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‘Dead Man Walking’ nun: ‘Botched’ executions unmask a botched system

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Story highlights

Sister Helen Prejean ministers to prisoners on death row

She dedicated her life to ending death penalty after witnessing an execution 30 years ago

She gained fame with her book "Dead Man Walking" that became a movie in 1995

She says the entire death penalty system is botched

New Orleans, Louisiana CNN —  

Sister Helen Prejean blasts the air-conditioner in her champagne-colored Toyota Corolla, the back bumper held up with duct tape. It’s clear why friends insist on driving when they are with her. She could rival NASCAR’s Danica Patrick on the gas pedal. Age – she turned 75 this year – hasn’t slowed her down.

She was weaving all over Interstate 10 when police stopped her one time. Turned out she was reading while driving. The officer let her go when he discovered who she was: “I’ll go straight to hell if I ticket a nun,” he said.

He made her promise she would never do that again.

These days, she depends on iPhone’s Siri for driving directions and making phone calls. She also likes to play “Plants vs. Zombies” (not while in motion, of course) even though the violent nature of the game goes against her Christian principles.

“It’s OK,” she says. “The zombies are already dead.”

On this day in late July, Prejean is nearing Louisiana State Penitentiary, otherwise known as Angola, for the post office that serves it. She’s been here so many times the warden no longer subjects her to the protocol for visitors.

She drives down State Highway 66, through the guarded gates, past lush green cypress trees and fields brimming with flowers, okra and collards to Camp F, where the prison constructed a $9 million brick building to lock up the condemned.

Built on a former slave plantation surrounded on three sides by the Mississippi River, Angola is the nation’s largest maximum-security facility. It houses more than 6,000 inmates and encompasses a chunk of fertile Southern farmland almost the size of Manhattan.

Prejean is here to see Manuel Ortiz, convicted in 1992 of the murders of his wife, Tracie Williams, and her friend Cheryl Mallory. He’s been on death row for more than two decades; Prejean began visiting him 13 years ago.

Ortiz maintains he was framed in a murder-for-hire scheme. Prejean believes his claim of innocence. But that is almost beside the point.

Prejean, who gained fame as a death penalty abolitionist after the movie “Dead Man Walking” hit theaters in 1995, is not always concerned with a convicted murderer’s guilt or innocence. It’s easy to forgive the innocent. It’s the guilty, she says, who test our morality.

She ministers to the worst of humanity because she believes in the restoration of life and that every human being deserves to be treated with dignity.

That is what Jesus preached. She likes to say that Christ was more radical than Karl Marx in his embrace of the lowest rungs of society.

Three decades ago, Prejean embarked on a mission to end the death penalty based on her Catholic faith and belief in human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, she says, forbids torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment.

Ministering to death row inmates and learning the intricacies of American criminal justice, Prejean arrived at another steadfast belief: The process is broken.

Outside the entrance to death row, there’s a porch with three dark wooden rocking chairs. The warden, she thinks, could have had a career in decorating the way the place is all fixed up.

A prison staffer leads her into one of the booths reserved for lawyers who come to meet with their clients. She sits on one side of the thick glass with a phone in her hand.

Ortiz walks in on the other side with leg irons, handcuffs and a chain around his waist. He always feels cold when he comes out of his 6-foot by 10-foot cell on death row. It’s not air-conditioned and has louvered windows. A federal lawsuit filed by three inmates claims the heat index has reached 172 degrees.

The first thing Prejean does is order food for Ortiz from prison concessions; otherwise he will have to eat the normal slop that is served in the cells and never contains anything fresh.

“It’s part of the attitude here. You committed a crime so you must always suffer,” Prejean says.

Helen Prejean visits Manuel Ortiz on Louisiana's death row. She believes he is innocent.
Courtesy Helen Prejean
Helen Prejean visits Manuel Ortiz on Louisiana's death row. She believes he is innocent.

She knows Ortiz does not have the money to buy anything. And food is important to her. It is the most basic necessity of life; it should be celebrated when shared with family and friends, she says.

Ortiz wants a catfish Po’ Boy, a roast beef Po’ B