For ten years Sister Helen Prejean has been a source of compassion and hope for both the men on death row and the families of their victims. Julia Reed finds the nun's new book against capital punishment powerful and convincing, but it is seeing her in action, at a Louisiana execution, that provides the most eloquent argument against "legally mandated murder".
Photographer: Mary Ellen Mark
Taking a stand: Prejean outside the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola
Photographer: Mary Ellen Mark
It is midnight, March 5, 1993, and I am outside the Louisiana State Penitentiary waiting for the execution of Robert Wayne Sawyer, a 42-year-old retarded white man with one eye whom I have seen only in newspaper photographs. The penitentiary, known as Angola because the slaves who originally farmed these 18,000 acres came from there, is miles from nowhere on the Mississippi River and is without question the last place in America I thought I'd be on this night, especially in the company of a 54-year-old Roman Catholic nun from Baton Rouge named Helen Prejean. But I am, because I've read Prejean's new book, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States (Random House), and I wanted to get closer to a process and a punishment about which I thought I had made up my mind.
All my red flags went up when I was told about Helen Prejean: nun, bleeding heart, lived in a housing project, now works to stop the death penalty. I expected someone skinny and pale and hopelessly earnest, and then I met this hilarious powerhouse of a woman with a heavy Louisiana accent and no habit who laughs all the time unless she is talking serious business, in which case she is not earnest but honest and compassionate and unstintingly direct. (I quit trying so hard not to take the Lord's name in vain when she told me an old Mickey Mouse joke with the f word in it.) I thought I believed in the death penalty, but I read the manuscript of her book anyway -trailing pages through airports across the country as I flew on a series of planes- and by the time I'd reached my destination, the convictions of a lifetime had been overturned.
The book is Prejean's own story: middle-class nun teaching poor children in the New Orleans projects agrees to be pen pal to a death-row inmate ten years ago and winds up friend to both death row inmates and the families of their victims, witness to executions, testifier at trials challenging the constitutionality of capital punishment, and ultimately an articulate leader and cofounder of a coalition to abolish the death penalty. Along the way she battles a hypocritical church hierarchy (despite the church's rather obvious position that it is wrong to kill, the U. S. Bishops's 1980 statement upholds the states' right to take a life), chauvinistic church authorities (who tried to bar Prejean and other female spiritual advisers from becoming involved with death-row inmates on the grounds that women are too emotional to deal with executions), and a skeptical public who assumed that she was a communist or had fallen in love with the inmates, or both.
She is hardly in love-she cannot even begin to apologize for the men she writes about, but she manages to restore to them a basic humanity. We read their letters with her; we are in their cells as they prepare to die. "When you're meeting with a man an hour before he dies ... and he's packing up his clothes and putting them in a paper bag and asking for a Sprite, here's another dimension of a human being that you're seeing." She contends that "the redeemable feature in us all is that human beings are transcendent of an action," however terrible. But she has also learned that the lives of the victims' families are forever defined by another man's action, and she takes us on a separate journey that ultimately leads her to set up an assistance program for those families, whom we come to know equally well.
By its nature, the book is a moral argument against legally mandated murder, but it is also a practical argument that exposes the extraordinary expense, arbitrary nature, and ultimate ineffectiveness of the process, as well as the political forces behind it. Finally, it is a gripping narrative, driven above all by her conviction that if the public could be as close to this as she has been, we would no longer condone capital punishment in any form. So she takes us there. "How," she asked Paul Phelps, the recently deceased Louisiana corrections department chief, "can we end the death penalty?” "Simple,” he said. "Do it in the Superdome."
So far executions are still carried out in the penitentiary's official "death chamber," a tiny room with a window through which the twelve witnesses required by the state watch the condemned man die. Because I am not a resident of the state of Louisiana, I am not Robert Sawyer's spiritual adviser, I am not related to the victim, I do not work for United Press International or the Associated Press, and I did not qualify for the press pool of one, I am as close as I can get to witnessing the death of Robert Sawyer. He will be the twenty-first person executed by Louisiana since the Supreme Court allowed states to resume capital punishment in 1976 and the first by lethal injection.
Inside, Sawyer has eaten his last meal of two bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwiches, french fries, a strawberry milkshake, and chocolate pie. He has issued what will be the last statement of his life, expressing relief that after thirteen years and eight stays of execution he will be "going home to be with my family" (although God knows why, since his mother tried to kill him before taking her own life with a shotgun, and his father beat him repeatedly) and containing the warning to "young kids" that "drinking and hanging with the wrong people will get you where I am sitting right here."
