Elmo Patrick Sonnier #17 Elmo Patrick Sonnier

Executed April 5, 1984 by Electric Chair in Louisiana


6th murderer executed in U.S. in 1984
17th murderer executed in U.S. since 1976
2nd murderer executed in Louisiana in 1984
3rd murderer executed in Louisiana since 1976


Since 1976
Date of Execution
State
Method
Murderer
(Race/Sex/Age at Murder-Execution)
Date of
Birth
Victim(s)
(Race/Sex/Age at Murder)
Date of
Murder
Method of
Murder
Relationship
to Murderer
Date of
Sentence
018
04-05-84
LA
Electric Chair
Elmo Patrick Sonnier

W / M / 27- 34

02-21-50
Loretta Bourque
W / F / 18

David LeBlanc
W / M / 16

11-05-77
Rifle
None
04-25-78

Summary:
Sonnier was convicted of the slayings of Loretta Bourque, 18, and her fiance, David LeBlanc, 16. Each was shot three times in the head on Nov. 5, 1977. Brothers Elmo and Eddie Sonnier were both convicted and sentenced to die for the deaths. The two pretended to be law enforcement officers, abducted the couple from a lovers lane near New Iberia and drove them more than 20 miles to a remote sugar cane field, where both raped the girl while the boy was handcuffed to a tree. Both teenagers were then murdered, shot three times each in the back of the head with a .22-caliber rifle. A month after the murders, both confessed that Elmo was the one who pumped three .22-caliber bullets into each of the victims' heads. Although Eddie initially was also given the death penalty, he managed to "give it back," as he put it, by claiming he did not pull the trigger. It was after his sentence was reduced to life in prison that he first said he was the triggerman. Elmo's death sentence was also reversed on procedural grounds. Upon a new sentencing hearing, he was again sentenced to death, despite Eddie changing his testimony and claiming that he had pulled the trigger.

The execution of Sonnier gained notoriety later, when it served as the foundation for a book written by Sister Helen Prejean: "Dead Man Walking."

Citations:
State v. Sonnier, 379 So.2d 1336 (La. 1979) (Direct Appeal).
State v. Sonnier, 402 So.2d 650 (La. 1981) (After Remand).
State v. Sonnier, 380 So.2d 1 (La. 1979) (Brother Eddie).

Internet Sources:

Wikipedia

Elmo Patrick Sonnier (February 21, 1950 April 5, 1984) was a convicted murderer and rapist who was executed by electrocution at Angola (correctly known as Louisiana State Penitentiary) in Louisiana on April 5, 1984. Sonnier, a troubled youth with a past riddled in criminal activity, received along with his brother Eddie James Sonnier a sentence of death on April 25, 1978 for the November 5, 1977 rape and murder of Loretta Ann Bourque, 18, and the murder of David LeBlanc, 17.

Sonnier's presence on Louisiana's Death Row came to the attention of Sister Helen Prejean when she was asked to write to death row inmates as part of her Order's community outreach program. He became the first of many death row inmates to receive her counsel and Sr. Prejean subsequently became a prominent anti-death penalty activist. He also became the subject of Prejean's best-selling book Dead Man Walking. The book was adapted to the big screen with the Academy-Award winning film of the same name, and its lead character, Matthew Poncelet, was based on an amalgam of both Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie, another inmate for whom Sister Helen Prejean was spiritual advisor. Sean Penn portrayed the Patrick Sonnier-inspired character of "Matthew Poncelet", and earned an Academy Award nomination for his performance.

Crime

On the evening of Friday, November 4, 1977, David LeBlanc, age 17, and Loretta Ann Bourque, age 18, attended a high school football game. Later that evening, they parked in a remote area of St. Martin Parish, known by many young couples as a "lover's lane". Later that night, at approximately 1 am Saturday morning, Elmo Patrick Sonnier and Eddie James Sonnier, who were rabbit hunting together, came across the couple's car. Using a badge one of the brothers had obtained while working as a security guard, and both armed with 22-caliber rifles, the two posed as police officers and approached and entered LeBlanc's car. The victims were informed that they were trespassing and that they would have to be brought to the landowner to determine if the landowner desired to press charges. They also confiscated each of the teens' driver's licenses to further their act. Ms. Bourque and Mr. LeBlanc were then handcuffed and placed in the back seat of their own car.

