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Wednesday, June 19, 2013 FULL SHOW | HEADLINES | PREVIOUS: Mass Protests Sweep Brazil in Uproar over Public...
2013-06-19

Sister Helen Prejean & Bill Pelke on Freeing the Death Row Prisoner Who Killed Pelke’s Grandmother

Guests

Bill Pelke, an anti-death penalty advocate. On May 14, 1985, his grandmother Ruth Pelke was murdered by then-15-year-old Paula Cooper. Paula was later convicted and sentenced to death, making her the youngest person on death row. Pelke was among those who pleaded for her life to be spared. He is the co-founder of the organization Journey of Hope and author of the book, Journey of Hope...From Violence to Healing.

Sister Helen Prejean, one of the world’s most well-known anti-death penalty activists. As a Catholic nun, she began her prison ministry over 30 years ago. She is the author of the best-selling book, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty. The book has been translated into numerous languages and turned into an opera, a play and an Academy Award-winning film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. Helen Prejean is also the founder of Survive, a victims’ advocacy group in New Orleans. She continues to counsel not only inmates on death row, but also the families of murder victims.

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In a remarkable story on the journey from grief to forgiveness, Bill Pelke joins us along with renowned activist and "Dead Man Walking" author Sister Helen Prejean to discuss the latest victory for the movement against the death penalty. On Monday, the state of Indiana freed Paula Cooper, the Indiana woman convicted for the 1985 murder of Pelke’s grandmother, elderly Bible school teacher Ruth Pelke, in Gary, Indiana. At the time, Cooper became the youngest person on death row. She had been the victim of child abuse and had attended 10 different schools by the time of her arrest. Her case galvanized human rights activists and death penalty opponents around the world, including Bill Pelke himself. Partnering with Sister Helen, he campaigned against the death penalty and pleaded for Cooper to be granted clemency. "I became convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that my grandmother would have been appalled by the fact that this girl was on death row," Pelke recalls. "I was convinced she would have had love for Paula Cooper and her family. I felt she wanted some of my family to have that same sort of love and compassion." Sister Helen, whose best-selling book "Dead Man Walking" was turned into the Academy Award-winning film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, is the founder of Survive, a victims’ advocacy group in New Orleans. She continues to counsel not only inmates on death row, but also the families of murder victims. "Forgiveness is not first and foremost what you do for the one who’s hurt you to lift their burden," Sister Helen says. "It’s a way of saving your own life, a way of preserving wholeness, as we can see in Bill Pelke."

Watch Part 2 of Interview with Sister Helen Prejean

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We spend the rest of the hour looking at a remarkable story of forgiveness and hope. On May 14th, 1985, a group of teenage girls showed up at Ruth Pelke’s home in Gary, Indiana, with plans of robbing the elderly Bible school teacher. Three of the girls entered the home under the pretense of wanting Bible lessons, while the fourth waited outside as a lookout. One of the girls grabbed a vase and hit Pelke over the head. As she fell to the floor, another girl, 15-year-old Paula Cooper, took a butcher knife out of her purse and proceeded to stab the woman to death. In total, she stabbed Pelke 33 times.

AMY GOODMAN: Paula Cooper’s three accomplices were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 25 to 60 years. But Cooper, who confessed to Pelke’s slaying, was convicted of murder and sentenced to death by electric chair. At the age of 16, she became the youngest person on death row. Paula herself was the victim of child abuse and attended 10 different schools by the time of her arrest.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Paula Cooper’s case galvanized human rights activists and death penalty opponents around the world. Her supporters included Pope John Paul II and the victim’s grandson, Bill Pelke. In 1993, Pelke helped organize a "Journey of Hope" to spread his message of, quote, "hope in the power of forgiveness and hope in the possibility of a world without violence." He spoke out against the death penalty to anyone who would listen and arranged educational events at schools, universities and religious groups. He partnered with renowned anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean to plead for clemency for Paula Cooper.

AMY GOODMAN: In 1989, Paula Cooper’s sentence was commuted to 60 years. However, she was released early for good behavior and after earning a college degree behind bars. Now, after nearly 30 years in prison, Paula Cooper has been given a second chance at her life. Shortly before being released this week, she told The Times of Northwest Indiana she looks forward to starting life afresh.

