of the seat, between me and Joe, and we rode around and went up to Frickie's Cave and_

MIKE VARNADO: Willie showed absolutely no remorse through the whole thing. None. He was proud of what he had done. He talked to me like this was a Sunday afternoon football game we were discussing.

ROBERT LEE WILLIE: [police audiotape] He says, "You know where we can go fuck this whore?"

MIKE VARNADO: He didn't have any_ any problem telling me what they had done, the brutal details. The problem he had was actually owning up to being the one that actually cut the girl's throat. I guess he felt awkward about doing that.

ROBERT LEE WILLIE: [police audiotape] Joe blindfolded her and we went down in the bottom of the hill and Joe made her lay on the ground and he had this big old knife and he just cut her throat and just started jugging her in the throat with it, man_ just jugging her and jugging her and_

POLICE OFFICER: What were you doing?

ROBERT LEE WILLIE: He kept saying_ freakin' out. He kept saying_

MIKE VARNADO: Faith had just graduated from Mandeville High School about seven or eight days prior to this. She was out with some friends that night on the lake front, a nice lounge on the lake front. And at some time after midnight is when her friends say she left_ right after midnight.

She told them, "I got to go. The recruiter's coming to pick me up early in the morning." She had joined the Army. It felt like she_ that was the thing for her to do, go serve her country. From what I understand, she was extremely excited about it.

NARRATOR: Sixteen years later, the memory of Faith's death still burns in her stepfather, Vernon, and her mother, Elizabeth Harvey.

ELIZABETH HARVEY: The love, the joy that I enjoyed with Faith_ she brought a lot of joy in my life. She meant a whole lot to our family. She was a lot of joy. And I miss that. I miss it a great deal. I couldn't understand how they could have done something so heinous, cruel and vindictive on another human being.

Herb Alexander, the prosecuting attorney, statement, opening statement to the jury in Robert Lee Willie's case, said that Faith's last words on this earth were, "Please go away. Leave me alone. Let me die by myself." And the last words that Faith heard on this earth was, "This bitch won't die. Die, bitch. Die."

SUSAN SARANDON: [Dead Man Walking] He asked me to be his spiritual advisor, to be with him when he dies.

ACTRESS: [as Elizabeth Harvey] And what did you say?

SUSAN SARANDON: That I would.

ACTOR: [as Vernon Harvey] We thought you'd changed your mind.

NARRATOR: In the film, Helen Prejean's fragile relationship with the Harveys is portrayed.

SUSAN SARANDON: [Dead Man Walking] No.

ACTRESS: How can you come here?

ACTOR: How can you do that? How can you set with that scum?

NARRATOR: But since the opening of the movie, their once brittle friendship in real life has broken.

SUSAN SARANDON: [Dead Man Walking] I'm just trying to follow the example of Jesus who said that every person is worth more than their worst act.

ACTOR: This is not a person! This is an animal!

Sister HELEN PREJEAN: The people, the victims that are involved on the opposite side of people on death row_ it's a very_ it's_ I keep thinking of the image of a see-saw with them and me because it is so hard for them to accept me because I'm not for executions. And if they are, if they are for the death penalty, the possibility of our being able to meet and to be able to mutually support and to help each other is_ is very, very minimal.

ACTOR: [Dead Man Walking ] Sister, I think you need to leave this house right now.

Sister HELEN PREJEAN: The biggest wound that the movie has done, that I can think of, is the Harvey family, who are so upset over the film because, Elizabeth Harvey said, "You crucified us."

ACTOR: [Dead Man Walking ] Now, you can't have it both ways! You can't befriend that murderer and expect to be our friend, too!

Sister HELEN PREJEAN: The film, I think she felt_ evidently_ she said, "It brings all this up for us all over again. How could you do this to us?"

NARRATOR: The Harveys remain steadfast in their support of capital punishment.

ELIZABETH HARVEY: When you're in prison for life, they could talk to their family on the telephone. They could visit with them. They can see them at holidays. To go visit Faith, I have to go to the grave. I can't talk to her. I can't put my arms around her. At Christmastime her chair is empty. Her bed's empty. I don't get to contact her by telephone. I don't get to write her letters. I think they give up that right when they commit the crime.

