[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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
NARRATOR: On September 15th, 1982, Sister Helen first met Patrick
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
NARRATOR: Sister Helen continued to visit Patrick Sonnier for two
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
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
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
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
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
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
Mike Varnado is the deputy sheriff who investigated the crimes of Robert Lee
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
NARRATOR: It would take years of treatment for Mark to achieve even a
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
And now for some of your comments about our program "Breast Implants on
ELIZABETH O'DELL: [Alberta, Canada] Dear FRONTLINE: Perhaps you
missed the real point of the issue. The companies lied. They failed to warn the
women about the real risk of rupture and about their own data regarding the
impact of silicon on the immune systems of their test animals. Elizabeth
O'Dell, Alberta, Canada.
RALPH CARUSO: [Washington, D.C.] Dear FRONTLINE: The most damning
part of your presentation was the behavior of the lawyers, the advocates for
the women and the plaintiffs themselves. They refused to accept any logical
explanations of their condition and insist that Dow Corning should pay for
their illness, whether the silicone implants caused their condition or not.
Ralph Caruso, Washington, D.C.
STEVENS MILLER: [New York, New York] Dear FRONTLINE: As a lawyer
with a graduate science degree, I can tell you that not all lawyers are greedy
profiteers, nor are all scientists saints of objectivity. While this story
shows how difficult it can be to bring law into harmony with science, neither
profession is wholly clear of nor wholly responsible for that difficulty.
Stevens Miller, New York, New York.
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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.
WRITTEN, PRODUCED & DIRECTED BY
Anne del Castillo
David M. Allen
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