Outside, about two dozen people have gathered beneath the light of an unusually bright moon, and one that is closer to the earth than it will be for another month. The moon is two days shy of full, or not quite all there, which Helen takes as a metaphor for Sawyer himself, a man with an IQ of 68 who suffers from frontal-lobe brain damage possibly sustained on those two occasions when his mother tried to kill him or in the car accident in which he lost his eye. (This is not information that Sawyer's court-appointed lawyer shared with the jury in his case, but the Supreme Court upheld his conviction and said that judges could consider only appeals based on constitutional error, a ruling that has severely curtailed repeated federal-court challenges to state convictions.)
Helen is here for Sawyer -earlier in the week she had been with him at the last-chance state pardon-board hearing- and for Allyson Lamy, a friend whom Helen had asked to become Sawyer's spiritual adviser during a period in which she had been overloaded. Nine years later Lamy, now 31, has grown extraordinarily close to Sawyer, who will be the first man she will watch die. Usually during these events Helen is inside rather than out, but the rest of the crowd seems familiar with their positions at the gate. There is the small corps of rather intense, mostly female, young lawyers from the Loyola Death Penalty Resource Center, a federally funded community defender program that has handled Sawyer's appeals; there are members of the Louisiana Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, the group Helen helped found; and then there are the Harveys, parents of a daughter, Faith, who had been brutally murdered -raped and stabbed seventeen times- by a man Helen "advised" and whose death in the electric chair she and the Harveys witnessed together in 1986. Seven years later the Harveys rarely miss an execution, although Angola is a treacherous three-hour drive from where they live.
I have met the Harveys at their house in Covington, Louisiana, earlier in the week, and my heart has already broken for them. Vernon has shown me a photograph of Faith beneath the folded American flag and posthumous commendations from the U.S. Army and from then-president Jimmy Carter on the wall, and he burst into tears. Faith was to have reported for duty on the morning after she was killed, and it was her recruitment officer who had let the Harveys know their daughter was missing. Elizabeth, a staunch activist on behalf of victims' rights and the reason Helen became involved in their cause, shows me a letter from an inmate who resents their presence at the gates and who promises to "get out of the joint" and "show you flickers how it feels to face death," starting with "your whore daughter Lizabeth," the Harvey's remaining child. Now they sit in their white Buick, whose windshield is adorned with homemade signs -THE VICTIM'S RIGHTS ARE SILENT FOREVER-covered in Saran Wrap to protect them from wear and tear.
Vernon walks their Pekingese, Charlie Chan, and drinks coffee with the guards -old buddies by now- while Elizabeth sits in the car reading a paperback until the cameras come, and Elizabeth tells the newsman from Baton Rouge that "we are here because Frances Arwood [Sawyer's victim] could not be here." He asks her if she thinks Sawyer should be executed. She says, "He made that decision when he took that girl's life." A man who identifies himself as G. T. wishes to give his statement, but the Baton Rouge newsman has turned off his mike, so he gives it to me instead. “I come out here because I believe in what's being done tonight," he says, explaining that Sawyer could not be retarded, because "if a human being can eat three meals a day, he's not insane. An insane person cannot eat by himself" -a more interesting interpretation than that of the American Association on Mental Retardation, which sets an IQ threshold of 70 to 75.
Elizabeth and Vernon Harvey, whose eighteen-year-old daughter was brutally murdered by Robert Willie in 1980. Willie was on death row for six years before being executed.
At 12:01 AM., official injection time, everybody checks their watches. At 12:09 AM., a guard receives word that the sodium pentothal has made Robert Sawyer's one real eye roll shut, the pancuronium bromide has stopped his lungs from working, and the potassium chloride has caused his heart to cease beating. "He's dead,” says the guard. "Hello!" Vernon whoops. A neighbor of Frances Arwood's mother hugs her husband and pronounces justice done. "It's like a blessing. We never have to worry about that lunatic again."
