When Sister Helen Prejean became the spiritual adviser to death row inmate Patrick Sonnier in Louisiana, she began her journey as a long-time advocate for the incarcerated, and an educator about the death penalty. That experience was the basis for her the best-selling book and award-winning film Dead Man Walking starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. Throughout her work with inmates, she’s also turned some of her focus to the treatment of exonerees and the wrongly accused, an issue we’ve been following as part of our series Exoneree Diaries.
You’re best known for your advocacy for abolishing the death penalty, but you also served as a spiritual adviser for people you believed to be innocent on death row. How is that work distinct from your work against capital punishment – or is it?
They’re very connected because the practice of the death penalty to put people in a cell for 15 or 20 years and take them out and kill them, they’re both related to a form of torture. What innocence shows is the brokenness of the system.
I am now with my seventh person on death row. The other six I have accompanied to their deaths. Of the six I have accompanied to their deaths, two of them were innocent, and the man I’m with now on death row in Louisiana, Manuel Ortiz, is totally innocent.
It’s going on 21 years. It all boils down to the dignity of the person.
A new study shows that one in 25 people sentenced to death is likely innocent. What do think this means for the movement – our awareness of the likelihood that there are innocent people on death row?
It’s one of the factors that’s helping us as a country to shut the death penalty down. I thought the same when I got involved. I thought it would be a real fluke that there could possibly be an innocent person [on death row] with all the appeals. I thought the courts handled it, and I didn’t know if you have a broken system that’s in square one.
Trials are supposed to be an adversarial way of coming to truth. You have the prosecution present, and then you have the defense present. You have prosecution in charge of the evidence, like the original police report where there were any other suspects. They have the rape kit. They have everything. And you have poor people who can’t really mount a defense and really make it adversarial to question to have independent forensic testing because they don’t have the money. They don’t have the money to go get the eyewitnesses. They don’t have resources.
It’s bound to be flawed, and that’s what I ended up concluding in “The Death of Innocents” that with this kind of broken structure, it is inevitable that the innocent will go with the guilty.
Have you ever been a spiritual adviser to someone who was exonerated?
No, but I’m hoping it will be Manuel Ortiz. He’s from El Salvador, going on 21 years on Louisiana’s death row.
I’ve been accompanying him 10 [years]. We just assembled a new legal team for him. Through Freedom of Information Act, he’s been able to get [evidence] from the FBI. They had a lot of that information and wouldn’t turn it over that they could have used to impeach the one person that said ‘Yeah, he hired me.’
They didn’t have any forensic evidence. They didn’t have anything. Just that one man saying, ‘He hired me to kill his ex-wife.’
As someone who knows the in’s and out’s of the criminal justice system, what do you think aftercare should look like for the exonerated upon release?
First of all, there needs to be a public apology by the prosecutor. It’s very rare that you ever even get an apology because they maintain all along that they did the right thing.
The other thing is [exonerees] need to get remuneration from the state for the lost years of their life. And they need to learn social relationships. They’ve been in that cell. They need to learn how to relate to women again, the ones who are men.
You need therapy. You need help. What has happened? Who are you now? When you’re on death row, you get a thousand signals a day that you’re nothing but disposable human waste.
What happens to a human being in terms of the brain and developing and learning? So [they need] school and education. They need to be part of a community circle where they can have a constant interaction and be able to share on a deeper, personal level. Then the job. What work are you going to do?