Archdiocese Local Ministries

What no physical eyes saw, eyes of faith can reveal

Saint Joseph Sister Helen Prejean, who has worked in prison ministry and against the death penalty for decades, is pictured in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. Sister Prejean spoke at the University of Kansas on March 5. CNS PHOTO/PAUL HARING

by Steve Buckner
Special to The Leaven

LAWRENCE — Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, brought not only her anti-death penalty message to Kansas but also stories of forgiveness by the murder victims’ families.

She spoke March 5 at the University of Kansas to an audience of more than 100 in the Kansas Union’s Woodruff Auditorium.

“The victims’ families have been a big part of my journey,” said Sister Helen.

For example, in New Jersey, she said, 62 victims’ families spoke against the death penalty to the state Legislature.

“The death penalty re-victimizes us,” was the message of the families to their legislators.

But it was individual cases of forgiveness that held the audience spellbound.

Sister Helen recalled the story Lloyd LeBlanc, the father of David LeBlanc, whose son was killed by Patrick Sonnier and his brother.

This case was Sister Helen’s first encounter with the death penalty, and was made famous by her book, “Dead Man Walking,” and the Hollywood movie by the same name.

Initially, Sister Helen said, she stayed away from the LeBlanc family, which she called “a huge cowardly act.” She finally met the LeBlancs one week before the execution of Sonnier at the pardon board hearing.

Lloyd LeBlanc, who Sister Helen said was the hero in her book, told her, “You can’t believe the pressure on us with this death penalty thing.”

She was dumbfounded.

He invited her to pray with him. They prayed the rosary at 4 a.m. the next day.

“He taught me that forgiveness, in a way, is saving your own life,” said Sister Helen.

LeBlanc also told her that he was angry all of the time over his son’s killing. She said he prayed to Jesus about it and received grace about the murder.

“They killed my boy. But I am not going to let [my anger] kill me,” Sister Helen quoted LeBlanc.

Then there was Bud Welch, whose daughter Julie was killed in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Sister Helen said that he, too, was angry all the time at Timothy McVeigh, his daughter’s killer.

Finally, one day, Welch recalled his daughter at one time calling capital punishment “legalized vengeance,” and he was freed from anger through the grace of that memory.

When Welch thought about how he could honor the memory of his daughter, said Sister Helen, he decided to speak to groups and schools about Julie. The message in his talks, which he still does, is against the death penalty.

“He chooses life,” Sister Helen said.

“Choose life,” in fact, is how Sister Helen inscribes her two books. In addition to “Dead Man Walking,” she has written “The Death of Innocents,” and has a third book, “River of Fire,” coming out later this year.

Sister Helen, 78, has advocated for the abolishment of the death penalty since the early 1980s.

“It took me a long time to wake up,” she said. “I was a late bloomer on social justice as an integral part of the Gospel.”      

She has more than made up for lost time, however, speaking out against the death penalty in all 50 states, including Kansas, where she has spoken numerous times.

Kansas reinstated the death penalty in 1994 and currently has 10 inmates on death row. But the state has not carried out any executions since the death penalty was reinstated.  

“Why did you even bring it back?” she asked. “Once you make something legal, in people’s minds they think it must be good. The death penalty imitates the worst possibility of people.”

The death penalty was reinstated in the United States in 1976. Sister Helen said her native Louisiana, as well as Texas, have executed more than 500 inmates since then.

“Every one of the wounds of our society is in the death penalty,” she said, citing three main reasons behind capital cases: poverty, race and violence.

Death penalty cases are brought only against poor people, she said.

“There’s a reason for that,” said Sister Helen. “Someone with resources has a ‘crackerjack’ attorney.”

Regarding race, the U.S. legal system, she said, has traditionally treated white lives as more valuable than those of people of color.

Finally, regarding violence, she said that in our society, “When someone is killed, we seek to kill the killers.”

But the nation is “waking up,” she concluded. Today, 50 percent of Americans oppose the use of the death penalty compared to the 80 percent in favor of it when she first started her work.

About the author

Joe Bollig

Joe has been with The Leaven since 1993. He has a bachelor’s degree in communications and a master’s degree in journalism. Before entering print journalism he worked in commercial radio. He has worked for the St. Joseph (Mo.) News-Press and Sun Publications in Overland Park. During his journalistic career he has covered beats including police, fire, business, features, general assignment and religion. While at The Leaven he has been a writer, photographer and videographer. He has won or shared several Catholic Press Association awards, as well as Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara awards for mission coverage. He graduated with a certification in catechesis from a two-year distance learning program offered by the Maryvale Institute for Catechesis, Theology, Philosophy and Religious Education at Old Oscott, Great Barr, in Birmingham, England.

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