The AP man, who has seen more of this than he'd probably like, comes out and says, "This may not sound so good, but the lethal injection was easier on the witness." I am reminded of a passage in Helen's book quoting Ronald Reagan as governor of California advocating lethal injection over the gas chamber because as "a farmer and horse raiser," he found it a whole lot easier "to eliminate an injured horse" by calling the vet than by shooting him. Allyson Lamy appears and cries and cries and tells us that Sawyer's last words to her were "I love you," mouthed through the glass, and that they had then mouthed together the words of the Twenty-third Psalm as he lay strapped down on the gurney preparing for the injections. Elizabeth Harvey is packing her signs in her trunk, and I read one of them and realize why I have an increasingly overpowering feeling that I am no longer safe, despite the fact that "the lunatic" is out of commission. VIOLENT CRIME DOESN'T JUST HAPPEN IN THE STREETS, the sign says. No. It has just happened-witnessed by a member of the governor's staff who had arrived with Bible in hand and the prosecutor who has requested to attend in the name of "completion" -at the hands of the state, which cannot get it together to even maintain the road to this godforsaken spot where we're standing, much less to solve its current severe fiscal crisis.
I already knew that bad guys, guys like Robert Sawyer, can kill you, that they can rape you, pour boiling water over you, and set you on fire with lighter fluid, which is what Sawyer and his accomplice did when they decided to make Frances Arwood into what amounted to a human percolator. But, Helen asks, "how are you going to have a society where it's OK for government to kill somebody? What kind of signal are you giving to children? You're saying, 'Look, you got a really bad problem with somebody, and you don't know what else to do; what you do is you kill 'em. Legalize it if you can, but kill 'em.' I mean, how can you have a society like that?"
The fact is that 76 percent of the people in this country say they are in favor of a "society like that." Support for capital punishment has increased by more than 30 percent since 1966. But Helen, like the late Thurgood Marshall, contends that the numbers are high only because the public is uninformed. "The American people are largely unaware of the information critical to a judgment on the morality of the death penalty," wrote Marshall in Furman v. Georgia, the decision that found capital punishment unconstitutional in 1972. "If they were better informed they would consider it shocking, unjust, and unacceptable."
It is difficult to be informed when the ritual itself is cloaked in such secrecy. The executioners are always anonymous. During lethal injections witnesses are not allowed to see the condemned man (only one woman has been executed in the United States since 1976) actually strapped onto the gurney, lest they lay eyes on the people performing the task. Executions themselves are almost always carried out in the middle of the night. In Louisiana the governor has transferred the task of signing the death warrant from his office to that of the sentencing judge. If the people closest to the process try to get as far away from it as possible, the public cannot help but be unaware of what death by execution entails. It becomes a joke. Indeed, on the day Ted Bundy was executed, the morning deejays repeatedly and gleefully announced that today was "Fry-day in Florida." I suggest that it's difficult to have sympathy for Ted Bundy. Helen replies that sympathy is not the issue, it's the language, the laughter, that dehumanize us as a society. And the laughter is made possible through ignorance.
"If people were shown the machine, made to touch the wood and steel and to hear the sound of the head falling, then public imagination, suddenly awakened, will repudiate both the vocabulary and the penalty," Camus writes in Reflections on the Guillotine. "One must kill publicly or confess that one does not feel authorized to kill."
"One reason for the book," Helen tells me, "is to bring people into this country, the country of being incarcerated on death row. We live in these separate worlds. I believe prison embodies some of the deepest struggles we have in a society. It's as though walls are built around certain places, and that's one of my key concerns. How can we build bridges across to each other so people can actually meet each other. More and more, we live out of virtual knowledge instead of real knowledge, because so much is presented out of an electronic medium. And so much is lost."
Helen Prejean did not start out life with such a hard dose of real knowledge. She and her sister, Mary Ann, and her brother, Louis, grew up in a big old two-story house in Baton Rouge with a black maid and yardman and loving parents, Louis and Gusta Mae, to whom Helen dedicates her book, for "loving me into life." The family was close-knit and devout. In 1957 Helen joined the Sisters of St.Joseph of Medaille, but her own bridge to different worlds was not built until 1980, when, as a result of a reform movement in the Catholic Church that emphasized social justice, her religious community made a commitment to “stand on the side of the poor.” It was a recasting of the faith of her childhood that Helen at first resisted -she had been taught that “what counted was a personal relationship with God, inner peace, kindness to others, and heaven when this life was done,” she writes in her book. “I didn't want to struggle with politics and economics. We were nuns, after all, not social workers…"
It seems incomprehensible to me now that she could ever have felt that way, this woman who for three years lived in the bleakest and most dangerous housing project in New Orleans, who leads marches and gives speeches, who tells me now that "you can either be steamrolled by everything in society and just say, 'What can I do?' or you can say, 'I'm gonna go and pick up that little piece right over there. One person -a universe- is important. I'm gonna do something about this.’"