Leaving their own car behind, the Sonnier brothers drove the couple 21 miles to a remote oilfield located in Iberia Parish, an area known well to the defendants. Once at the oilfield, both victims were removed from the car. David LeBlanc was taken into the woods and handcuffed to a tree. Loretta Bourque was taken a short distance away and raped by Patrick Sonnier. She then reluctantly agreed to have intercourse with Eddie Sonnier on the condition that they would safely release her and Mr. LeBlanc afterwards. Upon completion of the rapes, Patrick Sonnier removed their handcuffs and brought them back toward the road where the car was parked.

At that point, Patrick Sonnier told his brother that he feared he would be "sent back to Angola" (the Louisiana State Penitentiary) should the victims notify police. David LeBlanc and Loretta Bourque were then forced to lie side by side, face down, and were each shot three times at close range in the back of the head.

The Sonniers then drove Mr. LeBlanc's vehicle back to the original site where the couple was first accosted in order to pick up their own vehicle. Finding their car with a flat tire, the brothers used a jack from the LeBlanc vehicle to apply a spare tire. (The jack was later seized by police from the trunk of Sonnier's car.) The brothers then destroyed the victims' driver's licenses and the following day buried the rifles in a separate remote area. Investigation also revealed that between $30$40, which was in the possession of the victims prior to the abduction, could not be accounted for.

Arrest

The Sonniers were arrested on December 5, 1977, following a tip from a local man who reported seeing the Sonniers' 1961 blue-colored Dodge Dart parked in the remote area during the early morning hours of November 5. They were advised of their rights and taken to the Sheriff's Office in New Iberia, Louisiana. While there, Patrick Sonnier gave verbal and written confessions. The defendant was then transferred to a parish prison in an adjacent parish. While en route, he made other statements to the officers who were transporting him. The following day he agreed to a videotaped confession. All three statements indicated that Patrick Sonnier had participated in the abduction of the victims and had personally shot them.

The police, after direction from Patrick Sonnier, later recovered the two rifles used in the murders. Ballistics tests indicated that a bullet taken from a victim's head and four brass casings found by the police at the scene of the crime had positively been fired from the rifle which belonged to the defendant. Because of excessive damage, the other five bullets that were recovered could only be identified as having been fired from the same model, brand and caliber rifle as that belonging to the Sonniers. The handcuffs used in the abduction were later recovered from Patrick Sonnier's bedroom. The State also produced a witness who testified that he had seen the defendants' blue 1961 Dart at the place where the abduction occurred during the early morning hours of November 5, 1977.

The defendant and his brother were jointly indicted on two counts of first degree murder by the grand jury of Iberia Parish. On January 19, 1978, Patrick was arraigned and entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity.

Trial

During the trial, the brothers traded accusations on who did the actual killing. Patrick was eventually convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death based on his confessions and his brother's testimony that he was the initiator and more dominant participant. This made no difference because separate juries each returned guilty verdicts on each brother and both were sentenced to death. After their first appeal, the death sentences were reversed due to procedural mishaps and new sentencing hearings were issued. Now free from the threat of death, Eddie James Sonnier dramatically recanted his testimony during his brother's second penalty hearing. He had then claimed that it was actually he that did the actual killings and not Patrick. He also expressed that he was the more dominant offender, and even sent a letter to Governor Edwin W. Edwards explaining this. However, the Prosecution successfully attacked Eddie James' credibility and therefore was able to establish that Patrick was the most in charge of the criminal situation. The state of Louisiana imposed a second sentence of death on Patrick, this one to remain. Eddie's sentence was changed to life without the possibility of parole.

Sister Helen Prejean has said Patrick was not actually the one who killed the two teenagers, his brother Eddie was, but she says that although he was not guilty of murder he still felt guilt over his criminal past and parts in the rape of not only the murdered girl, but also many other teenage girls who had come down "lover's lane" with their boyfriends. She said the two brothers did this a lot- stopping teenagers, saying they were trespassing and then saying if the girl slept with them, they wouldn't say anything- but she said on this occasion Eddie got out of hand.

Execution

According to Sister Helen Prejean's book, Patrick Sonnier struggled with ambivalent feelings toward the fathers of his victims, who asked to watch the electrocution, during the last hours before his execution. Prejean, Sonnier's personal choice as spiritual advisor, sat with the condemned Sonnier during his final hours. Godfrey Bourque and Lloyd LeBlanc, the respective fathers of Loretta Bourque and David LeBlanc, were granted permission to witness the execution.

Sonnier had heard news reports quoting Bourque as saying he would "like to pull the switch himself". Sonnier angrily expressed to Prejean that "If they want to pull the switch, OK, let 'em!" Through much of his last day he repeatedly smoked cigarettes and drank coffee. But in the end, Prejean convinced Sonnier that redemption would only be achieved through repentance and taking responsibility for his role in the murders. According to Prejean, Sonnier eventually said he "don't want my final words to be angry ones".

