This is FRONTLINE's old website. The content here may be outdated or no longer functioning.

Browse over 300 documentaries
on our current website.

Watch Now
Angel on Death Row

Interview Header
photo of sister Helen Prejean

Q: What impact do you see the book and the film having?

Prejean: One tremendous difference that the film is having is the way people are approaching it and the new possibilities we have now for debate and discussion on the death penalty that we've never had before. Community discussion that we did in Baton Rouge... community discussion about the film Dead Man Walking. Before this film if we had sent an invitation to people to gather in a place and come talk about the death penalty, we would have been lucky if 25 people woulda showed up. But look, a whole group of people. I mean they were packed in there standing against the back wall. And I think the key difference is the film has brought them there. So they feel like players in the discussion. They feel like they've been there. And so that was a world of difference in the kind of discussion that happened in Baton Rouge because people were saying what about this scene with the family of Matthew Poncelet or just -- they feel like they're participants now in the discussion in a way that we never have had before.

Q: What difference do you see the book and film making in the work you do?

Prejean: The big difference is changing consciousness. On this issue people have not been reflecting about it very much. It's been like yeah people do terrible crimes. We hear the politicians tell us all the time we got to execute them, end of discussion. Most people are not affected directly personally by the death penalty. This is making them think about it and also to experience it through the film in a very visceral way. Not just rationally.

Q: Are you trying to convince people?

Prejean: Yeah, I mean I am. I'm trying to -- I mean ever since I walked out of the execution chamber on the night of April 5th 1984, I remember saying this very clearly; it was in the middle of the night, it was dark, I had watched a man die and I said to myself very distinctly, I know if the people of Louisiana could really be brought close to this and know what went on here tonight, and I don't mean just the physical aspects of execution but how selective it is, all the things about the death penalty, they'll reject the death penalty.

Q: Tell me about the Sean Penn character in the film and how he compares to Robert Lee Willie in characteristics, looks, attitude.

Prejean: When I met Sean, we spent a day together and went to the prison and so forth. 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 press interviews and saying how he admired Hitler, the tattoos on his arm, being so tough, all of those kinds of things are true about Robert Lee Willie. The scene with the family is real close to what it was like when Robert Lee Willie's family visited him for the last time. His mama wanting to hug him and they saying, 'sorry ma'am security.'

And that -- the toughness of him. I would call him the Marlboro Man. And I would say you know Robert, real people, real men can cry. You can have some tenderness in your and -- and Robert Willie, the first time he cried was when he told his mama good-bye, he said, 'I just let it flow.' So all these things are similar.

Q: And what about the characteristics of the character that aren't likable, how much of that is like Robert Lee Willie?

Prejean: The unlikable characteristics in the Matthew Poncelet character, that hardness, that trying to get him to take responsibility for what he had done in -- I had said to Robert Lee Willie, what if somebody killed your mama what would you want to do to them? Try to just get him to just cross out of himself into the pain that he had inflicted on these families. And he said I'd sure as hell want to kill 'em. I would you know. And then to, also to try to -- when he was working on his last words as to what he would say, he was going to come out with all kind of tough stuff or ... and I was just saying, 'Robert, you know it's your chance-,' and then he said, 'well, look I really hope my death gives them some peace, the victims.' And boy I latched on to that. I knew that was a little part of this soul that could be built in terms of -- because he was thinking of others. And it was really a wish -- it was a love wish for other people that perhaps his death could give them peace. It wasn't hate, and it wasn't arrogance, and so that part was true. The Matthew Poncelet character is worse than any single person I've ever encountered. He was harder and I concurred with Tim when he said we cannot make him sympathetic at all because the moral issue of the death penalty is not whether we can kill sympathetic people, but the Matthew Poncelets of the world.

Q: And the real Robert Lee Willie, I'm told is also not a very sympathetic character a lot of the times.