Her change of heart came at a conference where she heard a nun, a sociologist, explain, "The Gospels record that Jesus preached good news to the poor and that an essential part of that good news was that they were to be poor no longer... that they were not to meekly accept their poverty and suffering as God's will but struggle to obtain the necessities of life, which were rightfully theirs.” To aid in that pursuit, she and three other sisters from her community moved into the St. Thomas projects. They were practically the only white people in a six-square-block community of 1,500 residents. The first night she concentrated on not getting shot, and then she began to construct the first of many bridges.
The women setup shop in a building they called Hope House. They instituted adult-education programs, recreation programs; they were simply there, which was extraordinary. They created the Bridge Program, in which students from all over the country came to stay for a week. "It was magic, it was wonderful. These kids would say, 'Wow, I didn't know police beat people up. I didn't know you had to wait with a sick child eight hours at Charity Hospital. I didn't know this part of
America existed.'" It was her first experience watching what happens when the barriers between two cultures are removed. "That's what fires people with passion."
Her own passion was fired again a year after arriving at St. Thomas when a friend from the Louisiana Coalition on Jails and Prisons, whose office was near Hope House, asked her if she would write to Elmo Patrick Sonnier, an inmate on death row at Angola. Sonnier and his brother, Eddie, had kidnapped a high school couple on a date, raped the girl, forced them to lie side by side facedown in a ditch, and shot them execution style, with three bullets each in the backs of their heads. Helen and Sonnier exchanged weekly letters, and though she says she cannot for a moment forget his crime, “ after a while I began to think of him as a fellow human being." He wrote her letters thanking her for the most basic kindnesses, for simply acknowledging him, for giving his name to other people who wrote to him. "I've never had so many friends in all my life," he wrote. "I have you and the Good Lord to thank for that, Sister Helen."
She asked him if anyone ever came to see him, and he said no, so she went. "It was very casual the way it happened. The categories of women visitors were very spelled out-you were wife, ex-wife, girlfriend, relative, or spiritual adviser. So he said I'll put you down as spiritual adviser. I said fine. Then as his execution date got closer, I realized, God, this is an execution, I'm going to have to be with him there."
The execution is described in graphic detail in her book, and it resulted in her decision to become more actively involved in the defense of the inmates she advises, something she says she did for Pat Sonnier too late, and to fight against the death penalty full-time. At a meeting at Hope House, she looked around the room at all the people engaged in the project and thought of all they had accomplished. "Then I thought, no one in the entire state of Louisiana is working full-time to talk to the public about the death penalty. I will do this," she writes. "The decision unfolded like a rose."
She joined forces with Bill Quigley, a lawyer and staunch opponent of capital punishment, and together they formed what has become the Louisiana Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty to wage a grass-roots campaign to educate the public. Among their first tasks was gathering numbers, the kind of numbers that prompted the Supreme Court to declare the death penalty unconstitutional in Furman. That decision had not been based on the death penalty's being cruel and unusual but on the “capricious and arbitrary" way it was carried out.
More than 20 years later this is still the case. Ninety-nine percent of all death-row inmates are poor. When black inmates are on trial, the prosecutor attempts to eliminate blacks from juries because they are less likely than whites to impose the death penalty, and without a strong defense attorney (which is rarely the case), the prosecutor will succeed. Blacks who kill whites are far more likely to get the death penalty than whites who kill blacks. In short, for obvious reasons primarily having to do with resources, most people who are on death row are poor, black, or mentally impaired. Robert Sawyer's accomplice got life imprisonment because he accepted the plea bargain that was explained to him by his attorney. Sawyer did not understand the option-presented to him by his own court-appointed attorney as he was escorted into the courtroom-so he declined to take it.
Moreover, executions do not deter crimes. The murder rate in the United States is not higher in the states that do not have capital punishment than in those that do. In the fall of 1987, immediately after the state of Louisiana executed eight people in a particularly busy eight-and-a-half weeks, the murder rate in New Orleans rose 16.39 percent. And finally, because of the drawn-out legal process, executions cost a lot of money. There are automatically two trials for capital crimes, a trial by jury and a separate sentencing trial. When the death penalty is sought, there are always appeals. However, when the D.A. does not go for the death penalty, there is often no trial at all. In Florida each execution costs approximately $3.18 million. To keep someone in prison for 40 years costs $516,000.