NARRATOR: Three days after they killed Faith, while her body lay decomposing at Frickie's Cave, Robert Lee Willie and Joe Vaccaro drove over to Madisonville, on the banks of the Tchefuncte River, the home of Debbie Cuevas.

DEBBIE CUEVAS: When I was 16 years old, my boyfriend and I were sitting in a car on the riverfront in Madisonville. There are frequently a lot of people that gather there, go sit there to look at the river, relax, whatever. And we were drinking milkshakes, which we often did, from Badeaux's. It was_ it was a hot night.

And a truck pulled up on the other side, on Mark's side of the car, and they started approaching the car. And I can remember asking Mark, "Are these friends of yours?" And right about that time, before he could turn around to look, one of them had made his way around the car and they had guns and they pulled the_ the guns on us. One of them put a gun to my head and they forced their way in the car.

They told us not_ not to panic, they just wanted our car and our money. And they drove us outside of town. I realized that_ that they wanted more than our car and our money when they stopped the car and ended up putting Mark in the trunk of the car.

They drove us to Alabama, where they took Mark out of the trunk of the car and took him out into the woods and they stabbed him in the side and cut his throat, burned him with cigarettes, all tied to a tree. And then they shot him in the back of the head.

I was held by them for a day and a half or a couple of days and repeatedly raped. They took me to a place to spend the night. It was out in the woods somewhere. I don't recall anything being close around, any houses or anything. It was a trailer with dogs. And after several hours, they finally had_ needed to go to sleep and so Robert Willie tied me up to him.

I woke up and I felt someone stroking my face and I thought that they were going to rape me again. I started crying and saying, "Just take me out into the woods and kill me. I can't go through this again. I've had enough. I know that's what you're going to do anyway, so just go ahead and do it now and get it over with."

We drove to this place right off River Road, back into the woods. They were going to burn all of the evidence, the car and all, and so Robert Willie wanted to kill me. And all I could think was that I was not going to die by burning in the trunk of a car.

So I slid over near the door of the car and I just was going to choose to take off running and make them shoot me in the back and kill me that way. So I scooted over to the edge of the car and I took my sandals off because I knew I couldn't run in sandals. And I rolled up my pants legs so that I wouldn't trip. And I was just about to start running, because that's how close I was, and Robert Willie said, "Fine. We won't kill her. We'll take her home."

They drove to right outside of my home town of Madisonville. They stopped the car in front of the cemetery and told me to get out. They had teased me so many times about letting me go that I just couldn't really believe that they were going to let me go that easily.

About that time, the car just drove off past me and when it got out of sight, I just started running as fast as I could into town.

MIKE VARNADO: A young couple from Madisonville area had been kidnapped and it was Mark Brewster and Debbie Cuevas. Debbie managed to get away from them somehow and she went to the sheriff's office and picked Willie and Vaccaro out of a mug shot book. We immediately connected the two incidences.

DEBBIE CUEVAS: The first time that I heard about Faith was when I was giving my statement to the sheriff's deputies. I think that the first time I remember knowing that it was related was when they found her body at Frickie's Cave and I had been to that place and identified that place as the place where Robert Willie and Joseph Vaccaro had taken me and Robert Willie raped me there.

MIKE VARNADO: She was the most important part of the investigation. She took the authorities and showed them were Mark was tied to the tree and he was still alive.

NARRATOR: It would take years of treatment for Mark to achieve even a partial recovery.

MIKE VARNADO: I guess there's always a hero in every case. And in this case, it's clearly Debbie, young Debbie, 16 years old.

DEBBIE CUEVAS: There's almost some guilt there, on my part, that I lived and she didn't. I think that I'm bonded to her, in a way, because we both experienced this terror. Of course, hers was just much greater than mine.

MIKE VARNADO: Having Debbie as a witness in this case would have been just like if we could have brought Faith back and let her tell her story.

NARRATOR: Throughout the trial, Debbie was referred to only as "the 16-year-old girl from Madisonville."