Prejean: There are people around Angola, some of the guards, some of the news media said I don't believe in the death penalty but for Robert Lee Willie. Robert Willie, in many ways, locally around here was a like a poster boy for the death penalty because the nature of his crimes, the nature of the crimes, the killing of Faith Hathaway was so brutal. It was so terrible. And then his arrogance in the courtroom. You know like calling the judge Cap -- making like he was gonna cut his own throat when he saw the -- you know the abducted couple that had come very close to death -- those characteristics were all similar to him.

Q: And would you describe the pair -- with Joe Vaccaro as the follower or the leader?

Prejean: Oh that's a key question. Yeah I mean who's the leader in what? I mean it's not just being with Robert Willie in this but other people that I have known on death row who are involved with other people and violence happens. And it gets very enmeshed together at some particular time like it might be one person who initiates the robbery or whatever, and then the violence that ensues might be somebody else. I mean the way I got to know Robert Willie was he wanted to take the lie detector test the day that he died so his mama would know that he hadn't killed Faith Hathaway. He didn't pass the lie detector test but I mean as I said to him it registers stress. But he was so insistent on that. And he said to me I don't hurt women, I don't hurt women. What he said was that he had not been the one who had slashed Faith to death but he did admit that when Joe Vaccaro told him he held her hands which is a participation in the death of her person. I mean you're equally guilty even if you're not the one wielding the knife.

But he was very insistent on that lie detector test and bitter disappointed that it didn't show what he evidently wanted to show his mother. Now I mean that's what Robert, and I only knew him two months, I tended to believe him just by the level of his disappointment when the lie detector test -- and also it wasn't for the world, it wasn't to prove it to anybody but to his mother which made me kind of want to trust it. I'll never know. I'll never know which part during those wild days, the two of them did so many despicable things of who was leading who or what.

Q: Mrs. Harvey told me they didn't see any remorse in Robert Lee Willie. Did you see remorse? Was he capable of real remorse?

Prejean: The most that he had to say to them was I hope my death gives you some peace. There are other options of what he could have said. If he wanted to be arrogant and thumb his nose at them before he died he could have said something about their daughter. He could have said what he felt about them and he chose those words. But they're right, he didn't show a whole lot of remorse. That was the amount of remorse and that's not much. It's really not much.

Q: What do you say to Mrs. Harvey when she says about life imprisonment that someone shouldn't deserve the rights that Faith doesn't have? You know life imprisonment, she can't hug Faith every year, Faith's chair is empty...

Prejean: Yeah, first of all I stand on very hallowed ground at that point because I haven't had her loss. I haven't had my mother killed like that. And there's a metaphysical truth in what she's saying. She has lost the personal universe of her child that can never be replaced and she cannot stand the thought that he could be alive. I understand that with her loss that she would say something like that. I personally do not believe that the death, Robert Lee Willie, they could have watched his death I think a thousand times but that vacuum and the loss that they have sustained could never be filled by the death of another person.

Q: You just started to allude to some of their wild days. They raped Faith, they tortured her, they did some pretty heinous, brutal things, I mean is that human behavior that they showed toward her?

Prejean: No that's truly animalistic behavior. I mean the way that Robert Willie and Joe Vaccaro taking this girl Faith Hathaway alone in that truck, bringing her down to that gravel pit, raping her, stabbing her, killing her, she's all alone, she begged to die. We look at that and we go that's not human, that's not human behavior. It isn't. It's like a wild animal tearing someone, it's violence where you treat a person not as a person but completely as an object. I'm horrified at that. I mean when I hear of anybody doing that, a mugger just blowing somebody away with a gun in their face or here's a girl all alone. She was all alone in the darkness of the woods with these two savage people, who were not acting in a human way. Who were completely unresponsive in a human way. It must have been so terrifying.

Q: So why give them human rights?

Prejean: Because there are some human rights that are so deep that we can't negotiate them away. I mean people do heinous, terrible things. But there are basic human rights I believe that every human being has. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the United Nations says it for me. And it says there are two basic rights that can't be negotiated that government doesn't give for good behavior and doesn't take away for bad behavior. And it's the right not to be tortured and not to be killed. Because the flip side of this is that then when you say OK we're gonna turn over -- they truly have done heinous things, so now we will turn over to the government now the right to take their life. It involves other people in doing essentially the same kind of act. In executions that have gone on here in Louisiana and one very recently I heard that the captain in the death house said to one of the people there as they were leaving, he said, leave this place and leave this to us idiots to do and there were tears running down his cheek because he was involved in the process of killing a fellow human being.

