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Nun against death penalty plans Sunday talks in Billings
Sister Helen Prejean is the author of "Dead Man Walking."

Sister Helen Prejean is a storyteller. Whether she's writing a book or giving an interview, the small Catholic nun with a singsong Louisiana accent does everything she can to bring others into her world.

In person, when she gets to the part of a story where she wants to get a point across or describe a person's words, she'll mimic his voice, or drop hers to a near-whisper for effect. She tends to talk fast.

And one more thing about Prejean (pronounced "pray-jahn" — "it's French"): She doesn't look a thing like Susan Sarandon.

The actress portrayed Prejean in the 1995 movie "Dead Man Walking," based on the same-titled book Prejean wrote in 1993. The first-person account detailed her time as a spiritual adviser to a man on death row and his eventual execution.

Convicted murderer Elmo Patrick Sonnier, 34, died in the electric chair on April 5, 1984, as Prejean looked on. Her time with Sonnier was the beginning of a journey that transformed her into an ardent foe of the death penalty.

Even now, 22 years later, Prejean, 67, has lost none of her passion in her crusade. A second book, "The Death of Innocents," detailed the stories of convicted criminals, all poor, all proven innocent, yet still executed.

Prejean has widened her concern for preserving the dignity of people to include animals and the environment. She intends to talk about all of that Sunday morning at Grace United Methodist Church in Billings.

Prejean is a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille religious order and a native of Baton Rouge. In an interview, she recounts how, in 1982, she was living in an African-American housing project in New Orleans working with the poor when she got a call.

A man from the local prison coalition asked her if she wanted to write to a man living on death row in Louisiana. She didn't know a thing about the death penalty.

"I was learning everything about all the social justice issues that affect poor people," she said. "So I thought, hey, anybody sittin' on death row in Louisiana, they're not rich. Anybody who has money has a lawyer, works the law for them, and they don't go to death row, no matter what crime they do."

So she started to exchange letters with Sonnier. Then she agreed to visit him, and then to be his spiritual advisor.

"I never dreamed they were going to kill him," she said. "You've got to understand how naive I was getting into it."

To that point, the only death the Prejean had witnessed was that of an elderly sister in her order. The violence of Sonnier's death, along with the realization that the justice system sometimes convicted innocent people, made an indelible imprint on Prejean. It led her to write the book, to work with Sarandon and Tim Robbins, who directed the movie, and to crusade against the death penalty, in favor of lifelong or extended prison sentences.

Prejean understands the tension between advocating for the lives people who have committed terrible crimes and caring about the victims of those crimes and their suffering families. She shares their outrage at the crimes death-row inmates have committed.

"You can't just say, 'Oh, look, this human being is going to be executed,' " she said. "People go, 'Oh yeah, what about the victims, what did they do? This is an easy death next to what he did to his victims.' And you've got to help them. You've got to go with them."

In the case of the families of the two teenage victims that Sonnier stood by while his brother, Eddie, shot them to death, Prejean said she made the mistake of avoiding the families of the victims because she didn't know what to say to them. But she learned the importance of reaching out to victims' families and later helped start a support group to help them.

Even with the suffering she saw, she can't condone use of the death penalty.

"Everybody struggles with ambivalence in our hearts because we are outraged over the death of innocent people," Prejean said. "But then there's the other part of us that says we can barely trust the government to collect the taxes right or fill potholes, much less think we're gonna set up a system where we can decide who lives and who dies."

Then there's the fundamental issue of dignity that she believes should be accorded to every human being.

"My role as spiritual adviser is not to try to be God or to think that I have this wisdom, but it's to treat people with dignity," she said. "If Jesus stood for anything, it is that people are worth more than their worst act. All of us are. There's more to human beings than that. It's part of our dignity."

She continues to work with death-row inmates. Prejean also has begun to work with Sister Marya Grathwohl, a member of the Franciscan Sisters order, on a project that focuses on the dignity of humans, animals and the Earth, and she will include that in her Sunday talk.

"I'm gonna share my learning curve with them," she said. "It's new for me. I have a beginner's mind. So I'll just share along with them where I am."

It's the continuation of a journey that Prejean embarked on a long time ago, and one which she's anxious to share with others.

Contact Susan Olp at solp@ billingsgazette.com or 657-1281.

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