MIKE VARNADO: She got right up on that witness stand and she pointed and she told a lot about what these people had done to her, especially Willie. And she gave the vivid details and the jury picked up on this. At one point_ and Willie even throws her a kiss after she gets through testifying. That didn't go across real well with the jury.

NARRATOR: The jury found Robert Willie guilty and after a 40-minute deliberation sentenced him to death.

DEBBIE CUEVAS: It was hard knowing that a person was going to die perhaps because of the things that I said in the trial or my role in it.

I felt some sense of responsibility.

I was definitely for the death penalty then. I wanted him to die, but there was no happiness or no joy in that at all. For me, it was fear. I just feel a lot better knowing that he's dead.

NARRATOR: Far from the gates of Angola Prison's death row, where she once ministered in obscurity, Helen Prejean now leads the fight in America against capital punishment. She's in high demand on college campuses, T.V. talk shows, and is now the celebrity at celebrity fund-raisers to abolish the death penalty.

In the three years before the movie of Dead Man Walking, her book had sold 35,000 copies. In the first three months since the movie opened, it has sold more than 300,000, sky-rocketing to the top of The New York Times best-seller list.

Sister HELEN PREJEAN: So we have a great dynamic going. The film plows the ground and the book tills the soil.

CHARLIE ROSE: She doesn't look like Susan Sarandon.

Sister HELEN PREJEAN: She doesn't look like Helen Prejean! Nice to meet you, Charles.

T.V. DIRECTOR: _three, two, one, cue.

CHARLIE ROSE: In 1982, while working in the projects of New Orleans, Sister Helen Prejean was asked to become the pen pal of a death row inmate.

Did Susan Sarandon, this great actress, capture the spirit and the passion, the beauty of Helen Prejean?

Sister HELEN PREJEAN: And then some.

OPRAH WINFREY: ["The Oprah Winfrey Show"] How did Susan approach you about this movie and were you scared?

Sister HELEN PREJEAN: Scared?

OPRAH WINFREY: I mean scared of the idea of what Hollywood and the whole_

Sister HELEN PREJEAN: Oh, no!

OPRAH WINFREY: _what happens to your movie_

Sister HELEN PREJEAN: Look, I'd been warned about Hollywood.

OPRAH WINFREY: Yeah.

Sister HELEN PREJEAN: I didn't go with Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins because they were Hollywood.

OPRAH WINFREY: Yeah.

Sister HELEN PREJEAN: I went because they were trustworthy people. I checked them out. I checked_

OPRAH WINFREY: You did?

Sister HELEN PREJEAN: Oh, yeah.

MAN AT BOOK PARTY: _book to get back out on the best-seller list. At least people are starting to think about it again.

WOMAN IN BOOK STORE: I just saw the film

NARRATOR: The success of the book and the movie have won Helen Prejean a legion of new friends and admirers.

Sister HELEN PREJEAN: Great. When did you see it?

WOMAN IN BOOK STORE: I saw it opening weekend, actually.

Sister HELEN PREJEAN: Oh, wow.

NARRATOR: But it has also reopened old wounds for the families of victims and for one victim who Helen Prejean had never even met, the 16-year-old girl from Madisonville.

DEBBIE CUEVAS: I was somewhat angry with the book and with Sister Helen Prejean. I felt that if she was going to write a book and bring up things that happened that only I would know, that she should have asked me.

Sister Helen Prejean never saw the side of Robert Willie that I saw. She saw a person who had been in prison for quite some time, on death row, and that has to change a person who's facing death. I saw a mean, vicious, evil person and I don't know that he ever showed that side of himself to her.

Sister HELEN PREJEAN: No, I didn't know the mean, vicious Robert Willie that_ that she knew. I did know, just from reading the accounts of things, of what the mean, vicious things that Robert Willie had done. But I guess I didn't feel it was my place or my role to try to absorb the_ like, to go_ if I wanted to know the mean, vicious Robert Willie, I should have talked to the investigators. I should have talked to the people who discovered the body. I should have talked to the_ you know, all the people concerned in it.

