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‘DEAD MAN WALKING’ AUTHOR LEARNED FROM VICTIMS’ FAMILIES

Sister Helen Prejean, by her own admission, met Lloyd LeBlanc at the worst possible time.

But what he taught her made LeBlanc the hero, she says, of the story that made Prejean possibly the best-known opponent of the death penalty in America.

In 1982, the New Orleans nun became a pen pal with, and then spiritual advisor to, Patrick Sonnier, an inmate on Louisiana’s death row for the 1977 murders of teenagers Loretta Bourque and David LeBlanc. Familiarizing herself with the graphic details of the case, Prejean both questioned her relationship with Sonnier and received a "nudge" to contact the victims’ families—a prod she didn’t heed, she recalled March 1 at Bluffton University.

As a result, she had no contact with the families until a Louisiana Pardon Board hearing, the last legal hurdle to the execution that she was there to oppose. Meeting outside while the board was voting, the outraged Bourque family avoided her. She was prepared for the same response from the LeBlancs, but what came next surprised, and instructed, her.

Telling Prejean that the family name died with his only son, Lloyd LeBlanc reminded her that "you never once came to us" and added that she couldn’t imagine the pressure on the families due to the death penalty. Shocked, she thought to herself, "What does he mean, ‘pressure,’?" she remembered.

LeBlanc told Prejean she needed to pray with him and, as they knelt in a chapel, he prayed for everyone involved, including Sonnier’s mother, on whom a town’s hatred was also being poured, Prejean related.

As she and LeBlanc became friends, he took her through his journey of trying to follow the Gospel after being "thrown into the fire" by his son’s murder. He felt he had to be in favor of the death penalty or it would appear he didn’t love his son, he explained. "That’s what he meant by the ‘pressure,’" Prejean said.

LeBlanc acquiesced to the pro-death penalty voices at first, he admitted to her. But the hatred connected with wanting to see someone suffer and die "gets inside you," he added, and "I didn’t like the way it made me feel." He decided he wouldn’t let the state kill him, and the person he was, too, Prejean said, quoting LeBlanc as saying "I’m gonna do what Jesus said to do" and forgive.

Although forgiveness is often equated with weakness, it actually "preserves love and integrity," she told her Bluffton audience, calling LeBlanc the first of many victims’ family members who have taught her lessons on her journey with the death penalty.

Prejean’s experience with the Sonnier case became her best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-nominated book, "Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States." The 1995 film adaptation of the book starred Academy Award-winner Susan Sarandon as Prejean, who spoke at Bluffton as part of the Smucker Distinguished Lectureship Series.

She advocated for restorative justice—which she credited the Mennonite community for helping implement in many places—and for greater support for murder victims’ families, rather than redemptive violence. She had been stunned to learn, she said, how victims’ families are left alone because others don’t know how to deal with their pain. Thus, she continued, they become pariahs along with the murderers. "Do we have to have another death?" she asked. "We have life without parole in every state."

Prejean, who began her prison ministry in 1981, acknowledged that it took her a while to come to an understanding about Jesus siding with outcasts in the Gospel. "For a long time, I didn’t get it," said the Baton Rouge, La., native, who admittedly grew up in privilege and with black servants in a segregated society.

Moving into the St. Thomas Housing Project in New Orleans, where she saw black people struggling for their lives, changed her heart, Prejean said. "Seeing people suffering—that’s what changed me," she added.

"Racism is integral in the application of the death penalty," she argued, citing statistics that 80 percent of U.S. death-row prison cells hold people who have killed whites, while half of all American murder victims are people of color. She said, too, that less than 1 percent of convicted murders are ultimately executed, and they tend to fit a profile of being poor and killing white people. The system is "so filled with fluke," she continued, noting that the state where the crime is committed is also a prime factor in determining whether capital punishment will be applied.

"Consciousness triggers conscience," said Prejean, who has accompanied six men to the execution chambers of Louisiana and Texas and also wrote "The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions," in 2004. "We have a lot of reasons not to think of people in prisons," she said, but when people become aware, "consciousness brings with it a responsibility."

"We need to end this government killing of people."

The Smucker series, which brings significant contributors to the field of social work to the Bluffton campus, is named for Carl Smucker, who taught social work at Bluffton for 34 years beginning in 1944.

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Bluffton public relations, 3/2/11