Q: What about the Robert Lee Willie you knew, versus the Robert Lee Willie who did these crimes?

Prejean: I mean I see Robert Lee Willie when he's behind bars and contained and not on drugs and so, I didn't know the vicious Robert Lee Willie. But what intrigued me about him, I only had two months with him and truthfully when I heard what he had done, I was just so appalled by the viciousness of it all and I don't know going in there if I'm gonna be able to have a normal conversation with this guy or not. And he said when I walked in he went, "Mmmhm never thought I would be talking to no nun before." You know it was like, "I'm not very religious myself" and there was a -- there was an honesty in him about religion. He said I don't believe in that jail house religion, everybody sucking up to God and stuff. I did give him a little cross which he put in his blue jean pocket before he walked to his death. But there was that -- the way he talked about his life, the way he talked about being on the barges and the experiences that he had had in his life, the experiences that he had had with women. One woman in particular whom I believe he probably reached the closest of a personal relationship and loved.

Q: Some people at the execution said that when he talked to the Harveys it wasn't with forgiveness, it was with a bit of a smirk frankly. Why wasn't he begging for their forgiveness at that point?

Prejean: I think that Robert Lee Willie was a besieged person himself from the way he grew up. His father had been in prison. He was kind of small in stature. He got in fights from the time he was young. The same reason -- like he said before he went to the pardon board, I'm not, I'm not kissing nobody's ass. I'm not -- 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 to fight for everything all of 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 gonna let you know I'm all right. And they actually had put the mask over his face and suddenly here he is signaling 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're doing to you and I think he had done that his whole life.

Q: Did he take responsibility at the end?

Prejean: In a limited way I think he did, though not fully. Not like the Matthew Poncelet character does in the film. He took responsibility probably more for his death than he did for his actions in his life and by that I mean because what he said to the Harveys was, "I hope my death gives you peace." But he never said things like, "God the pain I've caused, please forgive me for what I've done to your life, to your daughter." He never said, I pray for them. And so, I don't -- in fact even the way he dealt about feelings in general, I felt that he was -- For example, he ate his last meal down to the last fried shrimp and enjoyed it. He was talking while he was eating. I had to keep reminding myself that he was gonna die in a couple of hours. He had found a space to inhabit. Maybe he had done this his whole life -- of hey, this is a nice meal, living for the present moment and somehow he had pushed the arenas of suffering and pain and death that was coming to some horizon that he didn't have to deal with them.

I don't know -- I mean the fact that he cried when he talked to his mother was a major thing for him to even feel and acknowledge that he was feeling anything that showed tenderness or what he would consider weakness. I kept calling him the Marlboro Man. I said you keep being this Marlboro Man, they're only on cardboard, trying to move him into realms of experiencing humanness and feeling. The feeling include the crying for his mother but I'm not sure it ever included feeling really sorry for the Harveys and the pain that he had caused others.

Q: Good moral people believe in the death penalty. They find direction in the Bible, what do you say back to them?

Prejean: I say the God you're describing to me 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 2000 years, a lot 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. I don't believe in that kind of God and I personally believe that's a monster God who wants pain for pain and suffering and suffering like we do. I think that's making God in our own image. And I disagree with that image of God.

Q: And what do you say to that person who disagrees with you but says but I ain't gonna argue with a nun, they feel intimated by you.

Prejean: Whenever we start with the God thing but then I always move on to saying to people I really understand because there I try to stand on common ground with people, what would make them say that. Because there are such outrageous crimes that people do and you are outraged when you hear that and I say you're saying that because you're a decent person and decent people are outraged over the terrible things people do and I agree with you that those people need to be contained so that they can't kill again.