MIKE VARNADO: I have trouble with her views. Or I wouldn't have had as much trouble with her views if she would have told the truth, if she would have researched the case. She just_ she didn't go up to the files. She didn't go to the clerk's office. She didn't_ certainly didn't interview me, didn't interview any of the witnesses in the case, didn't look at any of those pictures, didn't read any of those statements, didn't listen to any of those confessions, admissions, whatever you want to call them. All she did, she based her book on what was in, I guess, a defense file and what Robert Willie told her.

Sister HELEN PREJEAN: People who have to investigate these terrible crimes_ they've said it to me before. They just say, "Sister, you only see these guys in their little cell and you're having a nice conversation. We see this stuff." And I know that they see parts of it that I don't see. But I see some things they don't see, too.

NARRATOR: Two days after Christmas in 1984, Helen Prejean would accompany Robert Lee Willie to his death. The Harveys and Mike Varnado had also come to Angola to witness the execution.

MIKE VARNADO: I was here several hours before the actual execution took place. I remember_ this has been 12 years, but I remember being concerned that_ I had never seen anyone go from completely living to totally dead and I was concerned how I was going to feel about doing that.

I was praying, I mean, the whole time. I did more praying, I'm sure, than anybody in this building. I asked God numerous times if there was anything that I did in this investigation that I should bring to light, any problems I've got, any way, that I should immediately tell the prosecutors so this thing could be stopped. And it could have been.

And my conversation with God was probably the deepest and the closest I've ever been able to communicate with him. I actually really felt like I was communicating. Sometimes when I pray, I don't know if I'm really getting through or communicating, but I was communicating very well. And the message I was getting is, "There's no problem here. This is_ this is my will and this is going to be done."

I don't think Robert Willie was redeemed. I saw him stand at this podium right here and he looked at us and he said, "If you all think killing's wrong, what do you think you're doing to me?" And I saw him look at Faith's Mama and Daddy and say, "I hope you're getting some satisfaction out of this," and this is the tone.

He should have been begging for forgiveness from these people and crying and saying, "Please!" And if he didn't do that, he certainly is in hell.

Sister HELEN PREJEAN: It was totally opposite of anything he knew to do, in terms of the way he saw maintaining his own dignity, was to kneel or to cower or to beg anybody for anything. He had had to fight for everything all his life and I think that was part of the way he died.

I mean, Robert Willie, he told me, "When I get in the chair, I'm going to let you know I'm all right." And they actually had put the mask over his face and suddenly, here he is signalling, like that, for them to lift it. I mean, this is so unusual! And they lift it and he looks at me and he winks.

I mean, a lot of the media said, "Robert Lee Willie"_ you know, "arrogant and boasting and"_ but when people are killing you, it is a way of showing your own transcendence over what they are doing to you and I think he had done that his whole life.

NARRATOR: "When the roll is called up yonder," as the Baptist hymn goes, "we will all be accountable for our actions toward our fellow men."

Seventy-seven percent of Americans believe in the death penalty. Many find confirmation for their beliefs in the Bible.

MIKE VARNADO: Our chief deputy is a Baptist preacher and he clearly gave me my authority in the Bible under Romans 13. But Romans 13 is so clear, I said, "I think God made this so I could understand this." Do good and the government's going to praise you for it and do evil and the government's going to get you. And God doesn't give us the authority to do this. He demands that we do this.

MINISTER: Now, we, as Christians, we're supposed to believe that_ that_ in forgiveness and all these kinds of things, too. But God is a God of justice and if you were somebody being persecuted by the Romans in this day and you read this letter and you saw all these judgments we're reading about right now, you'd say, "Well, they're going to get theirs. What goes around comes around," and it does.

Sister HELEN PREJEAN: Many people quote the Bible and say, "I'm a God-fearing person," and what they say is, "The Bible is filled with killing and God condoning it" and it is. But the God you're describing to me is_ is a God that wants pain for pain, life for life, suffering for suffering and a death for a death. I do not believe in that kind of God.

And I know that in the Bible there are many, many references to very harsh punishments. But the Bible was written over 2,000 years. A lot of it comes out of the Mosaic Code, where people didn't have alternatives. By the time you get to Jesus Christ, the thrust of his life and his message is not to return hate for hate.