These are the numbers Prejean has repeated in weekly speeches and articles since the coalition was formed in 1987. But it was not until she undertook to bridge the gap between the truth about the death penalty and the public's perception of it that she realized there was one gap she herself had not sought to close.
At the pardon-board hearing of her first fateful pen pal, Pat Sonnier, she was approached by Lloyd LeBlanc, the father of one of his victims. "Sister," he asked, "how can you present Sonnier's side like this without ever having come to visit with me and my wife… How can you spend all your time worrying about Sonnier and not think that maybe we needed you too?' ' The rectifying of that initial mistake is one of the great strengths of the book and the foundation of two sets of remarkable friendships.
Lloyd LeBlanc's words were part of Prejean's continuing education. She had, she says, been naive, simplistic, possibly even afraid to consider how painfully complex the issue of capital punishment actually is. Just as she had earlier sensed a deep loneliness in Pat Sonnier, she now sensed it in Lloyd LeBlanc. Both the killers and the families of those killed are cast into worlds that no one else in society can ever completely comprehend. And to many, the victim's family is almost as horrifying as the killer. "People who it hasn't happened to, they shit you," ' Vernon Harvey told me. "They walk a long way around you. They don't want to believe, it can happen, but it can-when you least expect it."
Into this void stepped Helen Prejean. Her friendship with Lloyd LeBlanc, a construction worker from St. Martinville, Louisiana, and a devout Roman Catholic, began the day they met. Despite her failure to contact him, they talked for an hour. "There is nothing finer than showing love and being friends with people," LeBlanc tells me. And so he allowed Helen Prejean to become his friend. He had already -remarkably- forgiven his son's killer. "When I saw my boy laid out on that slab, I said I forgive whoever did this, because they have no idea what they've done. That was my only son."
David LeBlanc was an altar boy, a senior in high school when he was killed with his girlfriend, Loretta Bourque, on their way home from a football game. Lloyd LeBlanc sits at his kitchen table while he tells me about it. His wife, Eula -who read nothing but cookbooks after David was killed because anything else was too hard to concentrate on- has made an amazing supper of fried catfish and crawfish, rolls, salad, and a baked bayou fish called gaspergou with a creole sauce. But now she has gone to the grocery store with her daughter, Vickie, who lives down the road with her husband, Curry, a sugar-cane farmer, and their four children. She still cannot talk about the details of David's death. Lloyd tells me funny stories about David's dog, who ate the next-door neighbors' Easter eggs every year. He shows me the class ring on his finger, the one David was wearing when he was killed and by which he was identified. He tells me how he finally managed last November, fifteen years after David's death, to get his son's Volkswagen out of storage and go through the belongings inside. He shows me a photograph of David and Loretta facedown in that ditch. It is something he has never, would never, show his wife. Earlier Lloyd and Eula had shown me different pictures, pictures of David and Loretta smiling for the camera before going out to a dance, pictures of them arm in arm at Lloyd's brother's twenty-fifth wedding anniversary celebration. They showed me a picture of the Bourque family, an enormous group photo that has superimposed at the top a photograph of David and Loretta and a photograph of the child they called God's little angel, a child born with such severe brain damage that he was in a crib until he died at age 21. "The good Lord must have known that if it had to happen," says Lloyd, "the Bourques had a large enough family that it would hurt them but they could stand to lose one, and that the LeBlancs could understand.”
Lloyd hones his understanding every Friday from 4:00 to 5:00 AM., his allotted hour of prayer in the "perpetual adoration” chapel down the road from his house. Sometimes Helen and her brother, Louis, make the two-hour drive to pray with him. At night he makes grandfather clocks in the shop beside his house. He may be the kindest man I've ever met. "That he could kneel by the body of his son and say what he said shows his deepest instincts," says Helen. “He has to keep reaching it, but it shows that here's a man who does not want to be obsessed by hate. And you can become possessed. Not only does your loved one get killed, but you get killed."
Vernon Harvey's anger has literally burst his blood vessels. Since Faith was murdered, he has had open-heart surgery and a stroke. During the trials of Faith's killer, he built Elizabeth a dog-grooming shop behind their house so she would have something to take her mind off of what was happening. Vernon is a man who has given CPR to a poodle, but he came within an inch of running a car carrying Faith's killer off the road and into Lake Pontchartrain. He says the only thing that stopped him was the fact that he would have also killed the innocent federal marshals inside. He will never forgive Robert Lee Willie, Faith's killer -he says he wished Willie had fried longer, and when someone asked him how he felt after the execution, he said, “Do you want to dance?"