Prejean, who talked to Patrick Sonnier through a steel mesh window most of the day, said he bore no ill will toward Eddie Sonnier and dictated a letter to her Wednesday afternoon to give to his brother. "He told him to be cool, keep his head and stay out of trouble. He ended it, 'I love you, your big brother.'" Elmo Sonnier never really believed his appeal would be successful, she said. After he ate a steak dinner, she said the death house phone rang and then a guard came and told Sonnier his appeals had been turned down by the federal courts. "I know I'm not going to make it", he told Prejean. Minutes later, Sonnier received a telephone call from Governor Edwin W. Edwards, who insisted that he personally deliver the news that he decided not to interfere with the criminal process and that the execution would move forward. It was then that "there was fear and anguish on his face", as documented by Sister Prejean. Guards, dressed in customary black, came in and shaved his head, eyebrows, and leg. Resigned to his fate, Patrick started talking about life after death. He also vowed that "no one was going to see him break".

At the permission of Warden Ross Maggio, Prejean was allowed to follow Patrick Sonnier to the execution chamber. With her hand on his shoulder, she read from Isaiah Chapter 43: "Fear not, for I have redeemed you ... When you walk through fire, you shall not be burned ... Lead out the people who are blind though they have eyes, who are deaf though they have ears."

Once in the execution chamber, Sonnier directed his last statement to Lloyd LeBlanc, saying "I can understand the way you feel. I have no hatred in my heart. As I leave this world, I ask God to forgive...me for what I did. I also ask your forgiveness for what I did." LeBlanc nodded, and then Bourque remarked quietly "He didn't ask me." He was then strapped in what was known to Louisiana Death Row inmates as "Gruesome Gertie", the state's oak electric chair. While the guards secured Sonnier to the chair, he caught Prejean's eye, told her "I love you", to which she replied "I love you, too." Then his face was covered with a veil, and the executioner pulled the switch at 12:07 a.m., sending four alternating jolts of 2,000 volts and 500 volts of electricity through his body. He was pronounced dead at 12:15 a.m.

Shortly after, Warden Maggio, on behalf of the State of Louisiana, announced that the sentence of death had been carried out. Elmo Patrick Sonnier was 34 years old.

Burial Helen Prejean and other Catholic nuns took responsibility in ensuring a proper Catholic burial for Patrick Sonnier. The service, which was presided over by a bishop (typically unheard of for non-well respected members of the Catholic Church), was held at a Baton Rouge area funeral home. Sonnier was laid to rest in Roselawn Memorial Park, in a burial plot normally reserved for nuns. Among those in attendance was his brother and accomplice, Eddie, who was heavily shackled.

PBS Frontline: Angel on Death Row

"Sonnier Executed for Double Murder," by James Hodge.

The Times-Picayune (April 5, 1984) - Angola, Louisiana - Elmo Patrick Sonnier, convicted of murdering a teenage couple in a sugar cane field in New Iberia, was electrocuted early Thursday after telling the father of one of the victims, "I ask you to have forgiveness." Lloyd LeBlanc, who witnessed the execution, nodded and said, "Yes." Sonnier, 34, was then strapped into the electric chair, executed, and pronounced dead at 12:15 a.m. by the local coroner.

He was convicted of the slayings of Loretta Bourque, 18, and her fiance, David LeBlanc, 16. Each was shot three times in the head on Nov. 5, 1977.

Sonnier was the third person executed in Louisiana in four months. Robert Wayne Williams was electrocuted Dec. 14 for killing a Baton Rouge supermarket guard, becoming the first person executed in Louisiana since 1961. Johnny Taylor Jr. was put to death Feb. 29 for stabbing a Kenner man to death in a shopping center parking lot. Sonnier was one of two men scheduled for execution Thursday. Arthur Frederick Goode II faced death at 6 a.m. in Florida's electric chair for raping and strangling 6-year-old Jason Verdow. Sonnier was the 17th man executed since the Supreme Court lifted its ban on capital punishment in 1976. Goode's execution would mark the first time two inmates have been executed on the same day since the court lifted the ban.

State prison warden Ross Maggio said Sonnier spent his last day with Sister Helen Prejean, a New Orleans nun who serves as his spiritual adviser, and with a female friend who is a lawyer but is not involved in his case. The condemned man ate a steak dinner and was kept up to date as five courts turned down his 11th-hour pleas for a stay.