NARRATOR: Helen Prejean continues to counsel death row inmates.

Sister HELEN PREJEAN: You've been on death row 10 years, right?

DOBIE WILLIAMS: Yeah, May 28th.

Sister HELEN PREJEAN: May 28th? Is that your_ the day that_

NARRATOR: She's currently spiritual advisor to her fifth convicted killer, Dobie Williams.

Sister HELEN PREJEAN: I don't know if they got one in the store for that, though, huh? I'd have to make one up.

DOBIE WILLIAMS: Ten years and three days, huh?

Sister HELEN PREJEAN: Wow. That's a long time.

DOBIE WILLIAMS: Too long.

Sister HELEN PREJEAN: The torture of the death penalty is, I think, in the end, not the physical thing so much as, you know, if you're waiting on a gurney for the lethal injection or for electricity or a bullet. It's the getting there.

Conscious human beings have imagination and you anticipate death and so you die a thousand times before you die. But also, when you meet somebody like that, you realize there's more to people than the worst thing they ever do in their life.

NARRATOR: With more than 50 men on Angola's death row, Sister Helen has encouraged lay people to volunteer to become spiritual advisors. Antonio James was scheduled to be executed in March, 1996. He was found guilty in 1979 of murdering a 71-year-old man during a $42 robbery. For 11 years his spiritual advisor has been Vangie Roberts.

Sister HELEN PREJEAN: Vangie came because she's so_ didn't believe in the death penalty. And so I said, "Vangie, maybe there's somebody that you would like to take on death row and go visit and be a spiritual advisor," and she said, "Sure," and that's how she hooked up with Antonio James 11 years ago.

VANGIE ROBERTS: How's things been going for you?

ANTONIO JAMES: Oh, I've been taking it easy, you know?

VANGIE ROBERTS: As always_

ANTONIO JAMES: Yeah, I'm doing all right_

NARRATOR: After 13 stays of execution in his 14 years on death row, Antonio was slated to be executed within a matter of days.

VANGIE ROBERTS: When Helen came up here, you guys went to mass or church or_

ANTONIO JAMES: Well, she was visiting with Dobie Williams downstairs, so I asked him and I managed to talk to her and shake her hand, you know?

VANGIE ROBERTS: Yeah.

NARRATOR: An office worker in New Orleans, Vangie visits Antonio as often as she can scrape together car fare for the three-hour trip to Angola.

VANGIE ROBERTS: Through our relationship, you know, I've grown so much spiritually. If it wouldn't have been for Helen and her passion for helping guys on death row, you know, I_ I just think that we would have never had this opportunity to meet, to become spiritual partners forever.

1st REPORTER: Well, time is running out for condemned killer Antonio James. Barring any last-minute stays, he is scheduled to die_

2nd REPORTER: He is scheduled to die by lethal injection just after midnight tonight for the 1979 murder of an elderly New Orleans man. The state parole board refuses to grant James clemency.

PAROLE BOARD HEAD: We find no compelling reason at this time to change the sentence that was pronounced upon you by your fellow Americans.

PRISON SPOKESMAN: Well, right now he's_ no one's with him. He's with a correctional officer and they're watching T.V. and_

3rd REPORTER: This just in_ a federal appeals court has denied a stay of execution for convicted killer Antonio James. He's scheduled to die by lethal injection in Angola at just after midnight.

NARRATOR: Since 1984, the Harveys have come to all but one of the 17 executions carried out at Angola.

ELIZABETH HARVEY: I go to Angola because the victim cannot be there and the news media, our society doesn't remember any longer who that victim was.

It's not us that's made the decision for tonight. We wouldn't be here tonight if he hadn't made the decision. I wished he hadn't have made the decision in 1979.

Sister HELEN PREJEAN: And we feel our helplessness so much, Lord. And how can we face this great injustice that's happening_

NARRATOR: Thirty feet away, Helen Prejean leads a prayer vigil and tries to comfort Antonio's family.