PAULA COOPER: Well, when I get out, I mean, I don’t care if I have to sweep floors, wash dishes or flip hamburgers; I’m going to take whatever I can get, you know, just to get on my feet and show people that I deserve a chance.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, for more, we go now to Chicago, where we’re joined by the man largely responsible for saving Paula Cooper’s life: Bill Pelke. He forgave Paula for killing his grandmother, Ruth Pelke, and became an anti-death penalty advocate in her memory. He’s the co-founder of the organization Journey of Hope and author of the book, Journey of Hope...From Violence to Healing.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined by Sister Helen Prejean, one of the world’s most well-known anti-death penalty activists. As a Catholic nun, she began her prison ministry over 30 years ago. She’s the author of the best-selling book, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty. The book has been translated into numerous languages and turned into an opera, a play, an Academy Award-winning film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. Helen Prejean is also the founder of Survive, a victim’s advocacy group in New Orleans. She continues to counsel not only prisoners on death row, but the families of murder victims.

Bill Pelke and Sister Helen Prejean, we welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s go first to Bill in Chicago right now. You traveled from Anchorage to Indiana to see Paula Cooper when she was released. You have yet to see her. But explain this case and why you got so involved, coming out on behalf of Paula Cooper, the woman, the teenager, who killed your grandmother, Bill.

BILL PELKE: Well, it was about a year and a half after my grandmother’s death, about three-and-a-half months after Paula Cooper had been sentenced to death, where I became convinced, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that my grandmother would have been appalled by the fact that this girl was on death row and there was so much hate and anger towards her. I was convinced she would have had love for Paula Cooper and her family. I felt she wanted some of my family to have that same sort of love and compassion. I felt like it fell on my shoulders. I didn’t have any love and compassion, but so convinced that’s what my grandmother would have wanted, in tears, I begged God to please, please, please give me love and compassion for Paula Cooper and to do it on behalf of my grandmother. And I prayed it in Jesus’ name. And it was just a short prayer, but I began to think I could write the girl a letter, I could tell her about my grandmother, share my grandmother’s faith. And I realized that prayer of love and compassion had been answered, because I knew I no longer wanted her to die, and I wanted to do whatever I could do to try to help her.

I learned the most important lesson of my life that night, and it was about the healing power of forgiveness, because when my heart was touched with compassion, the forgiveness became automatic. And when it happened, it brought a tremendous healing. It had been a year and a half since my grandmother’s death, and whenever I thought about my grandmother during that period of time, I pictured her butchered on the dining room floor, where our family went for Christmas and Easter and Thanksgiving, happy, joyous occasions. And it was too painful to even think about. But I knew immediately—when my heart was touched with that compassion and forgiveness took place, I knew, from that moment on, whenever I would think about my grandmother again, I would no longer picture how she died, but I would picture how she lived, what she stood for, what she believed in, the beautiful, wonderful person she was. And I knew it wasn’t something that happened just so I’d feel good for a period of time, but it was something to be shared with other people.

And that night, I made God two promises. One is, any success that came into my life as a result of forgiving her, I’d give God the honor and glory, because it wasn’t something I had done; it was because God had touched my heart. And the second promise, I’d go through any door that opened up as a result of forgiving her. And it’s just been amazing, the doors that have opened. That was November 2nd, 1986, over 25 years ago. And to this day, I’ve kept those two promises.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Paula Cooper told The Times of Northwest Indiana that she still struggles to understand what was going through her head when she murdered Ruth Pelke.

PAULA COOPER: I was 15 years old, and I couldn’t tell you what my mindset was at 15, as opposed to what my mindset is at 42. I really can’t. I mean, for maybe 10, 15 years into my sentence, I really didn’t even understand what happened, honestly. I mean, I sat and tried to figure it all out. And for years, I couldn’t figure it out.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Paula Cooper was physically abused as a child. She told The Times of Northwest Indiana she wants to help troubled youth by preventing them from making her mistakes.

PAULA COOPER: Mainly, I want to tell them that you don’t want prison. You start off with these little crimes, and you’re out there selling drugs, and you don’t want to get a job, and you want to get a felony on your record and run around and think you’re cool and cute. And you don’t—you don’t know what prison is. You know, prison strips you of everything.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Bill Pelke, your response to the comments that Paula Cooper made, and if you could explain how you feel now with her release this week?