As he was led into the execution chamber, he looked at LeBlanc and said, "Mr. LeBlanc, I can understand the way you feel. I have no hatred in my heart, and as I leave this world, I ask God to forgive what...I have done." He then asked LeBlanc's forgiveness. Immediately after, Godfrey Bourque, the father of the other victim, who also witnessed the execution, said, "He didn't ask me." Both fathers sat expressionless, with their arms crossed, as the execution was carried out. They declined to talk to reporters afterward. Sonnier's last words were addressed to Prejean. "I love you," he said. "I love you, too," she replied.

Sonnier, wearing blue jeans and a blue T-shirt, was then strapped into the death chair. Witnesses said he appeared to be smiling. At 12:07, his body was jolted with 2,000 volts of electricity for 20 seconds, followed by 500 volts for 10 seconds. The sequence was repeated. There was no movement after the second jolt.

The way was cleared for the execution Wednesday when the five courts turned down a plea to stop it. The U.S. Supreme Court, the last of the five, turned Sonnier down only five minutes after his attorneys filed their petition. Gov. Edwin W. Edwards then decided not to intervene, telephoning the condemned man to convey his decision personally.

In his appeal, Sonnier's attorney William Quigley said a former Angola inmate has told him he heard Sonnier's brother confess to the crime. Quigley said he received a call "out of the blue" Wednesday morning from Richard Silvestri, who was in Angola from 1978 to 1981 and was at one time assigned to a cell next to the one occupied by Eddie Sonnier, who is serving a life sentence for the slayings of the teen-age couple. Silvestri said he could testify that Eddie Sonnier admitted to him that he, and not his brother, was the trigger man in the slayings. Eddie Sonnier had written a letter to Edwards admitting he fired the shots and asking that Edwards spare Elmo Sonnier's life. The information on Silvestri was filed with the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court after three other courts had rejected earlier appeals to delay the execution.

State District Judge Thomas Bienvenue, the state Supreme Court and U.S. District Judge John Shaw all refused to stop the execution. But Quigley said that when those courts ruled they did not have the new information. The 5th Circuit, which was given the new information, denied the stay request Wednesday evening. The Supreme Court also rejected the bid without comment on a 6-2 vote. Justices Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan dissented as they always do in death penalty cases and Justice William Rehnquist did not participate. The appeals all centered on the question of who pulled the trigger when Bourque and LeBlanc were killed. There was no question of whether the Sonnier brothers were involved in the crime, only which one acted as the trigger man.

Elmo and Eddie, 27, were both sentenced to die for the deaths, but the state Supreme Court changed Eddie's sentence to life in prison because trial testimony indicated he only held the flashlight while his brother shot the youths to death. Prosecutors said the two pretended to be law enforcement officers, abducted the couple from a lonely lovers lane near New Iberia and drove them more than 20 miles to a remote sugar cane field, where both raped the girl while the boy was handcuffed to a tree. Both teen-agers were murdered, shot three times each in the back of the head with a .22-caliber rifle.

Although Eddie initially was given the death penalty, he managed to "give it back," as he put it, by claiming he did not pull the trigger. It was after his sentence was reduced to life in prison that he first said he was the trigger man. A state district court, however, did not believe him when he testified in Elmo's trial. Elmo was sentenced to die for the crime.

PBS Frontline: Angel on Death Row

"Killer Struggled With his Feelings Toward Fathers," by James Hodge.

The Times-Picayune (April 6, 1984) - In the hours before he was put to death, Elmo Patrick Sonnier struggled with ambivalent feelings toward the fathers of his victims, who asked to watch the electrocution, said Sister Helen Prejean, the spiritual adviser who sat with the condemned man during his final hours. Godfrey Bourque and Lloyd LeBlanc --the fathers of Loretta Bourque, 18, and David LeBlanc, 16, whom Sonnier was convicted of murdering in 1977-- were granted permission to witness the execution Thursday.

Sonnier, 34, had heard news reports quoting Bourque as saying he'd like to pull the switch himself, said Prejean, a New Orleans nun. "If they want to pull the switch, OK, let 'em," he told Prejean angrily as he puffed on cigarettes and gulped coffee. But in the end, she said, he decided "he didn't want his final words to be angry ones."

Sonnier directed his last statement to LeBlanc, saying, "I can understand the way you feel. I have no hatred in my heart. As I leave this world, I ask God to forgive...me for what I did." He then asked LeBlanc for his forgiveness. LeBlanc nodded, and then Bourque remarked quietly: "He didn't ask me."