But I just don't believe in imitating it and doing to them what they've done. And then I say to them, and I know you really don't have a way of getting real information about this, I know there's a lot of rhetoric that you hear about this but I would like to invite you to find out more about the death penalty because I think when you do get that information you might feel differently, but I respect that you feel the way you do and many good people do feel that way.

Q: How do you answer the fact that Faith's chair is going to be empty?

Prejean: It's every parent's worst nightmare to look at the empty chair and know that they will never have her again. They'll never be able to talk to her or celebrate her birthday, the loss of a child who is irreplaceable. And I haven't lost anybody like that. But knowing some people who have lost somebody like that there are other options because what the decision basically implies -- `I can't allow that he can ever do that' means - she wants to deprive him of his life, that is what he must pay. She cannot stand the thought that he would be alive and her daughter is dead. But what that implies is there will be another family who then will be deprived of their child because they will kill him.

There's another mother -- there's another family, and people in their pain and their loss say I don't care about that because I can't stand the thought that he would be alive. So whatever it takes, I want him killed so that he can't have what my daughter can't have even though it means inflicting pain on another family. And not everybody makes that option. Though out of pain and loss I can understand that people would.

Q: We talked about the new opportunities the film has created in the book. Have they also opened up some old wounds?

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. And I thought I would die when I heard her say -- I had a chill. It was similar to the way I felt in the execution chamber you know you feel cold. And I put down that phone and I went oh my God! Like what have I done? And actually when I was writing the book, but the book hadn't for them didn't seem to be as bad -- I mean I ran the manuscript by them, I said correct anything in here that's not accurate. So Elizabeth Harvey read every word of that before came out. 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? And ... I just went how could I do that to them? And then I had to like go to another whole part of my soul in which I stand about the death penalty and what it does to the people involved in executing other people and what it does. I guess the moral equivalent that I came to was but there will be an -- as long as we have the death penalty, no matter how much in her pain she wants to see him dead, it will involve another family going through this and burying their loved one.

And I stood on that. It gave me some peace that the death penalty really doesn't help anybody and I had to stand behind that. I also know that the Harveys have made an option to continue going to every execution and they have chosen to go down that road of wanting execution, supporting it and so then I also thought to myself, well, the movie in a way is bringing it up. But they choose to keep bringing it up by attending every execution outside those gates, so they can never let it go themselves.

Q: What do you think when you see them at the execution, like last night?

Prejean: So terribly -- just seeing the Harveys outside the gates just recently when we've had an execution again, I almost feel like they've gotten fixed in a public position and maybe there's a part of them that would feel if they would stop doing that because they're so public in this that they would feel they're betraying Faith. I think there is something very deep there that now that they're so fixed in that publicly they would feel they're betraying her. And I wonder how much of that is at work of their continuing to go to the executions.

Q: Tell me about Vangie [Roberts] last night. What did you say to each other. What was going on with her when you saw her?

Prejean: When I saw Rangie come out from those prison gates, first I looked at her, I was so struck by her appearance. She looked like she had been someone who had gone to the foot of a cross or her face. Yet it was -- it was not all distraught. It was like I could tell that her soul was together. And when I met her and we put our arms around each other, she said to me thank you for bringing me to Tony. His life has been such a gift to me. And then she said to me how they had talked and how he was filled with such gratitude that it poured over into her and that he looked at her face when he died and said I love you. And I sensed that she was buoyed up, that she wasn't completely so distraught that his death had undone her. There was something in her that had remained intact. And then she said to me, he's not dead. He lives. And he is inside of me.

Q: And just tell me briefly about bringing Rangie and people like her into the kind of work you do?

Prejean: After I had witnessed Patrick Sonnier's death, that was in '84, I came out of there and I said I am never going back there again. I just -- but then time went by and one of the lawyers Millard Farmer came and said look we have these two clients and I said I'll take them one at a time and so I went back. But I also knew there were more people on death row than I could ever minister to that we needed to get other people involved. One of the first things we did was to have a training session for people who wanted to be spiritual advisors to death row inmates. Thangee came because she's so didn't believe in the death penalty and everybody around work when executions would happen she'd hear all these people celebrating you know the death of this person and all. She said where is there -- There must be some group somewhere that doesn't believe this should be happening. And so she looked through the phone book and found us. Pilgrimage for Life. Called up. And began to be involved with us. So I said Rangie, 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.