Elizabeth, a strong, intelligent woman, has turned her anger toward helping other people who have suffered the same loss. She goes with them to court, tells them what to expect through the endless ordeal. Most important, she educates them about their rights. Five days after Faith was murdered, she and Vernon were told by a neighbor, not by the police, that Faith's body had finally been found. They were not told until it was too late that they had the right to see the body and the autopsy report. "In dealing with the D.A. and the police," ' Elizabeth says, "you could probably get more information when you get your car stolen than if your child was killed, because then you're the victim. But when someone's killed, they figure the one killed is the victim, not you, and you're pushed to the side lines. You and your needs don't count, and you can call them until you're blue in the face, and they won't call you back."
Elizabeth works hard to change that. She has met with the governor to encourage programs to educate law-enforcement officials about the rights of victims' families. She lobbies Congress to protest budget cuts for victims' assistance. She also encouraged Helen to get involved.
Helen had contacted the Harveys as soon as she contacted Robert Willie. Their friendship includes a lot of sparring with Vernon, but it is a real one. When Vernon tells me he knows they've "changed Sister Helen a lot," she agrees. "I tell him all the time how much they educated me on victims' rights.” Her education began when Vernon told her it was time for her to come with them to a Parents of Murdered Children meeting, with the words "You've been helping all these scum balls. You ought to come find out what the victims go through.” She went and heard their stories and recalled the words of St. Augustine. “Late have I loved thee.” But not too late. At the next coalition board meeting, she proposed they inaugurate an assistance program for victims' families in New Orleans. They did, enabling Helen to come full circle, reaching out to the two sets of people most often ignored in the actual process of capital punishment.
The killer and his victims' families are ignored, Helen contends, because the death penalty has ceased to be about the criminal and the victim, crime and punishment. It is about politics. "People are good," says Helen. "I've encountered very few really bad people. People don't want to kill people. They are manipulated by politicians who tell them it is the only answer. Politicians do not want to deal with the real crime problem, which is complex, costly-you gotta do some thinking and planning and go in-depth. It's so much easier just to whip out that death penalty." She points out that victims' families did not fuel the call for the death penalty after the court's 1972 decision; that came in large part from the southern states, which have a historical hang-up about the “feds” telling them what to do. As in most things, they wanted to be able to decide their own fate, and now 85 percent of all executions happen in four southern states.
While Helen has faith in people, she has no faith in politicians, hence her belief that only by bypassing them, taking her case directly to the public, can the death penalty ever be eliminated. "Politicians want more than anything to be governor or president, and they will be willing to do anything to attain that.” As an example, she offers Bill Clinton's dramatic return to Arkansas in the midst of a tough New Hampshire primary to personally oversee the execution of Rickey Ray Rector. "He did not have to do that,” she says. But it worked. He managed to grab some headlines other than those about Gennifer Flowers and his problem with the draft and look like a tough guy in the bargain. No matter that Rickey Ray Rector was a man missing almost a third of his brain (he shot himself in the head immediately after he shot a police officer), he barked like a dog, and he had so little understanding of what was happening to him that he saved his pecan pie at his last meal because he always saved his dessert for later.
Prejean is convinced that with states enacting tougher laws to keep murderers behind bars (30 states including Louisiana now have laws guaranteeing that a person convicted of first-degree murder must serve a life sentence without possibility of parole), more people will change their minds about capital punishment. Already polls show that support for the death penalty drops to about 50 percent when people are offered the alternative of mandatory 25 years imprisonment without possibility of parole coupled with restitution to the victim's family from the labor of offenders.
Helen knows that no amount of restitution can ever bring a child back, but she prays that other parents can find the peace that Lloyd LeBlanc has found. LeBlanc still believes in the death penalty because "it's the proper punishment for the crime…The law's the law. I got to live by the law, but some people don't have any respect for it." However, he also tells me that when he saw Pat Sonnier electrocuted, “I said that night, 'That is not a way to treat a human being." Above all, he says, peace has to come from someplace else. "Capital punishment doesn't help the victim's family at all. It doesn't have anything to do with that. Mr. Phelps said to me before the execution, 'After this is over, you'll feel a lot better.' Like they were giving me a shot, you know?” He shakes his head. "Can you imagine?"