Sonnier also said that his brother, Eddie, "did it," Prejean said. Prosecutors said both Sonnier and his brother abducted the couple from a lovers lane near New Iberia, drove them to a remote sugar cane field, and raped the girl. The teen-agers were shot three times each at close range in the back of the head. Since their arrests, the Sonnier brothers switched their stories about who did the shootings. But Eddie Sonnier insisted in a letter to Gov. Edwin W. Edwards earlier this week that he was the killer and not Elmo Sonnier. Elmo Sonnier told Prejean that Eddie Sonnier was the trigger man. Eddie Sonnier's sentence was reduced to life in prison because a court believed he did not fire the fatal shots.

Prejean, who talked to Elmo Sonnier through a steel mesh window most of the day Wednesday, said he bore no ill will toward Eddie Sonnier and dictated a letter to her Wednesday afternoon to give to his brother. "He told him to be cool, keep his head and stay out of trouble. He ended it, 'I love you, your big brother.'" Elmo Sonnier never really believed his appeal would be successful, she said. After he ate a steak dinner, she said the death house phone rang and then a guard came and told Sonnier his appeals had been turned down by the federal courts. "I know I'm not going to make it," he told Prejean. Minutes later, after Edwards refused to intervene, "there was fear and anguish on his face," she said.

Guards, dressed in black, came in and shaved his head and leg. Later he resigned himself to his fate and started talking about life after death, she said. "He also said no one was going to see him break." Prejean followed Elmo Sonnier to the execution chamber, her hand on his shoulder, reading from Isaiah Chapter 43: "Fear not, for I have redeemed you...When you walk through fire, you shall not be burned...Lead out the people who are blind though they have eyes, who are deaf though they have ears." After reading his last statement, he was strapped in "Gruesome Gertie," the inmates' name for the state's oak electric chair. Elmo Sonnier caught Prejean's eye: "I love you," he said. "I love you, too," she replied. Then his face was covered with a greenish-gray veil, and the executioner pulled the switch at 12:07 a.m., sending four alternating jolts of 2,000 volts and 500 volts of electricity through his body. Prejean said she closed her eyes for the minute the volts were administered.

The two fathers sat through the execution, side by side, arms folded and without expression. They had no comment afterward. "The fathers handled themselves well -- with dignity in what was a very difficult situation. We had no complaints about their conduct," Warden Ross Maggio said. Sonnier will be buried in Baton Rouge Friday.

Larry Moore, director of Rebenhorst Funeral Home in Baton Rouge, said, "A religious community has taken responsibility for seeing that the man is properly buried." Prejean said she and other Catholic nuns are involved. Moore said the funeral home provided the nuns with a casket. The service will be held at the home, with burial at Roselawn Memorial Park.

PBS Frontline: Angel on Death Row

"Executed Killer Blessed with Burial for the Elite."

The Times-Picayune (April 7, 1984) - Baton Rouge (AP) - In death, executed murderer Elmo Patrick Sonnier received what few Catholics ever achieve -- a funeral Mass conducted by a bishop and burial within the shadow of graves of other bishops. Sonnier's 27-year-old brother, also convicted in the 1977 lovers lane murders of two teen-agers, attended the funeral Mass in chains. The Mass was celebrated by Bishop Stanley Ott at a local funeral home. Sonnier died in Louisiana's electric chair just after midnight Thursday.

About 30 members of the family attended the services, at first crowding around the plain gray steel casket adorned with a red splash of roses. Eddie Sonnier, chained at the ankles and wrists and watched by three Corrections Department guards, hovered over the opened casket, gazing at the shaven head of his brother, weeping and consoled by Sister Helen Prejean, spiritual adviser of the murderer. "Patrick died for his brother," said Sister Prejean of the Sisters of St. Joseph.

In December 1977, a month after the murders of Loretta Bourque, 18, and David LeBlanc, 16, the brothers were arrested and both confessed that Elmo was the one who pumped three .22-caliber bullets into each of the victims' heads. The brothers received the death penalty but the Louisiana Supreme Court reduced Eddie's sentence to life because he was the youngest, was dominated by his older brother and was not the triggerman. After the sentence was reduced, Eddie changed his story and said he was the triggerman, not his brother.

"Blessed are the merciful for they will obtain mercy," Bishop Stanley Ott of the Diocese of Baton Rouge intoned. "At the cross, Jesus said to the thief, 'today you will be with me in paradise.'" Bishop Ott, who prayed for the victims and their families, said, "We live in an imperfect world. We are all sinners. "Jesus, who should have received mercy, did not. But he received God's justice."

