Her family was always supportive, though often her work and her eventual celebrity made for complications. There was the time her brother, Louis Prejean Jr., befriended Antonin Scalia, the late conservative Supreme Court Justice, at a wedding, and began to take him duck hunting. When the movie “Dead Man Walking” was about to come out, Mr. Prejean proudly told the justice that his sister was going to be played by Ms. Sarandon.
As Sister Helen remembered, “Scalia says to him, ‘Just what we need. Another liberal book being made into a liberal movie.’ And Louie says, ‘Sis, I don’t think he’s too excited about your movie so I’m not going to bring it up anymore.’”
Justice Scalia was an ardent supporter of the death penalty, a position that still confounds Sister Helen. “Human beings’ ability to compartmentalize is truly an amazing thing,” she said. “The way Scalia said, ‘As a justice, I must leave my Catholic faith at the door and follow the Constitution,’ as if the moral imperative to be compassionate and forgive doesn’t give you a perspective when you look at equal justice under the law.”
“Thomas Merton,” she added, “said the end of the world will be legal.”
Sister Helen has witnessed six executions since she watched Mr. Sonnier die in 1984. The second to last death was Dobie Gillis Williams, an African-American man with an IQ of 65, charged in the horrific murder of a Louisiana woman. “With an all-white jury,” she said, “he didn’t have a chance.”
That was in 1999. Since then, she has been visiting Manuel Ortiz, who is also on death row in Angola, convicted of the murder-for-hire of his ex-wife for her insurance. Sister Helen and others believe that he is innocent. The drive from New Orleans to Angola is two and a half hours, and Sister Helen has done it so often, she said, “my body knows the way.”
Ms. Sarandon has also made the trip more than once, most recently to visit Mr. Ortiz with Sister Helen in late February. Theirs has been a long friendship and collaboration; at one point, the nun had her own bedroom in Ms. Sarandon’s New York apartment.