Primary sources are created by people – living, breathing people – as a natural process of going about one’s daily life and interacting with the world. Researchers use primary sources to better understand a historical event, public sentiment, and private actions. These brief biographies provide some context to the people – not just names – you will encounter in the archival documents included in this teaching kit.
Sr. Helen Prejean released the book Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States in 1993. Prejean wrote this international bestseller based on her 1984 experiences as a spiritual advisor for death row inmates Patrick Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie. As a spiritual advisor she corresponded and visited with the inmates, advocated for reduced sentences, and ultimately witnessed their executions. Prejean also interacted with the victims’ families, the inmates’ families, prison officials, politicians, religious leaders, and the press. Influenced by these experiences, Prejean’s continuing activism included advocating against the death penalty with the non-profit organization Pilgrimage for Life. She also worked with the families of murder victims, starting the support group Survive. The book Dead Man Walking became the basis for a critically acclaimed film, opera, and school theater project of the same title. Sr. Helen Prejean currently campaigns through her organization Ministry Against the Death Penalty.
Jason Epstein served as the editorial director at Random House for forty years. During his time at Random House, Epstein worked with many notable authors, including Norman Mailer, Vladimir Nabokov, Sr. Helen Prejean, and Gore Vidal. Epstein’s editorial contributions significantly influenced Sr. Helen Prejean’s book Dead Man Walking, resulting in a reader-friendly narrative structure echoing Prejean’s voice and thoughts.
Elmo Patrick Sonnier and his brother Eddie Sonnier were convicted of the November 4, 1977, rape and murder of eighteen-year-old Loretta Ann Bourque and murder of sixteen-year-old David LeBlanc. Patrick received a death sentence, while Eddie received a life sentence. Sr. Helen Prejean wrote letters to Patrick Sonnier on death row at Angola State Prison, visited him in jail, and became his spiritual advisor. Pat Sonnier was executed by the state of Louisiana on April 5, 1984, at Angola State Prison.
Eddie Sonnier and his brother Patrick Sonnier were convicted of the November 4, 1977, rape and murder of eighteen-year-old Loretta Ann Bourque and murder of sixteen-year-old David LeBlanc. Eddie received a life sentence, while Patrick received a death sentence. Eddie eventually claimed that he was the one responsible for shooting the victims. He made this statement in court and in a letter to Louisiana Governor Edwin W. Edwards pleading for his brother’s life.
Robert Lee Willie and Joseph J. Vaccaro were convicted of the May 28, 1980, rape and murder of 18 year old Faith Hathaway in Washington Parish, Louisiana. Willie received a death sentence, while Vaccaro received a life sentence. Sr. Helen Prejean began visiting Willie at Angola State Prison in October 1984 and served as his spiritual advisor. Robert Lee Willie was executed by the state of Louisiana on December 28, 1984, at Angola State Prison.
Vernon and Elizabeth Harvey are the stepfather and mother of Faith Hathaway, who was raped and murdered on May 28, 1980. Robert Lee Willie and Joseph J. Vaccaro were convicted of the crimes against their daughter. Sr. Helen Prejean developed a relationship with the Harveys which led her to begin a support group for the families of murder victims.
Edwin W. Edwards was a Louisiana State senator, member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and four-term governor of the state of Louisiana. Thirteen Louisiana death row inmates were executed while Edwards served as the state’s governor. In 1984, Sr. Helen Prejean and others asked Governor Edwards to commute the sentences of Patrick Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie to life in prison. Edwards did not intervene in either case.