Angel on Death Row

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Sister Helen Prejean


This speech was part of a "Community Discussion on the Death Penalty" held in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and sponsored by The Catholic Life Center, The Louisiana Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, The Bienville House Center for Peace and Justice, Amnesty International, and St. Albans Institute for the Humanities.

Sister Helen:

Thank you for coming tonight. I see Judy here. You did some great pieces that you wrote. Thank you.

I just want to maybe share a little bit with you about the making of the film and the film is a miracle. Producers were not exactly knocking at my door saying `hey, we want to do a film of this book. ` If you wanted to do a Hollywood sensational movie and you're willing to have the nun have a little romance with the death row inmate or maybe help him escape or if the guy was really innocent and there'll be a last-minute intervention.... But somebody guilty? [A]nd no romance between him and the nun? [W]hich is mostly gonna be scenes where they're talking and encountering each other? Nah, they didn't. Until Tim Robbins.

It's his genius and his way of crafting the story that has made the film. And of course the first part of his genius is in the selection of the people to play the parts. And Susan Sarandon. She initiated the whole thing. She was filming "The Client" in Memphis and somebody had given her my book. And so she called me. I was in the kitchen one night, and the call came and Susan Sarandon--I heard of the lady, I had heard her name. And so she said look I'm in Memphis, I've just begun to read your book. It looks really interesting to me, I'm always looking for substantive characters, as she put it, to play. And I'm coming into New Orleans for two days so could we meet and we could talk about it. So I said sure, you know, and I said let's go to the Baltar Restaurant. We have friends from Cutoff, Louisiana that have the Baltar on Magazine Street.

Well I saw Wayne Pierce the other night at the Baltar and he said we're gettin' all kind of business he said, they want to know where is the table where you met Susan Sarandon -- 'cause I mentioned it on Oprah. The Times-Picayune did a story. He said Oprah, 20 million people heard about the Baltar. And so Susan and I met at the Baltar but before I went, I went to rent "Thelma and Louise" so I could at least recognize, know what the lady look like, you know I didn't wanna. And I don't know how it happened. Maybe plenty of you have read the story by now. But I mean I just thought she was Geena Davis, the whole thing, you know. And, I kept thinking wow I guess she could be me, but it was a stretch you know, I wasn't enthusiastic. I liked that other one Louise, you know...

And so it was mainly relief I felt when she came into the Baltar and I saw she was Louise, I was relieved. And then we met and she's just a real, really good person, consistent, principled, doesn't do things just you know to get a name for herself. She refuses to be in films that do violence to women or you know she's just a very principled person. And so we started talking about things and, so she said you know I'm gonna bring this to Tim -- to Tim Robbins. I think he might be interested in doing the film.

So we trust them, because no matter what's put in the contract, you can do a musical comedy with your stuff after you sign that contract. So I wasn't about to let anybody do the film unless I knew I could really trust them. So I went up to New York -- it was right when the paperback was coming out. Vintage published the paperback. And I met with Tim and Susan at their house, met their children, they have three, a number of whom are in the film, Eva in the little possum scene, the scene of violence from our past where we beat up this poor possum and Jack Henry, who's six, Eva's 10, Jack Henry is six and little Miles was three. And he's saying I want to hit the possum too and they go well Miles you're a little little, you get to sit on daddy's lap while he directs the film you know.

And I liked it -- Tim Robbins, first of all, he read the book. Then I sent him another book, Jesus Before Christianity by Albert Nolan. And he read that book. He had read them both by the time I got there. I went ooh the man reads. Ooh, the man thinks. Which was a good sign to me you know that he was really a reflective person.

And then in the very first discussion we had about the film, Sam Cohn was there, this very influential guy and he's a agent for many, many big stars and he said you know maybe we ought to do this as a made-for-TV movie because millions of people will see it in one night. And Tim said, "Yeah but we're gonna bring them to some moral thresholds in this film. And we want them to be thinking about that --and the next minute they're looking at Orville Redenbacher popcorn or whatever on -- and it's so distracting to have it shown on TV. But in the theater, in a darkened place, you can have a sustained meditation without distraction, without interruption. And I went, mmmhm.....I like this guy. And he says of course it's about the death penalty but this film is really a film about our belief in God and Christianity and what our deepest spiritual values are as a society.