Q: You know I talked to the deputy sheriff in Faith's case, a cop kind of guy and he said -- he went to the execution and he said he was struggling with his feelings about the death penalty and he was talking to God and - it's not easy. Do you ever question your own beliefs? Do you struggle yourself with it?

Prejean: When I question it the most is when I'm in the presence of someone like the Harveys who says we'll never see our daughter alive again and you know that they want this. And desire the death of a person. And I feel so morally inept to meet that -- that is when I most -- my foot swings over the cliff and it doesn't stand on just even though intellectually I know that I'm against the death penalty, in their presence and in their pain I think I would want to give them anything -- that is when I question myself the most.

Q: At Robert Willie's execution, you started praying out loud at the end. Why did you do that? Some people take real offense at that and told me so.

Prejean: Yeah. I didn't know I was gonna do this. This was the second execution I had been through. And I remember praying you know God forgive us, God forgive all who participate in this execution. It just sprang out of me. And later of course people said that was not a prayer, that was a political prayer. You were making the victims feel guilty. It was such a spontaneous thing that happened with me witnessing this I guess for the second time people would take offense at that. They were all silent. I didn't even realize there was a rule you were supposed to be silent. And I would never do that again. But it happened to me very spontaneously.

Q: Some people involved in these cases say that you don't have your facts straight. That you rely too much on what someone in this case, Robert Lee Willie is telling you, that you're getting a don't go back to the files.....

Prejean: No. In Robert Lee Willie's case I did go back through all the transcripts of the trial and go through that very very carefully. I didn't just have a conversation with Robert Willie and what he said. Also all the newspaper accounts of it -- so I don't believe that's true that I don't -- that I didn't know what was involved in the case. That I only listened to Robert Lee Willie.

Q: So you make a good faith effort to do an almost kind of journalistic job? Is that what you're trying to do? You're trying to tell the true story or, are you trying to tell your impressions?

Prejean: Well I mean if you go to the transcripts of a trial then you look and see if everything that was done in that trial and what was said and what the prosecution said and what the evidence was. It's there. I wasn't writing this book to be a journalist, to try to go over the terrain again of Robert Lee Willie and what he did and to interview all those people. That wasn't the scope of my book. My book was to take it through the prism of my experience of accompanying people to their death, the victims involved in the case. But I would get knowledge of each of the cases. I did the same thing for Patrick Sonnier. To read all the accounts of it and especially the transcript. The transcript of a trial brings you through the trial. So you hear everything that's said against him, not just his own view of himself.

Q: And what do you say to somebody who says you've moved beyond saving souls now. You've moved beyond being a spiritual advisor even though you do that a little bit. That you're going for the Nobel Prize.

Prejean: No, I'm not going for any prizes. People when they see this they just assume that I must be self-seeking in some way. Either for media attention or some prize that I'm gonna be given. What has happened is when you witness and see as I have witnessed what the death penalty entails, the suffering, the pain, the injustice of it, you either they just say I'm just going to be 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.

Q: I wanna ask you specifically about Debbie. Debbie has gone through an evolution in her thinking. Both about the death penalty and about you. She said originally back then she was really shocked ...angered by the book. She saw herself as a victim. You didn't come to her. You didn't seek her out, why didn't you?

Prejean: Well I mean it's a failure on my part. I mean -- once I go back in hindsight and see all the people and when Debbie and I first talked, she said I just have to ask you this question, why didn't you seek me out? Because I hear you try to help victims. And I go wow you know it was like, I knew I had to seek the Harveys out because Faith had been killed. She was alive and it was like, I'm sure now because I've developed much more in my sensibilities about things in that, that I should have sought her out. I should have. I just said to her when she said that to me, I said I'm sorry I should have. I said I was dealing with so much in trying to deal with the Harveys and I knew that you were alive, that you had come out alive, that I just didn't, I didn't do that and I -- it's -- I mean all I can say is it's a failure on my part, that I didn't embrace or think that, that even I could be of help to her.