The bishop said Pope John Paul II noted that if people went by the biblical phrase "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," the world would be "very cold." "Finally, there must be mercy," Ott said. "May the mercy of God be with Patrick." Sister Prejean said her friends in the order took on the responsibility of burying Sonnier because his mother is infirmed and couldn't be at the funeral. As for the bishop's presence, she said, "the bishops are taking more and more stands for human rights. They are very much against capital punishment. That's why he was here." Sonnier was buried in a special plot at Roselawn Cemetery set aside for nuns. Just across the narrow gravel road is the plot where bishops and noted priests are buried.

State v. Sonnier, 379 So.2d 1336 (La. 1979) (Direct Appeal).

Trial was held on April 12-14, 1978. Defendant was found guilty on each count by a twelve-person jury. Following the sentencing portion of the trial, the jury recommended that the defendant be sentenced to death on each count. The defense requested that the jury be polled, both as to the verdict and the sentence. The trial court was satisfied that the jury had unanimously reached its conclusions. On April 25, 1978, defendant was sentenced to death on each count of first degree murder.

On the evening of November 4, 1977, David LeBlanc, age sixteen, and Loretta Ann Bourque, age eighteen, attended a high school football game. Later that evening, the couple parked in a remote area of St. Martin Parish. At approximately one o'clock A.M., defendant and his brother, Eddie James Sonnier, who were rabbit hunting together, came across the couple's car. Using a badge one of the brothers had obtained while working as a security guard and armed with 22-caliber rifles, the two posed as police officers and approached and entered the car. The victims were informed that they were trespassing and that they would have to be brought to the landowner to determine if the landowner desired to press charges. At this time the driver's licenses of both victims were confiscated. The two victims were then handcuffed and placed in the back seat of their (the victims') car. Leaving their own car behind, the defendant and his brother drove the couple twenty-one miles to a remote oilfield located in Iberia Parish, an area known to the defendant.

Once at the oilfield, both victims were removed from the car. David LeBlanc was taken into the woods and handcuffed to a tree. Loretta Bourque was taken a short distance away and raped by the defendant, Elmo Sonnier. She then agreed to have intercourse with Eddie Sonnier in exchange for the couple's safe release. Upon completion of the rapes, the two youngsters were unhandcuffed and brought back toward the road where the car was parked.

At that point, Elmo Sonnier told his brother they could not let the couple go because if the youngsters talked, it would mean he (Elmo) would have to go back to Angola. David LeBlanc and Loretta Bourque were then forced to lie side by side, face down, and were each shot three times at close range in the back of the head. Eddie Sonnier testified that he held a flashlight while the defendant shot the youngsters with a 22-caliber rifle. He further related that Bourque began to cry when the defendant fired a first shot at her which missed. The defendant then fired a second shot which succeeded in striking Bourque in the back of the head. The third shot likewise struck LeBlanc in the back of the head. Each victim was then shot two additional times. At the trial, expert testimony indicated that any one of the shots would have resulted in instantaneous death to the victims.

The defendant and his brother then drove the victims' vehicle back to the original site where the couple was first accosted in order to pick up their own car. Finding their car with a flat tire, they used a jack from the LeBlanc vehicle to make the change. The jack was later seized by police from the trunk of the defendant's car. The brothers then destroyed the victims' driver's licenses and the following day buried the rifles in another remote area. Investigation also revealed that thirty or forty dollars which was in the possession of the victims prior to the abduction could not be accounted for. The defendant was arrested on December 5, 1977. He was advised of his rights and taken to the Sheriff's Office in New Iberia. While there, he made a free and voluntary confession which was transcribed by one of the police officers who was present. The statement was then read and signed by the defendant. The defendant was then routinely transferred to a parish prison in an adjacent parish. While enroute, he made another statement to the officers who were transporting him. The following day he made a third confession which was taped. All three statements indicated that the defendant had participated in the abduction of the victims and had shot them.

The police later recovered the two rifles which belonged to the defendant and his brother. Ballistics tests indicated that one of the bullets taken from one of the victim's head and four brass casings found by the police at the scene of the crime had positively been fired from the rifle which belonged to the defendant. Because of excessive damage, the other five bullets that were recovered could only be identified as having been fired from the same model, brand and caliber rifle as that belonging to the defendant. The handcuffs used in the abduction were later recovered from Elmo Sonnier's bedroom. The State also produced a witness who testified that he had seen the defendants' blue 1961 Dart at the place where the abduction occurred during the early morning hours of November 5, 1977.

The defendant and his brother were jointly indicted on two counts of first degree murder by the grand jury of Iberia Parish. On January 19, 1978, the defendant was arraigned and pled not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity.