And he said we will not make it as a polemic -- it's not -- some people are disappointed in it, some of the defense attorneys want a lot more arguments against the death penalty in it, some abolitionists with whom I've been working to abolish the death penalty wanted a lot more in it to -- you know, so people could get a lot of information about the death penalty. But as Tim said it's not a polemic. It's a form of art and in art what you do is you bring people to a place and present it to them in a way that their hearts can respond in a way they never have before.

People bring themselves to this film. One of the sisters in Cincinnati was saying that they took the class, a high school class to go see "Dead Man Walking" and afterwards the kids wrote essays and one kid wrote, before I went to see "Dead Man Walking", I believed in the death penalty. After I saw "Dead Man Walking", I believed in the death penalty more. Because people bring stuff to it and for some people it's seeing the terrible thing he did, yeah you're showing a guy being executed, but you see the suffering of what the two innocent teenagers went through and some people come out and say he got what he deserved.

Other people -- most people what they say is, 'it really makes me think and we never had this kind of thinking going on about the death penalty before. ' We never had a way of bringing it close to the American Public in a way that we can think about it as a spiritual issue, as a moral issue. Mostly it's been caught up in rhetoric. Mostly politicians' rhetoric saying look, we have these terrible crimes, these people deserve to die but then when it comes to executing a person like we're about to do to Antonio James on the night of February 29th, it's the middle of the night, we hire basically 12 people from the state of Louisiana whose job it is to kill the man. We all read about it in the paper the next morning and now the media is not even too interested in the stories. Maybe it will be buried back on page 10.

Not to condone what people do, but it's just to look at it as a society and just say, 'is this something that we really do want to do?' And how can you get it close to people so that they can be brought close to their own hearts and take a look at it.

Well -so the way Tim talked about it was, he said now Helen he said, you're not going to be a great hero in this, he said we can't show you as a super-nun, just a saint coming in -- not exactly the light entertainment -- people like to go to films to be entertained, how can we get them to go on this deep a journey and this hard a journey ... and it's Tim, his genius in fashioning the story was because he said the heart of this movie is about unconditional love and redemption. The heart of this film is the encounter between this nun and this very unsympathetic, unremorseful , guilty-as-the-Dickens killer, and the encounter between these two and what's going to happen to the two of them in the process of encountering each other. That's really where the heart of the story lay. And as he did the editing process he honed out all the other things out of the picture 'til he honed in on that relationship and that encounter and that journey that they both made in the film and the way they encountered each other.

So finally Tim gets...the money. And the anxiety of it 'cause he -- at a point they were jerking him around so much that finally he just said look here's my bottomline on it, if I don't have it from you in writing, I'm gonna go shop the film around somewhere else and he confides to me it's gonna be hard to shop it around 'cause people are not knocking on our doors through this. They were all scared of the film, they didn't think it could be a box office success. Now that it is of course everybody goes yeah great film! You know... But boy when you're out there like that and nobody thinks it can be done, that's when it's faith. That's when you walk on water. That's when you say, "I believe in it and so we're gonna do it." Well it was January just about a year ago and I was on my way up to New York and I remember I called him from an airport and he said, we got the money. Polygram is gonna do it he said, now we really got a problem. I said what. He said now we gotta do the film. Now we gotta make the movie. And he said I'm scared and I liked hearing that he was scared because you know when you have excitement and fear together you know you're on to something big. OK, it's just pure excitement, it's just fear but the two together you know you -- you know you're onto something big. And so we began. So I began to learn about films.

He says look we're coming down to Louisiana next week. And so he did. Came down with John Killick, the producer, Richard Hoover, the set designer they built that whole scene up ... it's a film about faith and spiritual values. The nuns of this country are so happy about this film, I'm getting letters from people all over the place. They said for the first time we don't have a flying nun or a skatin' nun. You know they said they just -- they did us justice. You know of what religious women in the Catholic Church are. And, so that reverberation's going on all over the country and I'm glad about that too. So the filming took place in nine weeks. Five weeks here, then four weeks up in New York and of course his challenge as a filmmaker is you have so many interior scenes of people ... just talking to each other.