Q: People who criticize you say that it's a failure that's happened more than once. That you don't think through the crime, the seriousness, the victims, that you just don't give it as much care as you do the condemned killers and that's what they resent. What do you say back to them?

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 seesaw with them and me. Because it is so hard for them to accept me because I'm not for executions. And if they are for the death penalty, the possibility of our being able to meet and to be able to mutually support or to help each other is very very minimal. So those people it has been minimal in terms of what I have been able to do. But for example, just a couple of weeks ago a woman called who had seen the movie and she said my 16-year-old daughter was killed and I've really been going through a lot and I would like to talk to you. And so I said sure. And I'll respond to people if I feel I can be of help to them. Probably the best thing I've done for murder victims' families was to start Survive because then they can help each other. Because I'm such a strong opponent of the death penalty I think it makes it very very difficult for many murder victims' families to relate to me.

Q: Let me ask you one more thing about what Debbie said early on. Early in her thinking, she said you didn't know the mean, vicious, evil Robert Willie and that she could have told you about him. Why didn't you ask her? She could have told you so much? That only she knew.

Prejean: Well I had two months with Robert Willie. I felt, no, I didn't know the mean, vicious Robert Willie 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 and I felt from what I knew that he had done a horrendous thing that I was horrified by and I didn't know how much of the details of that I really needed to absorb from each of those persons in order to really know that.

Q: I mean what she says is that he was the leader. That it was him, not Vaccaro -- what do you say to her?

Prejean: Yeah, well he was the leader in the sense of through the whole thing and that she experienced-- that Joe Vaccaro did what he said. What he did in the end was he let her go. That he didn't kill her -- and as to who was in leadership and who was calling the shots, I don't know. The end result was that he did not kill Debbie. But in terms of the leadership style and who was doing what, I mean I really don't know.

Q: Debbie has come through this sort of full of --

Prejean: It's amazing, isn't it? Isn't she one of the most self-possessed people you have ever met in your life? She's a story in herself.

Q: You said you don't go back to everybody and ferret out every detail that you don't think you need to do that. But if you don't, -- can't it be seen as a kind of propaganda?

Prejean: I don't feel the way I tell the story and what I say in the book is propaganda. Propaganda is where you have these absolute principles that you say no matter what or how it falls in regard to the experience of people. I tried to share as honestly as I could my own experience of the reality of this as it came to me. And there's a victim's family that I do visit who took me actually down the road where his son had been before he was killed. It was like making the way of the cross -- took me to the places that -- where his son had suffered. And I wanted to go on that with him. But he brought me into that and he wanted me to see that. I knelt by the spot where his son was killed. I wouldn't automatically think though that I would need to, to go physically into all those places or talk to all of those people in that way.

I mean there're so many realms of suffering here and viciousness and cruelty and things that people do to each other. As people come to me and as I meet them, where I feel there can be a meeting, then I do go down that road with them in the way that I can. So like I mean I'm thinking of Lloyd LeBlanc, we went in the car, where his kids had been abducted. They went to this bridge. They brought them here. They were here. And just to experience that with him. You know it was -- and then to kneel at the spot actually where his son had been killed. But he allowed me to do that with him. And so I responded to that.

Q: Helen -- what was your gut reaction when Debbie called you?

Prejean: I went oh my God! She said, "You'll know me as the 16-year-old from Madisonville." I went oh my God! And what was so hard about it, I had just gotten off the phone with Elizabeth Harvey who was so upset. And my first instinct was like oh God this is gonna 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 and I went oh my God! And then she -- of course she was very forthcoming. I didn't have to say why are you calling and all that.

Q: What was your impression I mean -- here was a film, what happened? Just tell me the whole story of Debbie calling you.

