1693: Anne Palles, the last witch executed in Denmark 1199: Pierre Basile, marksman

1984: Elmo Patrick Sonnier, Dead Man Walking

April 5th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1984, Elmo Patrick Sonnier was electrocuted in Louisiana’s Angola Prison for abducting and murdering two teens in St. Martin Parish.*

Elmo and his brother Eddie posed as police officers and handcuffed two high schoolers parked at a local makeout point. Then they raped the girl, and shot both of them dead.

Both were given death sentences for the crime.

Eddie managed, as he said, to “give it back” on the grounds that Patrick was the one who did the shooting.

Once Eddie was clear of the death penalty, he tried to cop to the shooting after all, in order to save his little brother.

The appellate life of this case involved unedifying revisions of the “who shot whom” story. Ultimately, Eddie’s later claim to have been the triggerman, though quite possibly true, is not likely to win very much sympathy for his brother. It didn’t help him in the courts, either.

Just the 17th person executed since reinstatement of the death penalty, Sonnier learned that his longshot bid for clemency had been denied straight from the man who denied it — colorful, corrupt Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards, who personally phoned Sonnier to give him the bad news.

Little did Sonnier know that he had equally famous company meeting him in his cell.

Sonnier was the first condemned inmate to receive the spiritual ministration of Sister Helen Prejean.

The then-obscure Louisiana nun would later write the bestseller Dead Man Walking about her experiences with Sonnier and a second death row prisoner, Robert Lee Willie. Prejean remains among the most well-known death penalty opponents in the world today.

While the book Dead Man Walking treats Sonnier and Willie in a nonfiction vein, the film adaptation (review) amalgamated those people into a single character, the fictional “Matthew Poncelet”. It’s apparent from the flashbacks in Dead Man Walking‘s execution scene, however, that Sonnier is the predominant influence on “Poncelet”.

Dead Man Walking is an interesting movie. Though its principals were all vocal death penalty opponents, the film itself is much better art than propaganda. Arguably, the doomed criminal attains a sort of personal redemption — finally admitting responsibility for a crime he had denied for much of the film; seeking the forgiveness of his victims’ surviving family — only because the death penalty awaits him.

The real-life Sister Helen. Her most recent book is The Death of Innocents:An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions.

Susan Sarandon won an Oscar for Best Actress for her turn as Sister Helen. Note that while Sonnier was in fact put to death in the electric chair (as was Robert Lee Willie), director Tim Robbins opted to portray a lethal injection because, as Helen Prejean herself put it,

we don’t want to give people the moral out whereby people could say ‘oh well, we used to do electrocution but that’s too barbaric so now we are humane and inject them’

* The murder that led to this date’s execution took place in the same area where Willie Francis survived a trip to the electric chair: the very chair that killed Patrick Sonnier.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Louisiana,Murder,Notable Participants,Rape,USA

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32 thoughts on “1984: Elmo Patrick Sonnier, Dead Man Walking”

  1. Fiz says:

    I can’t remember now. I read it many years ago. I do remember doing a double take at several places because I knew the facts of the case rather than the facts as massaged by Sister Helen Prejean. I didn’t read her second book, as I said.

  2. J.S.D says:

    Death penalty is neccessary not just as punisment to the criminal but as a detterent for future ones.

    1. Meaghan says:

      I don’t think it works. Murderers usually either act in the moment, not considering the consequences of what they’re doing, or they plan their crime and expect to get away with it. So deterrence doesn’t really factor into it.

      1. Mark Demming says:

        I disagree! Several well documented cases of murderers convicted and given a life sentence, later to be pardoned, parolled etc and again to murder. These people would surly be detured had they been put to death.

  3. Rob Chinnery says:

    As father of a young man shot by a Hamilton police officer for no good reason on Feb 2 2011 I have no sympathy for these types of individuals.
    Sonnier murdered two completely helpless teens (just as my son Andreas was) and deserved what no cop will ever get

  4. Beth says:

    I am neither completely for or against the death penalty. As for us murdering dp inmates, technically we are. On their death certificates, the manner of death states :homocide. I do not like the fact that our country has executed innocent people, and it has. But I also don’t like that people who commit horrific murders are in jail and could possibly escape. I get sick when I see these serial killers are on death row for decades (ramirez), due to appeals. I do believe murderers can change. Serial killers, no……child preditors, no. I don’t believe a teenage commiting murder should be given the dp. Their brains have not fully developed, it is just wrong. Would I want the person who killed my son or daughter in such a horrible way given the death penalty? Probably. I am only human. But I would want DEFINITE PROOF that this person did the crime. Having an innocents persons blood on my hands is no way to heal. All of the above is just my opinion. But likewise, If my son/daughter committed a horrific crime like the one in this story, I would cry and grieve for them. I know in my heart that my children were not raised with hate and violence. I love my children and gave them love. We all have to realize that some people were raised right but went wrong somewhere, others were never raised with love……my sorry would go out to the parents of the person who committed murder and are on death row. They remember a loving child who they love and raised right. Not all parents of death row inmates are evil.