Sean Penn says it's the hardest film he ever ... and then I said now Sean tell me honestly now why did you do this film? Because I heard you weren't acting any more. What made you -- you want to be in a film with Susan Sarandon, is that why you're doing this film? Now tell me the truth. Tell me the truth. And he said well I wasn't acting anymore. I was just going to direct. And then Tim sent me this script he said. And when you read a script and you find your tears falling on the page, you know it's something you got to do. Plus he said I knew I could work with Tim Robbins because he's an actor. He understands actors. I knew he would be a great director. And I wanted to be part of this film because I just knew that it would be something substantiative that we would be offering in this film and I want to be a part of it.

So that's how we got started. It was filmed. It was finished at the end of June. Then they began editing and then because Tim knows people ... they go, what are we gonna do about this crime? These people do these terrible things. And they kind of get hooked into it and so the dead man is walking across this land and in Europe, the Berlin Film Festival will go on next week and the European Press has already begun to screen the film and they're responding very enthusiastically.

And I have a lot of confidence now in the book because I know that the book can really help people. And, so it's brought the book to the number on the New York Times best-seller list. It's moving into it's second or third week there. So people are coming out of the theaters going right over to the bookstores and so they're reading the book. And I'm just real happy about that. This to me is the work of the Gospel.

The last time I was in this chapel it was several -- many years ago it's when I was in religious education. The work of the Gospel and the way we live Christianity is very important. And the way Christianity is being lived in this country-- sometimes I wonder what Jesus would say or do and if he would recognize what he began, the fire he began on the earth of love and compassion and not returning hate for hate. [A]nd what we've done to Jesus.

And I think it 's at the heart this film, I've been reading things like when she says to me, I want the last face that you see to be a face of love. Is that Christian? Is that compassion or is that unmarried to the sympathy to a terrible murderer who does not deserve to live and who deserves to die. That's the question that we're really faced with. Are some people so beyond redemption by what they do that they really are disposable waste and we have a right to kill them. That's a question raised by the movie. And then the movie takes you into all the arenas. It takes you over to the murder victims' families. It shows you one family, the Percys who are for revenge and you understand why. It doesn't just show them as just wild-eyed crazy people, they have suffered such a loss that the only thing they can think that will help ease their pain is to see this man die. And it's understandable, but yet, you see Earl De La Croix, another victim's family trying to get beyond or out of the hatred that he feels to move on with his life.

And you see an unseen victim's family---the family of the one who's executed. That scene in the death house with Little Troy and the two brothers of Matthew Ponselett and his mother and what they go through and telling him good-bye before the state kills him, is something nobody ever sees. They never see that family that also now is going to have a funeral and somebody's being killed just as really as if a lone gunman put a gun to his head and killed him. The fact that it's the state killing him does it change, does it change the moral lessons of it for Little Troy who's 10 years old and who's about to lose his brother or for his mother? And what are we doing? What are we doing as a society by doing that?

So anyway, that's the journey. That's the-- some things of the story of how it was done.

But now we want to spend this time before I have to leave just hearing from you and -- you know, feel free to ask questions, comments --

The Robert Lee Willie story. Faith Hathaway was brutally killed but there was a young couple that was abducted. [S]he called me up after when the word came out about the film and she said you will know me as the 16-year-old from Madisonville. And this couple was abducted by Robert Lee Willie and Joe Vaccaro. The boy was shot -- Mark Brewster was shot. He was partially paralyzed. He's had to deal with this for the rest of his life now. His speech is affected. She was raped. Took for two days and two nights, terrifying days and nights sitting between Robert Willie and Joe Vaccarro with a gun to her side and she -- they let her go at the end.