BILL PELKE: Well, I want to try to help Paula Cooper in any way that I can to help her release be successful. I’m very happy that she’s now out of prison. For the last two years, I’ve been looking forward to this time. And I want to do whatever I can do to try to help her. I’ve never asked her why she committed the crime. I don’t believe that there’s a good answer for that.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Pelke, it was your father who found the bloodied body of your grandmother, Ruth Pelke. He supported Paula Cooper’s execution and told a Post-Tribune reporter in May of 1987, quote, "I believe my son is one of the so-called new breed who doesn’t believe people should have to pay their debts." Did he ever change his mind, Bill?

BILL PELKE: Well, to some point, he definitely did. Also, on that same paper, there was a quote from me that said my grandmother died a martyr for Jesus Christ, and Christ taught forgiveness. And I just always thought, well, I like my quote better than his. But what I had learned about forgiveness at that point, it was really easy for me to forgive my father for not understanding what I was doing. But also in the same article that you were quoting from, my father did make a statement that he knew she was getting out this year, and he said he had no problem with that. He said she had served her time according to the laws of the state of Indiana, and he was satisfied with that.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re—

BILL PELKE: My father and I, it was tense for several years, but we did have reconciliation before he died in January.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re speaking with Bill Pelke, now an anti-death penalty advocate. In 1985, his grandmother, Ruth Pelke, murdered by 15-year-old Paula Cooper. She was convicted, sentenced to death, made her the youngest person on death row. He was among those who pleaded for her life to be spared. On Monday, Paula Cooper was released. And he has gone to Indiana to see her. Bill Pelke, you’re also a close friend of our guest here in studio in New York, Sister Helen Prejean.

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Hi, Bill. You’re still doing the good work.

BILL PELKE: Hi, Sister Helen.

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Sister Helen, your book, that is world-renowned, Dead Man Walking, made famous not only by the work itself but by the film that was directed by Tim Robbins, starred in by Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn—Susan Sarandon played you—it’s the 20th anniversary of the book. The first copy of this book has a connection to the man we’re speaking with today.

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: It does. It does. We were at his home in Indiana getting ready to go march on the road for a week or two weeks, and the box arrived from Random House, and I had never laid my eyes on the real book. And I opened up the box, and there’s the book, Dead Man Walking. I had never written a book before. I went, "Bill, this is it! We get to share this moment together." He still remembers it, too, right, Bill?

BILL PELKE: Absolutely.

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Bill, do you remember that moment?

BILL PELKE: Oh, absolutely, yes. It was a great moment. There were a bunch of us gathered, and it was a real thrill to see her open that box and hold the book in her hand.

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Yeah, and remember, Bill, we put it in the back of the van.

BILL PELKE: It was my claim to fame.

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: And remember, Bill, we put the books in the back of the van. Wherever we went on the road in Indiana, we would be getting the books out and handing them out. It was the first book tour, really.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Sister Helen, could you talk about what impact you think the book has had in the last 20 years and where the discussion has shifted on the death penalty since you first wrote it?

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Yeah. No, it’s really important. I just stand behind my publisher, Vintage. It’s very rare to republish a book, a new edition, because there’s a whole new generation of readers. I didn’t know the power of a book when I wrote Dead Man Walking, because, see, I’m from the South, and we do a lot of talking and storytelling. I didn’t know that a book, you know, could have such power, that you open it up, and if you—and when you take people on a journey in a book, like I did in Dead Man, they don’t have to debate with anybody. In their imagination, they’re going there intimately to the perpetrator—Patrick Sonnier, the man who had killed two teenage kids—and then they’re over on the side of the victims’ families and going through their rage and their—and me, thrown in the middle of it. That’s the way Susan likes to talk about the film, said, "This nun was in over her head; she didn’t know what she was doing."

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us the story, very briefly.

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Of what?

AMY GOODMAN: Of Patrick Sonnier.

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: He and his brother killed two teenage kids. They had been hanging out near a local lovers’ lane, and they would take the kids and—because the kids were unprotected—and generally it led to, or often it did, to raping the girl. They claimed to be security officers. Just despicable things. But one night, with the teenage couple, with Loretta Bourque and David LeBlanc, the girl, Loretta, was raped, and they are found shot in the back of the head in a—right near an empty sugar cane field. It was unspeakably horrible. And then, of course, first I meet Patrick and visit him on death row, and then his brother.