"Elmo Patrick Sonnier is a white male, age twenty-eight years (twenty-six at the time of the offense). He attended school through the seventh grade at which time he quit and went to work in the oil fields. The Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale Test conducted on January 31, 1978, indicated a verbal I.Q. score of dull-normal range (84), a performance I.Q. score in the average range (98) and a full scale I.Q. in the average range (90). No neurological impairment was noted by the Bender-Gestalt Test. The Rorschach Examination indicated the defendant had contact with reality and there were indications of a potential for above average creativity and intelligence.

"Sonnier's criminal record reveals five arrests as a juvenile: disturbance (no disposition); simple burglary and simple criminal damage (indefinite period of supervised probation); simple burglary (continued probation until April 24, 1967); fight (released); juvenile trouble (released). His adult record includes an attempted theft of a boat for which he was released. He was convicted on two counts of auto theft in 1968 and sentenced to four and three years at hard labor. (The sentences ran concurrently.) He was paroled in 1970. On July 7, 1970, he was arrested on a charge of theft by false pretenses but the case was dismissed. In November of 1970, he was arrested and charged with the theft of a shotgun and a television which resulted in his parole being revoked. During the period he was on parole, he was in trouble for non- support, and changing jobs and residences. Defendant served out his term at Angola and was discharged on March 10, 1972.

The state first prosecuted Elmo Patrick Sonnier and obtained convictions of first degree murder and death sentences, *654 based primarily on Sonnier's confessions and his brother's testimony, which, contrary to Elmo Patrick Sonnier's trial testimony, depicted Elmo as the instigator and the victims' actual executioner. The state next prosecuted the younger brother, Eddie James Sonnier and was again successful in obtaining convictions and death penalties. However, both brothers' death penalties were reversed on appeal: Elmo Patrick Sonnier's because of a procedural error, which required that his case be remanded for a new sentencing proceeding. Eddie James Sonnier's because the death penalty was excessive in view of his subsidiary role in the crimes, requiring reduction of his sentences to life imprisonment without parole.

At Elmo's second penalty hearing, on remand, his brother Eddie, no longer exposed to the death penalty, dramatically changed his story to coincide with Elmo's testimony. Eddie recanted his previous testimony and claimed that he, instead of Elmo, pulled the trigger of the murder weapon and played the dominant role throughout the criminal episode. The prosecution, however, effectively used the brothers' confessions and Eddie's previous trial testimony to challenge their credibility. Consequently, the jury's threshold question was whether Elmo Patrick Sonnier was the principal malefactor or a compliant follower in the course of criminal conduct. The jury's apparent conclusion that Elmo Patrick Sonnier was primarily responsible for the murders and should be sentenced to death is warranted by the record.

The Willow Glen Resident

"A Speaker Like Nun Other; Sr. Helen Prejean brings message of forgiveness to Presentation High School students," by Michele Leung.

Sr. Helen Prejean is neither a typical political activist nor a typical nun. An ardent death-penalty opponent and author of Dead Man Walking, Prejean travels around the country to share her experiences with death-row inmates. Her latest stop brought her to Presentation High School, where she was the featured fifth-period attraction. School officials felt privileged to have Prejean in their midst, believing she complements the school's ethics class. "In our ethics class, we discuss whether capital punishment is just and right. So, to have the guru on capital punishment come was perfect," said Vice Principal Dina Garrett.

Prejean wasted no time in getting to the meat of her message. "I want to take you to some special places in my heart," she said. "Capital punishment is not a peripheral issue." She argued that the death penalty is not justly handed out. "Eight out of ten [criminals] are chosen for the death penalty because they have killed a white person. Race plays a part," she said. "The death penalty is very selective in how its applied." According to Prejean, the poor also receive an unfair share of capital-punishment sentences. While the O.J. Simpsons of the world hire attorneys like Johnnie Cochran to save them, "the 'No-Js' get the death penalty," she said.

Her journey with prison inmates began when she lived in a housing project in New Orleans and a man approached her to become a pen pal. "I never saw an address like that before--'Death Row.' " That inmate turned out to be Patrick Sonnier, the subject of her future book. "He wrote about being confined for 23 hours and how everyone [in prison] was glad the summer in Louisiana ended because it got so hot," she said. Sonnier received the death penalty for the murder of two teenagers in New Orleans; he was executed in 1984. His brother, Eddie, is serving two life sentences for the same murders. The Louisiana nun wrote and visited Patrick Sonnier during the period leading to his execution. She thinks she made a grave mistake, however, by failing to reach out to the victims' families. "That was cowardice," she said.

Despite seeing several protests mounted against her where she speaks, she remains unshaken. "Of course they feel outraged. That's their moral sensitivity," Prejean said. "They're outraged at me because they're outraged at what happened to their loved ones. But is the only thing we can do as a society is to repay evil with evil?"

