1984: Elmo Patrick Sonnier, Dead Man Walking

27 comments 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.

Also on this date

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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