And then, when I found out the crime, that riptide inside me emotionally. And I understand the journey that people make, because you’re so outraged over the death of innocent people. And then there’s a part in all of us that said, "Well, whoever did this unspeakable act needs to pay with their own life. They shouldn’t live. They’re dead." And that’s the journey. And that’s the journey of the book, Dead Man Walking, and it’s the journey of all the talks I give around the United States, in really taking people through the story and helping people navigate those waters inside, of outrage, on the one hand, and then, on the other, recognizing that people are worth more than one terrible act of their life.

AMY GOODMAN: Who was Matthew Poncelet?

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Matthew Poncelet is Tim Robbins’ creation. He’s a composite character of the first two people in this book that I accompanied: Patrick Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie. So, as Tim explained, when you do a film, you have two hours, so we can’t take two death row inmate stories, two families. So he put all of the tough parts of Robert Willie and then the part of Patrick Sonnier, who was a lot more remorseful and deeply in touch with what he had done, and he put them together in Matthew Poncelet.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn to a clip of Dead Man Walking. Here, death row prisoner Matthew Poncelet finally admits his role in the murder and rape of two teenagers. The clip begins with Sister Helen Prejean, played by Susan Sarandon, asking if he takes responsibility for his acts.

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: [played by Susan Sarandon] Do you take responsibility for both their deaths?

MATTHEW PONCELET: [played by Sean Penn] Yes, ma’am. When the lights dimmed on the tier that night, I kneeled down by my bunk, and I prayed for them kids. I never done that before.

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Oh, Matt. There are spaces of sorrow only God can touch. You did a terrible thing, Matt, a terrible thing. But you have a dignity now. Nobody can take that from you. You are a son of God, Matthew Poncelet.

AMY GOODMAN: Death row prisoner Matthew Poncelet goes on to thank Sister Helen Prejean for her kindness.

MATTHEW PONCELET: I just hope my death can give them parents some relief. I really do.

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Well, maybe it’s the best thing you can give to the Percys and the Delacroixs, is a wish for their peace.

MATTHEW PONCELET: You know, I never had no real love myself. Never loved a woman or anybody else myself much good. Well, it figures I’d have to die to find love. Thank you for loving me.

AMY GOODMAN: A scene from Dead Man Walking. Sister Helen Prejean, how were those visits in prison? And, of course, you’ve made many of them. In fact, was it at all accurate the way Susan Sarandon is reaching through the bars?

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Oh—well, absolutely. And those moments were incredible for me. I’ve accompanied six human beings to their deaths at the hands of the state. It’s a fire that burns in me by witnessing that. And, you know, people have ideas in their mind of prisoners, in general, people who go to prison or people on death row, that they’re monsters. But that incredible human interaction, and they have touched me deeply, these human beings, because you experience their dignity.

It led to a direct dialogue with Pope John Paul, where I asked him to, please, to shore up Catholic teaching. I said, "Does the Catholic Church only protect or stand for the dignity of the innocent? What about the guilty?" And when I’m walking with a man who’s shackled hand and foot, and he’s being led to being killed in this room, and he says, "Sister, please pray God holds up my legs," I said, "Where is the dignity, Your Holiness, in this death? We need you to stand strong to help Catholics."

And through the dialogue and education that’s gone on over these years—in '96, when the film came out, 78 percent of Americans supported the death penalty, and 80 percent of Catholics. It was a terrible statistic in the ’80s. The more people went to church, the more they supported the death penalty. And in 2011, that had dropped to 63 percent of the American public saying, on the up-down question, "Are you for the death penalty?" and 59 percent of Catholics. So the dialogue is making a difference, educations, and that's why I’m so glad about this book getting out afresh.

AMY GOODMAN: Sister Helen Prejean and Bill Pelke, we’re going to break, then come back to this discussion. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Back in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Our guests are Sister Helen Prejean, one of the world’s most well-known anti-death penalty activists—she’s a Catholic nun. She wrote the book Dead Man Walking: The Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty That Sparked a National Debate. It’s the 20th anniversary of its release, and it’s just been released anew. It has a new preface by Archbishop Desmond Tutu making comparisons of the death penalty in this country with the old South Africa. We’re also joined by Bill Pelke, who is with us in a Chicago studio, but was in Indiana this week when Paula Cooper was released. Paula Cooper murdered his grandmother, Ruth Pelke, when Paula was 15 years old. She was convicted and sentenced to death and became the youngest person on death row. Bill Pelke was among those who pleaded for her life to be spared and is in Indiana to meet with Paula. Nermeen?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Bill Pelke, can you say a little about how the work of Sister Helen Prejean affected your own work and your own advocacy on the question of the death penalty?