After Sonnier's execution, Sr. Helen spent two years writing her book. She got a call from actress Susan Sarandon, who wanted to discuss her ideas for a movie. Initially, "I was not going to let Hollywood touch it," Prejean said. "A nun and a death-row inmate--I was afraid they were going to throw some romance in it. Maybe we were going to elope. Or maybe I would tuck some cyanide inside my bra," she wisecracked. Though Prejean was familiar with Sarandon through her work with Amnesty International ("You think I knew her through her movies?"), she didn't want to be unprepared. She rented Thelma and Louise , but didn't care for the Thelma character, "the ditzy one." "Thank goodness [Sarandon] was Louise."

At the onset, Hollywood studios were uninterested in the screenplay because they thought it wouldn't make a lucrative movie. After it was released in 1995, Sarandon won an Oscar for Best Actress for her portrayal of Prejean the following year. "There [Sarandon] was at the Academy Awards, with an audience of 1.3 billion," Prejean said. "That was God's way of giving the film to the world and make them reflect on the death penalty."

Aside from sharing her experiences, Prejean also made an appeal to Presentation's all-girl student body to serve the bigger world outside of their school. "You're not going to be able to do everything ... but you need to put your gifts out to the community. It takes a while to discover your gifts," she said. "I thought I was going to be a basketball player, but I found public speaking is something I could really do." Prejean's audience was appreciative and receptive to her message. The school has agreed to take on the nun's petition to put a moratorium on the death penalty. "It's the school's goal to become more compassionate, so this is a perfect opportunity," Garrett said. "I think what comes across is this sense that she's doing this for a greater good," said Sharon Bouska, chair of the religion department. "There's something else moving in her life, and that's God in her life."

Junior Alicia Sweringen found herself speechless. "Oh my God, I had chills throughout her speech." She struggles to find the right word to articulate her thoughts, but mid-sentence, she runs off to Prejean when she sees her exiting the school gym. Hugging her, she says a few words of thanks. "And you'll do something special yourself," Prejean replied.

Fight the Death Penalty in the USA

Book Review - Helen Prejean: Dead Man Walking (From Kirkus Reviews , May 1, 1993)

A Catholic nun's impassioned memoir of her friendship with two death-row inmates, coupled with a plea for the abolition of capital punishment. In 1982, Prejean, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille, agrees to correspond with convicted rapist and murderer Patrick Sonnier, awaiting execution in Louisiana's electric chair. Letters lead to visits, and Prejean becomes spiritual advisor to the condemned man. Her counsel takes hold, and Sonnier dies repentant--far more so than Prejean's second death-row friend, the arrogant Robert Lee Wilson, also a rapist and murderer. Both killers come off as repellently fascinating, but the real interest here is in Prejean, who begins as a frail but courageous soul, utterly out of place inside a prison, and winds up as a fierce spokeswoman for the right to life--even of those who have taken the lives of others.

Her arguments against capital punishment are well known but preached with passion: The death penalty is racist, barbaric, and doesn't deter crime; innocent people get killed, etc. But her real brief lies in the grim details of execution, both in the degradation of the long weeks of waiting and in the torture of the execution itself--which involves, says Prejean, extreme physical and mental pain. The details will turn heads and stomachs: last-minute meetings with the governor, who always has his own agenda; last meals with the prisoner (Sonnier feasts on steak and apple pie, and thanks the cook); the last seconds of life, as the condemned man's face is covered by a veil (Wilson winks at Prejean as the cloth descends).

To Prejean, the whole story is a web of crimes--the original murder; the execution; the moral hypocrisy of the judicial system; the suffering inflicted upon the families of both killer and victim - to which the only moral response is love inspired by Christ, who `refused to meet hate with hate and violence with violence.' Touching and compelling.

Frontline: Angel on Death Row: The Real Life Cases of "Dead Man Walking"

"The Real Woman Behind Dead Man Walking," by John B. Feister. (St. Anthony Messenger April 1996)

Speech by Sister Helen Prejean on the Death Penalty. (1995)

"Celebrity Nun Continues Anti-Death Crusade," by Frances Ann Burns. (APBNews October 9, 2000)

Live Nun Talking: An Interview by Alan Moroney with Sister Helen Prejean.

"Would Jesus Pull the Switch?" by Sister Helen Prejean. (Salt of the Earth Magazine 1997)

Sister Helen Prejean and Dead Man Walking. (Salon Magazine)

Keynote Address by Sister Helen Prejean at the Conference on Dying in Prisons and Jails.

Dead Man Walking and Death Penalty Litigation by David George. (Court TV)