Sister HELEN PREJEAN: We are here with each other and we are all bound together in prayer and in love because an act of great hatred is taking place, but we are bound in love and we are bound in faith and we are bound in confidence in you, knowing that your love and your grace can overcome all sorrow and_

PRISON OFFICIAL: Antonio James was pronounced dead at 12:27 A.M. this morning. Thank you.

ELIZABETH HARVEY: We have got to speak up that it isn't okay for you to go on living and kill our loved ones.

Sister HELEN PREJEAN: It was so eerie because I never get used to it. I've been through it so many times. I_ I couldn't believe it was happening again.

MOVIE THEATER CASHIER: $3.75. May I help you? Thank you.

NARRATOR: Helen Prejean says Dead Man Walking has brought people close to the death penalty in a way they've never been before. It brought Debbie closer than she'd been in 16 years to Robert Lee Willie.

DEBBIE CUEVAS: Two for Dead Man Walking please.

I was tense through the whole thing. I_ I just felt like I had knots in my stomach.

SUSAN SARANDON: [Dead Man Walking ] There's places of sorrow only God can touch. You did a terrible thing.

DEBBIE CUEVAS: The_ the resemblance of Sean Penn to Robert Willie, first of all, and then just seeing things from so many different people's point of view brought up a lot of feelings.

SUSAN SARANDON: [Dead Man Walking ] You are a son of God, Matthew Poncelet!

SEAN PENN: Nobody ever called me no son of God before!

DEBBIE CUEVAS: I think that when I was so supportive of the death penalty, I had a lot of anger, a lot of pain. I think that the book, and now, especially, the movie has definitely made me have to take a look at myself or_ or inside myself and rethink my position.

What I'm still trying to_ to seek is what God's will really is for me and what God expects for me to do. And I guess I just wanted to discuss all of that. I called Sister Helen Prejean and she said, "Speaking," and I said, "Sister Helen, my name is Debbie Morris. You probably won't recognize my name, but you'll know me better as just `the 16-year-old girl from Madisonville.' "

Sister HELEN PREJEAN: And my first instinct was, like, "Oh, God! This is going to be terrible!" But I did sense in her voice_ there was an aliveness and a wholeness in her voice that_ and then she said who she was.

DEBBIE CUEVAS: And there was silence on the phone for just a minute and she said, "Oh, Debbie." And I could tell she realized who I was.

Sister HELEN PREJEAN: I said, "You must be an extraordinary human being that you would have been through this and that you came out whole and unscathed." And she said, "Well, it's really been a lot of ups and downs about it" and that_ and then she said to me, "Can I ask you, why didn't you come see me?" And I went, "I'm sorry. I should have come see you."

NARRATOR: In the weeks since, Debbie and Sister Helen have met to talk and to pray.

DEBBIE CUEVAS: I think that Sister Helen has definitely played a role in how I feel about things. I'm kind of in the process of this journey. I've changed a lot about the way I feel about it. But I think if what I'm supposed to believe is that Robert Willie deserves his place in heaven, right there next to me and_ and Faith Hathaway and whoever else_ I'm not quite there yet.

ANNOUNCER: Visit FRONTLINE on the web at pbs.org for more information about the real life cases in Dead Man Walking. Read a chapter from Sister Helen Prejean's book, interviews with the killers' victims and the sheriff, major analyses on the morality and justice of the death penalty, pro and con. Also, link to interview with Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins and more at FRONTLINE online at pbs.org.

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Next week on FRONTLINE, two special films for National Holocaust Remembrance Week. First, on Tuesday, the remarkable film made from footage shot by Allied liberators, "Memory of the Camps."

And then, on Wednesday_ it's been more than 50 years since the Nazis came. Now he's come home to the place he loves and the place he fears. Has anything changed or nothing at all in the SHTETL? Next week on FRONTLINE.

Sister HELEN PREJEAN: _and I closed my eyes and heard as they pulled the switch three times, the 1,900 volts, and then they let the body cool, then 500 volts, then 1,900 volts. And I_ when I did look up, one hand had grabbed the chair. The other, the fingers were kind of curled upwards, and he was dead.

ANGEL ON

DEATH ROW

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