BILL PELKE: Sure. While Paula Cooper was on death row, I campaigned very heavily, went to Italy three times on her behalf. When Paula was taken off of death row in the fall of 1989, I thought, "Well, that’s it. She’s off of death row. My mission has been accomplished." That was about the time I heard about a march that was going to take place in Florida, start off at death row in Florida and go to Atlanta, Georgia. And the purpose of the march was to ignite the spiritual consciousness of churches in America about the issue of the death penalty. And I felt, well, the spiritual reasons why I was opposed to the death penalty, I ought to be there. And so I took two weeks’ vacation from Bethlehem Steel in Portage, Indiana, drove to Florida to be part of that march, and that’s where I met Sister Helen Prejean. And after 17 days of walking down the highways with this nun, you get a real education about the death penalty. It was on that march with Sister Helen Prejean where I dedicated my life to the abolition of the death penalty and said, "As long as there’s any state in this world that’s killing their own citizens, I’m going to stand up and say that it’s wrong." And I’ve been working against that ever since.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Bill Pelke, now that Paula Cooper is released from prison, she’ll face new challenges, such as finding employment, given her criminal history. I want to ask you about the Ban the Box movement, the movement that’s seeking to ban employers from asking potential employees to check a box indicating if they have a criminal past. In this clip from a short film called Beyond the Box, a formerly incarcerated man explains the difficulties he encountered in the job market because of his criminal history.

DONALD: My name is Donald. I’m 42 years old, recently just came back to society from doing, oh, quite a few years in prison. My first three weeks out, I put in seven applications. I haven’t got a call back once from anything, no feedback whatsoever from any of the applications I put in. I get up in the morning. I’m headed to my destination, which is advanced employment class. OK, this is something I’ve been looking forward to doing. When I say I want to be whole, I want to be a whole person. I want to wake up in the morning, knowing I got a place in society, I’m accepted.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Bill Pelke, can you talk about that movement, the Ban the Box movement?

BILL PELKE: Well, this is the first time I’ve heard about it, and I can definitely understand why there would be a movement in that direction. I mean, I know it’s going to be very difficult for Paula Cooper to find a job. When people want to know her past history and find out she spent 28 years in prison, they’re going to be hesitant to hire her, especially in the market today. But I really don’t know about the Ban the Box. I think employers probably have a right to know if a person has done something violent in their past, but they’ve paid their price, and I don’t think it should be held against them.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you plan to say to Paula Cooper, Bill, when and if you meet her? Do you have a plan to meet her?

BILL PELKE: Well, I came from Spain here to Indiana to meet with her on my way back to Alaska. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to meet with her or not. She was—when she left the prison, she went to a safe place. I hope to hear from her in the next four days before I go back to Indiana. But if I see her, I will give her a hug and welcome her back to society and reassure with her that I’ll do anything I can do to help her be successful.

AMY GOODMAN: What were your meetings with her, your visits with her, like when she was in prison?

BILL PELKE: Well, I tried to visit with her for eight years. The Department of Corrections in the state of Indiana would not allow us to visit. But as a result of a film that Susan Sarandon narrated called From Fury to Forgiveness, where they went into the prison and asked the warden why I couldn’t visit with her, the warden acted shocked, but said the next time I apply to visit, I could.

And so, on Thanksgiving Day of 1994, we had our first visit. When I went into the prison, I knew you could give the person a hug when you went in. And one of the statements Paula Cooper had made on that video was, "I would like to look him in his eyes and know that he has forgiven me." And I gave her a hug. I stepped back. I looked her in the eyes. I told her that I loved her and I had forgiven her. I’ve never talked to her about the crime. We’ve talked about other things that we have in common.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And you’ve also spoken to her regularly on the telephone, is that right, once a week?

BILL PELKE: No, I’ve never spoken to her on the telephone, but we have corresponded while she was on death row. We wrote letters of exchange about every 10 days.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: [inaudible] letters.

BILL PELKE: And the prison system in Indiana has something called JPay. It’s like an email system. And we do correspond through this JPay system once a week.