  5. Meaghan says:

    I’m against the DP too, Sparrow, but I feel constrained to note that South Korea and Japan, both of them “advanced nations” by our standards, both have the DP. SK hasn’t executed anyone since the nineties but Japan executes on a regular basis and did three people just a few months ago.

  6. Sparrow says:

    Well I guess it will mean nothing to this discussion to remind those pro death that at least 100 plus and rising have been wrongly convicted and sent to death row, many executed who were innocent. In these cases it was plain murder. Cant whitewash that and sorry, it happens doesn’t make it justice. The system is broke, racially bias, and money walks no mater what the crime. The US is the only advanced nation left with this barbaric sense of so -called justice. But I guess in some peoples mind none of the above matters – kill em quick! Well, unless of course you yourself will have to wrongly face the death table. Or someone you love. I hope you never face such horror. But remember, everyday in this country someone does. Sorry for rough text, on crazy kindle!

  7. Headsman says:

    Thanks, Lisa. Pic redacted.

  8. Kevin M. Sullivan says:

    Hi Lisa–

    I’m sure I have, but not in quite some time. Thanks for the tip about the incorrect info on the picture. I’m sure the headsman will correct anything that needs correcting.

    See ya!

  9. Lisa says:

    Mr. Sullivan, have you read Genesis 9:5-6 yet? It pretty much sums up your (and my) stance on capital punishment.

    By the way, that picture above is not a picture of Elmo Sonnier. That is a picture of Robert Lee Willie. You can compare it to mugshots of Willie, as well as looking at the cursive tattoo that spells “Willie” on the visible hand.

    There ARE some mugshots of Sonnier available, though of extremely low quality.

  10. Kevin M. Sullivan says:

    @Anthony– You’re picking and choosing scriptures to fit your beliefs. All sins are not worthy of death, and that is clear from the scriptures.

    You’re against the death penalty, and that’s okay. But I assure you, if you consult those who have lost people to murder, it is difficult for them to know the killer of their loved ones is still eating, breathing air, watching TV, etc. Once the person is dead, there is at least a degree of closure, although things will never really be the same.

    God is not against the death penalty. I’m a retired minister, and you cannot get from the scriptures that He’s against it. it isn’t there. Of course we should forgive people, but an earthly penalty for our crimes must be paid as well. There’s no way around it. Throw a brick through a window, proclaim your love for Jesus, but you still must pay for the window. The same is true with murder. Indeed, you also believe punishment is warranted, but you have an aversion to the DP. But the DP is just one tool in the justice system, and a very appropriate one in some cases. Anything less is an abrogation of justice.

    Take care

  11. Anthony Bates says:

    And Jesus said,” he among you who are without sin, cast the first stone. According to god no sin is greater than the other. Further all sins committed are punishable by death. but god is far more mersiful than any of us commit a sin all we have to do is ask God for forgiveness. However, we humans are not so forgivining. That said, let me offer this anyone who may consider it. how about life without parole. It’s cheaper ; why spend three times as much to kill someone than just locking him or her up in solitary confinement until the day he dies? it cost three times as much to kill a man than it does to just lock him away by himself. Additionally, we don’t run the risk of killing an innocent person to satisfy the blood lust some of you feel. Besides; there is no way that killing someone for there crimes will bring back the loved one who was victimized by the ciminal’s action. Remember; No one is qualified to take life because they can’t give life. And as far as your interpretation of the nun’s belief, let me offer another thought. God also said, “judge not and you will not be judged”.

  12. MP says:

    I admire Sister Prejean for standing up for what she believes in, whether I agree with her or not. I respect her endeavor to help a condemned man repent and take responsibility for his actions so his soul would not be lost. Sister Prejean is a fine example of what a follower of Christ should be-kind and non-judgmental but at the same time tough when she needed to be. I don’t think her work with Sonnier was in vain.
    I agree that the condemned should have a spiritual adviser, and their confessions of their sins and seeking God’s forgiveness are what it’s all about, but I still don’t agree that they should be relieved of their punishment because of this. They need to have their punishments carried out and set examples for those who want to follow their paths. We cannot let criminals run amok just because they are “saved” or “born again.”