They let her go -- they brought her back to Madisonville. And I can remember when I was writin' the book and I had heard about that, I said how in the world did that ever happen, that they let her go? And I went over to visit with her. And that's an incredible story. It's just an incredible story. She engaged them personally the whole time, she talked to them, she -- and I think that Robert Lee Willie was so starved for any kind of real relationships in his life actually thought he had a personal relationship with her because he had nothing to judge it against and he -- and of course they let her out and she had said oh no I won't tell the police and he believed her because he thought oh well she won't do that to me. We have a relationship. And-- in fact he even told the FBI, oh no she wouldn't, she wouldn't have said that about us because she said she wouldn't and the FBI was so amazed that somebody who had done the things Robert Lee Willie had done would have believed her. And so she, her whole family has gone to see the film and she feels the film is just really helpful to the whole film, to help them to work through. Now she's at at a place in her life now where she can talk about it and where she's been healed of the hatred and all that she once felt. [A]nd is now -- I said you know really the more you can tell your story, because the way she engaged them at a personal level saved her life. And sometimes people who have been victims they get very passive and so scared that it really works against them.

I mean she was thinking the whole time and kept talking to them. Kept engaging them on a personal level and it saved her life. Even when they were about to let her go, they had a bunch of tapes in the car, she said well look you can keep this one, I'm gonna take that one, I want the seashell out of the -- like -- well we're breaking up our personal relationship now but you keep those ... he said I want my mama to know I didn't kill Faith Hathaway. And of course he failed the lie detector test, it registered stress and I go this is the day of your death. You would have to [be] a robot not to register stress. And I never knew really if he was telling the truth or not about that. I suspected that maybe, that he was involved for sure and that he was guilty of first degree murder because he assisted, I didn't know how much. I mean definitely he was guilty of all kinds of things. He had been involved with the killing other people too.

-- But I mean Lloyd LeBlas is one of the most extraordinary people I've ever met in my life. His son was murdered, I go to pray with him in this little chapel in St. Martinville and he has forgiven. And he has moved on in his life. I mean he knelt by the body of his boy when he identified him and said the Our Father and he had been taught the Our Father, and when he came to the part of the Our Father that said and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us, he forgave the people who had killed his son.

It's incredible, not that you ever do it and it's done forever. Every day of his life he has to deal with it. See people tend to think that forgiveness is a kind of weakness, that it's kind of condoning -- oh it doesn't matter that he killed my son. What it really is, is a spiritual strength that the hatred is not gonna overcome you.

--I say of course, you know the system is so -- people have no idea how inhuman and imperfect and frail and biased and you know the whole thing is. I think it's worse in that the rhetoric about the death penalty is that it's reserved only for the most heinous crimes and the most terrible crimes and that we know for a fact -- I don't know how many people we -- we've executed 22 people here in Louisiana. Pat Sonnier, I do not believe of first degree murder. A real question about Timothy Baldwin's innocence.

Now Antonio James. I mean they have affidavits from people -- of course he had not defense. He had no attorney who investigated this at the time of the trial. Now they're trying to present it in the courts and it's too late, and all they've got is the pardon board. The politically-appointed pardon board to show all these affidavits because the evidence against Antonio James was the two people with him who said yeah, Antonio did the killing. And now they have statements from these two people that they've made to numerous people since--and it's been 14 years --who's saying Antonio really didn't do the killing. You know I did it or he did it or whatever.

How do you go in court and prove that now? You have no way of proving that. What we have is the pardon board. Politically- appointed pardon board. And if you've read my book and had Howard Marsellis's confession of what goes on in pardon boards ,you know. And in the Herrera decision the US Supreme Court said you do not have a constitutional right to a hearing in a federal court when you have evidence of innocence. Innocence and evidence of innocence is not in and of itself -- does not give you a right to a hearing in a federal court. They said the proper forum for it are the state pardon boards. That's supposed to be your hearing for innocence. And so I mean I'm hoping against hoping we're really doing, we're taking steps, as many steps as we possibly can take to try to deal with this.

You know I don't want to say at this point. But I'm really afraid that they're going to kill him. The thing about Antonio James is, that he's so spiritually free, I mean the man can step across the line tomorrow night if he needs to because he's a loving healed man. And he's not afraid of death. He's got a very deep faith. [S]o if he dies ...



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