Prejean: Yeah well you know with the film coming out I mean the number of people were like emerging from different corners and so here she's calling me and then she just says I've heard about the film and I knew about your book and then she said something very interesting. She said, 'I think maybe you and I may know a part of Robert Lee Willie or maybe we knew him better than anyone else.' That intrigued me. And then I said oh, and you came out alive. They brought you home after this 'cause I could remember -- and she says yeah and she says it's really quite a story and she began to tell me. She said how she related to them and how it, how it was nip and tuck and how she you know was such an active proponent throughout the whole -- 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 then she said, 'can I ask you why you didn't come see me?' And then I went, I'm sorry, I should have come see you. And she said I'd really like to talk to you. I'd really like to but I said absolutely. But I was thinking where do you live? And I said it will take a couple of weeks because I have all this onslaught of stuff happening but I will come and see you Debbie and -- and I knew then that I would.

Q: One of the things Debbie said early on, she wanted to say to you was that not everyone who supports the death penalty is doing it out of hate and revenge. I mean in her case, it was fear. Do you accept that people can be for the death penalty for other reasons?

Prejean: Yeah I mean especially somebody like Debbie when she said to me, "I didn't rejoice in his death but for the first time I did feel safe." I said, "Debbie I really do understand." That she knew he couldn't ever get at her or her sisters again. I said "That's a feeling of safety. That's not really a feeling of hatred."

No, I believe that one of the things that drives the death penalty is people don't trust the criminal justice system and the only way they feel they can be safe of these terrible murderers is to execute them. I do understand that.

But I mean I also know that when people are given alternatives to the death penalty -- where they are assured that a person will stay in prison for life--that support for the death penalty radically drops. The desire to be safe that's supposed to be one of the things that society offers you, is safety, public safety, and I know people, look I've been talking to people on this issue for 14 years and I know that the desire for safety and being protected from real dangerous people is something that drives really good decent people about the death penalty. It's not that people want to be vengeful or, or to kill people. They want to be safe from them.

Q: There's a moment at the very end of the movie Dead Man Walking you're with--I call him the LeBlanc character--De La Croix. You ask each other about finding your way out of these differences. What's your experience about this movie and where the discussion is now and where we are as a society?

Prejean: First of all what the movie is doing is taking the experience of the death penalty and getting it out of politicians' rhetoric. It's bringing people close to it in a way that they've never been before so that they're discussing the issues of it and what it means and probing the moral implications of it in a way that they never had before.

I saw like in that discussion in Baton Rouge where people were asking - probing it because I think they feel like hey I've been there, I've experienced this. One thing I've noticed with the murder victims' families though is I gave a talk in New Orleans just a couple of weeks ago and one of the first people to stand up at the end of it was somebody who had lost her daughter to murder and she said, 'Our family has been so conflicted over the death penalty. I'm personally not for it but my daughters are. My daughters went to see the film. One saw the film two times, another three times. The film is helping us to come to grips with our feelings about the death penalty and what the death penalty can solve.'

And so that's one side of it. The other is I believe that the film really brings people close to what it means to kill a human being, albeit by human methods, what does it mean? Because they see the process close-up. The people involved have to do it, who have to be the ones to, I just think it brings them there in a way that they had never been before. I think maybe for the first time people are thinking about the death penalty in a way that they've never been able to think about it before.

Q: Tell me about that. I mean people do cite this Romans 13. Just tell me what you were just saying. What do you say to them about that?

Prejean: I've witnessed so many times people want God in their corner to support what they believe. And Romans 13 says basically God's in Civil Authority. If the civil rulers, our government says in its law and its sacrosanct and it's not to be questioned. God must be in it. It's kind of at variance with a lot of questioning that's going on about government today and when government does good things for us or when government doesn't. And once you begin to get your real experience of government you know there can be all kinds of governments. Governments like the Nazis that kill people or-- we have to question government. But people want, there's definitely an authority argument in the death penalty and Romans 13, the people who are seeking that out, that's their proof text for that.