AMY GOODMAN: Helen Prejean, as you listen to Bill’s story and you do your own escorting of people on death row—or, what do you call it when you are with people on death row?

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Spiritual advice, spiritual accompaniment.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the murder victims’ families. I mean, we’re hearing Bill. He’s the grandson of Ruth Pelke. But with Dead Man Walking, for example, do you feel that you made any mistakes at that time?

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Absolutely. At first, I mean, I had never been engaged in public debate. I had never been engaged with people in prison. So I meet a man on death row who’s done an unspeakable crime, but I knew about his dignity. I didn’t know what to do with the victim’s family. I thought, well, they’re going to hate me, because I’m the spiritual adviser to the one who killed their children. And I avoided them, because I just thought I’ll bring them more pain. There will be a big, old—"Well, can’t you support the death penalty? Don’t you understand, that justice to be done, that he deserves to die for killing our child?" And I couldn’t picture myself handling it, and I avoided them. It was a terrible—the worst mistake of my life, hands down.

Because when I did meet them, it was the most polarized situation you can imagine. It was a pardon board hearing, the last before Pat was to be executed a week later. And you sign the book when you go in for a clemency board hearing in Louisiana. If you’re for life or death, literally—I think it’s the closest you come, like, to be in a Roman amphitheater. You put your thumb up for person to live and your thumb down for them to die. And everybody in the room, except me and a lawyer and one psychiatrist, was there to see Patrick Sonnier die. And the victim’s family was caught in the current, too, because they’re told, "This is the way you honor your dead child. This is the way you get justice." And it’s a very societal thing, and victims’ families were caught in it.

I met them outside the building while the pardon board was voting. And one of the families, the girl’s parents furious at me. And I deserved their anger. But I was unprepared for the father. He’s the hero of Dead Man Walking, Lloyd LeBlanc, who had lost David, his only son. His family name died with the death of David. And he said, "Sister Helen, all this time, you’ve been visiting with those two brothers, and you never once came to see us. You can’t believe the pressure on us to be for the death penalty." And I didn’t know. I said, "Oh, Mr. LeBlanc, I’m so sorry." He said, "My wife and I even go to different masses on Sunday to see if we could hear some priest talk about the message of Jesus, because I know Jesus calls us to forgiveness." And he said, "Come pray with me. Come be in our shoes." And it was his gracious invitation that led me over to the victim’s side. And his story, just like Bill Pelke’s story, of this—all human beings have this tremendous spiritual depth to them, whether they follow institutionalized religion or not. But in Lloyd LeBlanc, it was—he said, "I was listening to the people around me. I said they’re right, I wish I could be there to pull the switch." And then he said, "I didn’t like what was happening to me," because, he said, "I’m a kind person. I love to help people. And all this hatred and bitterness is coming into me. And finally, I just said, 'Nuh-uh.'" He put his hand like this. "No, they killed our boy, but I’m not going to let them kill me, and I’m going to go down the path of forgiveness that Jesus taught us to do."

And he was the first victim’s family I met. Now I’ve met hundreds, hundreds of people over these years, victims’ families. He was the first one to teach me, though, that what forgiveness is is not first and foremost what you do for the one that—who’s hurt you to lift their burden. It’s a way of saving your own life. It’s a way of preserving wholeness, as we can see in Bill Pelke, because then when—and Lloyd LeBlanc said, he said, "People think forgiveness is weak, like you’re condoning what they did." He said, "It kills you to not to forgive. It was killing me." And he said, "Because who I am is to be a person who loves people and helps people." And so, it was a way of preserving your own life. And it gave you an insight. When Jesus said, "Love your enemies," it doesn’t mean condone what enemies do. Or, it’s gotten to be like a cliché. You know, the people say, "Oh, yeah, forgive and forget." But it’s not letting the love and integrity of our life be damaged forever by the hate.

AMY GOODMAN: Sister Helen Prejean and Bill Pelke, we thank you for being with us. Bill Pelke, we’ll follow up on whether or not you meet with Paula Cooper. And, Helen Prejean, we’re going to do part two of this interview after the broadcast and post it at democracynow.org. We thank you both for being with us.

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: That does it for our broadcast. Our website is democracynow.org. Helen Prejean’s book is called Dead Man Walking: The Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty That Sparked a National Debate.

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