  13. Kevin M. Sullivan says:

    Murderers are killed by the state, but it is not murder. Not all killing is murder, and to equate such is absurd. If you kill in defense of your life, is it murder? Of course not.

  14. Fiz says:

    Camilla, the true translation of the Bible is “”You shall do no murder” as in what Sonnier did to his victim. It does NOT say “Thou shalt not kill”, meaning execution for murder is justified.

  15. Camilla says:

    Murder is murder…any kind of murder can never be right, in the name if the state or in any other name!

  16. Gork Willoughby says:

    “The liberals want to end all wars”

    Everyone wants to “end all wars” – But we know this isn’t possible.
    The rational U.S. liberals want people to avoid war whenever possible. That’s not the same as ending all wars, because we know some wars are inevitable.

  17. R Walker says:

    These types of guys would kill a convent-full of nuns to gain their freedom if they got the chance, after raping them first, of course. I’m not a fan of the death sentence, but I detest foolish nuns who humanise these monsters. These nuns are just the same as all the ignorant women who write, meet and then become the girlfriends or wives of these psycho killers — they get some sick thrill out of being around them, as if they’re in the presence of pop stars instead of gutless, cowardly, murdering scum. Meanwhile, these women don’t spare a thought about the innocent victims. Oh no, they wouldn’t get their jollies doing that.

  18. KYGB says:

    Elmo and Eddie Sonnier frequented a lovers lane in St Martins Parish. They would pose as cops and then rape the young girls in exhange for “letting them go”.

    On November 5, 1977, Loretta Ann Bourque,18 and David LeBlanc, attended a high school football game. After the game, they went to the local lovers lane. Eddie and Elmo came upon their car at 1 am and did their “cop game” This time, the ploy got out of hand. Eddie was charged with the rape and murder of Loretta Ann Bourque , 18, and the murder of David LeBlanc, 17 and convicted.

    He was eventually executed for his horrible crimes. He got what he deserved and deserved exactly what he got.

    The only tragedy in this case was that Eddie Sonnier wasn’t sitting on Elmo’s lap when they pulled the switch.

  19. Jullian Reha says:

    I found the movie to be propagandistic. It is required for an English 306 class I’m taking at CSUSB. The case being made iin the movie s clearly that murdereras are victims too. Helen Prejean wants penal reform because she believes in the human spirit and the intervention of Christ; I don’t know if man can construct a society out of good will rather than efffective law. I am not sure that there is anything even like effective law. But I believe that a nun doesn’t have as much compassion for the victim of a crime than the mother of that victim.

    I believe that if laws fail to meet the needs of the community, the community should meet its own needs.

    How many child molesters and convicts do you want in your neighborhood?

    The liberals want to end all wars, and all punishment in this world preferrably during their lifetime. I’m bettin that it’ll take Christ Himself to get that one done. I haven’t overlooked that Helen Prejean’s God, the one I also worship, has provided for eternal torture for the Robert Lee Willies of this world. I take comfort in knowing that where Sister Prejean has failed, God will make up the difference.

    1. J. Semmy says:

      I don’t think she’s advocating for letting them go scott free. They could be imprisoned for life instead.

      One man who was sentenced to death but was later found innocent said that he preferred the death penalty since more scrutiny came upon his case, and therefore he was ultimately freed. (search for “Death Row: The Final 24 Hours” on YouTube)

  20. Kevin M. Sullivan says:

    Hi Fiz!

    Well, I have never read her book, but I did see an interview on TV once and I thought I was going to puke.

    She was here in Louisville recently, and as you might suspect, I did not go out to see her, LOL!

  21. Fiz says:

    Well said, Kevin! I read “Victims of Dead Man Walking” and I regret to say that Helen Prejean and the truth are ill-acquainted, and I refused to read her other book which was subject to much analysis in the UK when it was published, concluding that she had lied even more in the second book. It’s fine to be anti d-p, but to find it necessary to lie about it?

    1. J. Semmy says:

      Which lies are they, by any chance?

  22. Kevin M. Sullivan says:

    Mr. Sonnier received the fairest treatment the state of Louisiana had to offer. Anything less would have been unfair to the two dead kids. State sanctioned killing is not murder, and it is not morally wrong. That Helen Prejean took up this asshole’s cause means nothing in the end, and Sonnier departed this world because the good people of Louisiana decided this was the most appropriate response to his crime. And they made it clear that a misguided nun was not going to stop it.

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