Q: But what do you say to that sheriff's deputy or whoever who says -- I'm the government. I was the investigator. I found Faith's body. We're people. Even if there's some revenge, if somebody did that to my daughter--

Prejean: Yeah sure, if somebody did it to your daughter who wouldn't want to see that person dead, that's the most natural human emotional in the world, I understand that and investigators see these terrible things, I haven't seen those terrible things. I didn't find her body. I didn't look at all the wounds. 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, because I go through this whole process of what it means now to turn over to this other real-live human beings who're doing it for the government, who're going to kill the people now, who've killed other people and I've seen that part too.

Q: And what about the flip-side of this authority argument? That it's the eye for eye, or even the Harveys say -- so another family loses their child, that's fair, I lost my child. What do you say to that?

Prejean: I think the victims' families are the most vulnerable ones in this discussion and they're the most understandable in wanting vengeance. What I don't accept is the politicians going for it because they have their ready little symbol. They are the ones most believable and most understandable that they have sustained this terrible loss and they want to see that loss compensated.

Q: How do you answer when people say-- three-quarters of the people in the country are for the death penalty. You're in the minority. Even though you're very persuasive about your point of view. How do you answer that?

Prejean: I've been talking to groups across this country for 14 years. When I walk in the room if I ask people to raise their hands who's for the death penalty or at least ambivalent about it, most of the hands in the room go up. When I finish, and when people then are exposed to all the dimensions of this, they reject the death penalty.

I mean those polls that say 75 percent of people--that's always an abstract question -- what would you like to do with first degree murderers? You think they should get the death penalty? Any of the questions though that point to the ambivalence in people where they're offered an alternative, it drops radically.

So I don't simply accept that people just accept the death penalty. I think that there are layers in that acceptance and in that ambivalence and when that's tapped and especially when people are educated about it, that they will not accept the death penalty. But there are two things that play into their ready acceptance of it. One is politicians who use it a symbol and manipulate the fears. And the other is the media.

No matter how many peaceful things go on between people in the city on any given day, in 12 real minutes of news, five of those minutes will be violence, either in the city, and if nothing's happened in the city they'll pull in violence from around the world and so people have an exaggerated sense of how dangerous our society is.

Q: Tell me about last night...the execution. Just describe it.

Prejean: It's the longest, darkest road in the world at those gates at Angola. And you know what's waiting for you when you get there. It's always colder in executions. So bitterly cold. And then there were all of Antonio's family, not just his mother, and his immediate family, but his nieces and his nephews and the Harveys were there. They were there and there they were with their signs upholding the execution and these kids, especially the nieces and nephews of Antonio were so upset, they were so upset that their uncle was being killed, they were so upset over the death of this person so close to them...

And when I arrived they were already confronting the Harveys. I could hear them saying, how can you people be here? How can you -- And I could hear Elizabeth Harvey saying, but our daughter was killed and they go, well our uncle is gonna be killed. And then I formed a circle and I said everybody kind of gather round and we formed this little circle to pray together and to sing and to join hands, to kind of form another current away from the antagonism and the anger that was seething out.

And then some of the children just began to weep. There was one young girl whose grief could not be contained. She was crying and she couldn't be stopped. And it was like against the night. She was crying and crying and crying. And I'm standing there holding Antonio James' mother's hand and then his aunt on the other side. And you start reaching for words to pray with the crying and screaming going on and all and, and then to sing, and so I began to sing Amazing Grace. And, then to pray. And then other people came in and you could tell then a calmness kind of came over people and people held each other real, real tight.

And I was trying not to look at my watch but I knew it was just a question of time. Then when I did look at my watch actually it was five to 12 and I knew by then they had him all strapped and ready to go. I knew what was happening on the inside you know from having been through it. So eerie. Because you're outside and you know what's going on inside and that a man's being killed in the middle of the night. I never get used to it. It's like I was saying oh God not again. Not again, we're doing it again. And this family is grieving and can't be consoled. And some of the older ones like Antonio's mother was very strong and she's trying to like help the younger ones. And then to drive down that road when it's all over, a man's dead then. The guard comes out, the guard says at 12:27 Antonio James died. I've been through it so many times. I couldn't believe it was happening again.


FRONTLINE / WGBH Educational Foundation /

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation