Ando Isamu, SJ (Tokyo Jesuit social center)

I have been in Japan 2 weeks, the second time I have visited here, and have been much struck by the compassion and gentleness of the people of Japan. So it is incomprehensible to me that a people so gentle and reverent, who even bow to one another on the telephone would have the death penalty in Japan.

Meeting with Death Sentence Prisoners

It began when I understood that the Gospel of Jesus called me to live and work directly with people who were poor and struggling. And so I moved into an African-American inner-city housing project where only poor people lived and I saw the struggles and realized how I had been privileged and protected in my own life. While I was working that, right near by was an office called the Prison Coalition Office and one day a friend asked me: "Sister Helen, would you like to be a pen-pal to write letters to someone who's on death row here in Louisiana. Such a simple invitation and it's the way God works with us. We say "Yes". I thought I was only going to be writing letters... because it was 1982. We had not executed anyone in Louisiana since the 60's. So I don't know when he hands me the name of this man, Patrick Sonnier, and his prison number and his address, Death Row, that it is going to change my whole life and the way that I live the Gospel of Jesus. I write him a letter. Right away he writes back and the letter says:

"Dear Sister Helen, I would love to write to you. I am all alone; even my mother cannot come see me because it is too upsetting for her and I would love to be your pen-pal."

I didn't know much about the death penalty as a system. I thought: We're the United States of America. We have the best court system in the world. He must be guilty. He must have done something terrible. But it was his humanness and his aloneness, and I remembered the words of Jesus: "I was in prison and you came to me." And so then we began to write letters and then, he had no one to visit him so I wrote him a note and I said "I will come and see you". And he said, "Well look, I'm a Catholic and you're a Catholic nun. You could be my spiritual advisor. And so I said "Sure!" And I filled out the papers and that was that. I did not know that on 5 April l984, two years later, he would be executed in the electric chair at midnight and that at quarter to six in the evening, everyone would need to leave the death house except the spiritual advisor who would be me, who would walk with him and watch him die there.

So then I'm visiting him in prison and I'm waiting for the guards to bring him. I don't even know what he had done but then I began to wonder, will I be able to have a normal conversation with him? Is he human in the same way that I am? I looked through the heavy mesh screen that separated us and looked into a very human face. All he could say was " Thank you. Thank you for driving all the way to come and see me". So the fact that someone had come to see him, to visit him, already gave him a great dignity. We had two hours. The two hours flew. Mostly he talked. Mostly I listened, and it was my listening presence that was the gift for him.
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And then I found out that he had a brother who was sentenced to life imprisonment in the same prison. One brother got death. One brother got life. How did that happen? Now 15 years later, I know the death penalty like the back of my hand, and I know the legal system. I know how one can get death and once can get life. And the same is true here in Japan. You know the interrogation office where confessions are obtained from people in Japan who sit on death row. They do not even have a lawyer. It is connected to the police station. Well, the system in the United States is not that much different from that. We have the situation in the United States now where 93 innocent people have come off of death row, who had a trial, who had an appeal, who had had their case heard in the courts.
Prisoners Sentenced to Death Are Also Human Persons

In telling the story tonight, I'm not going to focus so much on the case, who's innocent, who's guilty, because the deepest moral question for us about the death penalty is what about when people are guilty? Don't we have the right to execute them? That's the moral question. I worked very closely with Tim Robbins on the filming of Dead Man Walking and he was very clear about it. He said, in the film we will not have an innocent man. We will have a guilty man. Especially someone who has done an atrocious crime where we feel it welling up within us, that outrage over it and that part of us as human beings that says, "He must die for what he did".
I began, when I would make the trip to the prison, then to visit both of the brothers, Eddy Sonnier, his younger brother and him. Each time I was in their presence, I was conscious that they had done a terrible thing. I didn't know what it was yet. But I was also conscious that whatever that act was, there was more to them than that one terrible act of their life. They were worth more than just that one terrible act. I will use the image of the cross. There are two arms to the cross. Those of us who try to follow the way of Jesus remembering that this symbol that we wear around our neck is a symbol of execution, that Jesus was executed by the State. And there are two arms on this cross. One of these arms is the death row inmate and his terrible crime and the other arm of the cross is the murder victim's family.

I went to the Prison Coalition Office one day and I asked, Can I have some background material on the Sonnier case? I did not want to be naive about what the crime was. Sure they said and they pulled out all the legal folders.

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I opened the first folder and looked at a newspaper article where the faces of two young people, David LeBlanc, 17 years old, and Loretta Bourke, 18 years old and the terrible headline Teenagers Found Murdered. The two brothers had guns. The two brothers told the young people they were trespassing on people's property and they were the security guards. But, if the girl had sex with them, they wouldn't report them. And they had done this with several other teenage couples. This night, it led to the murder of these two children who were found lying face down with their faces in the wet grass and bullet holes in the backs of their heads.
I felt outrage when I read this! I also felt a kind of guilt because I was ministering and visiting the two people who did the crime. And so it caused a great emotional turmoil inside of me.
Meeting with the Relatives of the Victims

I thought of the parents of these two young kids. I was thinking the parents were going to want the death penalty. And what if they say to me: "Sister, when they execute him, we're going to be sitting on the front row and we want you to be there too. If you care about our son and our daughter, then you want to see this guy executed." And I didn't know what I would say to them if they said that to me.

I only met them, the parents of the murderded children, at a pardon board hearing,the last public act before there's a death, before the execution is carried out. In a situation that couldn't be more polarized, because when you go to this public meeting, you must sign a book which side you're on, like the Roman amphitheater, you used to put thumbs up if you wanted a person to live and thumbs down if you wanted a person to die.

Afterwards I met them. The Bourke family was so angry they said nothing. They walked past me. The LeBlanc family whose son David had been killed walked right up to me and Lloyd LeBlanc, the father, said to me, "Sister, where have you been?" He said, "You can't believe the pressure on us with this death penalty thing. And he had just spoken at the pardon board hearing. He had just spoken for the victims' families. And when they said, "What are the wishes of the victims' families?" He had spoken for both the families and he just said, "We desire him to be executed". And now he's saying to me "Sister, where have you been? Why didn't you come to see us?" I was so shocked and surprised! I thought all murder victims' families wanted the death penalty. And I said, "Mr. LeBlanc, I'm so sorry." And I said, "Can I come see you?" and he gave me his telephone number for me to go and visit him.

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I went to pray with him in a little chapel. And I'm about to experience, in prayer, the most Christ-like man I ever met. He prayed for David his son that he would be at peace with God and for his family and for his wife. I understood that. He prayed for the Bourke family. Of course I understood that. They had lost their daughter but then he prayed for Patrick Sonnier, he prayed for Eddy Sonnier, he prayed for Gladys Sonnier, the mother of the two boys. He prayed for everybody.

Accompanying Prisoners to Execution

It has been my privilege to walk in the company of and to know these marvelous people. He, Lloyd LeBlanc, is the hero in Dead Man Walking. I'm not the hero. I'm the scribe. He says to us that, even when we are thrown into the white-hot fire of this kind of violence and loss, the Gospel of Jesus and the Way of Compassion is possible for us.

Patrick Sonnier informed me that he has received his warrant of execution and he has 6 weeks to live.

They took him to the death house 3 days before the execution, which was to be in the electric chair. And I went and would visit with him there, praying with him, speaking with him. It had been over two years. I simply couldn't believe that in a few days they were going to kill him.

He had been on a real spiritual journey of his own, dealt with great remorse for what had happened with the two kids. One of the guards on death row told me "I never saw a man who experienced more remorse for what he did than Patrick Sonnier. Not all death row inmates, the five that I have accompanied to execution, experience this kind of remorse. The threat of death and torture does not change our hearts. Only love can change the human heart.

He had prepared himself to die. He was a Catholic; he had gone to confession. We had a communion service and prayed together with him. My prayer was solely that of that he was a son of God. I just simply prayed for strength for him and for me because I was terrified by all that was happening around me.

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The guards came to prepare his body for execution. They shaved his hair and his eyebrows, cut the pants leg below the knee of the left leg and shaved around the calf of his ankle where the electrode would go to ground the electricity and put a clean white T-shirt on him, which reminded me of a baptismal garment. He, caring about me, said to me: "Sister, just pray that God holds up my legs but you can't be there at the end. You can't see this, because it's going to be terrible and it could psychologically scar you for life. You don't have to be there. Just pray for me.

And I had a great, great strength. I said to him "Patrick, Patrick! Look at me! Look at me when they do this and I will be the face of Christ for you. You are not going to die alone!" The warden came at midnight with all the guards to participate in the execution and I walked with him to the electric chair and read to him from Isaiah 43:
"I have called you by your name, you are mine. If you go through the fire, you will not be burned.

We walked and then we were there in the execution chamber and there was the electric chair waiting. They strapped him in the chair very quickly. He saw my face, and mine was the last he looked at. The last act was they put a mask over his face to protect the witnesses from seeing when 1900 volts of electricity would hit his body. His last words were to me. And I remember saying to him:"I love you". Those were the last words exchanged before they killed him.

I came out of the execution chamber dazed, shaken. We had imitated the worst possible violence and put it in a protocol, legalized it, killed someone who had killed others in an impossible moral contradiction of trying to teach our children that killing is wrong. And I came out and all I knew was I must find a way to tell this story so that we can change this in our society and we will do this no more to human beings.

I hope that those of you who are here tonight will be moved to participate in the campaign that's going to go on here in Japan, inaugurated here tonight in the Catholic community. I will return in a year from now, next April, to call for an end to the death penalty in Japan.

[Edited by Ando Isamu, SJ]
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