On April 5, 1984, Sister Helen Prejean's heart, mind, and spirit were seared by what she calls "a river of fire."
In the darkness of that Louisiana night, convicted murderer Patrick Sonnier was killed in the electric chair at Angola State Prison.
Sister Helen, a Roman Catholic nun from Baton Rouge, La., had been Sonnier's spiritual adviser in prison and was a witness to his execution. She has been crusading against the death penalty ever since.
The 71-year-old nun — who can talk nonstop, her words embellished with a charming Cajun lilt ("I'm from the South and we talk all the time," she said in an interview), has written two books, most notably Dead Man Walking in 1993, and since then has been traveling the globe rallying against capital punishment. On Thursday night, she will give a free public lecture at the University of Toledo.
Speaking by phone from Louisiana, Sister Helen said she is putting the finishing touches on a third book, River of Fire: The Spiritual Journey that Led to Death Row. To explain the title, she recited the opening lines of her prologue.
"I watched a man be killed with fire one night. Patrick Sonnier was electrocuted to death. His killing is a legal act because he had killed. It was done in the middle of the night. No religious leaders protested his death that night. But I was there. I saw it. And it lit a fire inside me, a fire that burns still. And I will take you on the spiritual current that led me to the killing chamber that night."
Opposition to the death penalty is part of Catholic teaching that all life is sacred — even the life of a brutal killer.
"It's not that people are really wedded to the death penalty," Sister Helen said. "I found that people have not reflected on it. It's a knee-jerk response that after a terrible murder you want the death penalty."
But after deeper reflection, she said, the execution of one human being — even if he or she committed an unspeakably horrible crime — cannot bring the victim back.
"The families wait 10 or 15 years for the moment they've been promised — the death of the one who killed their loved one. The promise is that it will give you justice, it will give you closure. What it really means is it will give you healing by witnessing a death, that it will somehow heal you. But when you come home, you still have to face the empty chair," she said softly. "You still have to deal with the loss of a life of somebody who can't be brought back. If it was a violent murder it makes it worse, but essentially that chair will be empty."
Sister Helen, who entered the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille at age 18, said she has seen changes in Americans' attitudes toward the death penalty since becoming involved in the issue more than 25 years ago.
"There's a shift taking place that's very noticeable and I can see it in the audiences. They're not as hard to bring around," she said.
One reason, she said, is that 139 people have been wrongfully convicted and released from death row since 1973. "People are aware, much more aware, that we have a flawed system," she said.
She said former Illinois Gov. George Ryan's commutation of the death sentences of all 164 people on death row in the state in 2003, saying the system was "haunted by the demon of error," was a key factor in swaying public opinion.
Another factor is that prosecutors today are seeking the death penalty less often, pursuing sentences of life in prison without parole instead.
"You have a diminishment in practice going around the country," Sister Helen said.
The number of death sentences and executions in the United States has been declining overall in the last decade. In 1999, according to Amnesty International, there were 98 executions nationwide compared to 52 last year.
"We have to keep ourselves safe from dangerous people. The welfare and safety of citizens is a huge reason for our society being what it is. But do we have to use death to keep ourselves safe?" Sister Helen said. "Life sentences are safe. Jurors are getting that. People in general are getting that."
She said she believes her book and the award-winning movie based on it, with Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon in the lead roles, have helped promote community discussion on the death penalty. "Most people are not affected directly by the death penalty, but this is making them think about and also to experience it through the film in a very visceral way, not just rationally," she said.
Sister Helen is convinced that discussion, information, and education inevitably will result in the abolition of capital punishment.
"The only reason we have the death penalty in this society of very good people is that people don't think about it," she said. "They are so removed from it. And there's only one way to change things — the way slavery was abolished, the way women got the right to vote — is to bring people close to the reality and help them come against it in their own conscience.
"People have turned a switch inside themselves: ‘These people are not human like we are, they've committed a horrible crime, they deserve to die.' They've broken that thread of humanity that connects all human beings. But we must never break that thread. We have to take those broken threads and weave the fabric back."
Sister Helen Prejean will speak at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Student Union Auditorium at the University of Toledo. Admission is free and open to the public. Information: utoledol.edu/as.
Contact David Yonke