Sister Helen Prejean’s friend, Chava Colon from the Prison Coalition, asks her if she would be willing to correspond with a death row inmate. He assigns Prejean to Elmo Patrick Sonnier, a man convicted of raping and murdering a young woman and her boyfriend. Sonnier comes from a pleasant, rural Cajun community in Louisiana.
Prejean describes how she came to work and live in the St. Thomas housing project in New Orleans in June of 1981. A spiritual enlightenment forced her to recognize that Jesus challenged the affluent to share their resources with the poor. As a result, she began working with the poor.
The residents of St. Thomas, and the working poor of Louisiana in general, endure daily struggles and police brutality. Prejean works with teenage single mothers who are unable to making a living from their minimum wage pay. The Reagan administration slashes funding for social services, while the incarceration rate more than doubles in a decade. Although life is bleak in St. Thomas, Prejean derives hope and inspiration from a young boy working after school to help buy clothes for his sister, and the college graduate creating self-help programs. Prejean, who had a comfortable and loving childhood, says that she doesn’t know how law-abiding she would be if she had been born into a similar life of poverty.
Prejean sends Patrick a letter and three pictures of herself. She tries to imagine what type of man he is, and the suffering of the victims’ family. Patrick writes back saying he would enjoy exchanging letters with her because it’s “just too hard” to be alone on death row. A steady correspondence develops. Patrick describes his cell, in which he spends twenty-three out of every twenty-four hours. He is completely alone. His mother is too old to visit, and his brother Eddie is serving life in the same prison, Angola, for the same crime.
Prejean asks Chava Colon for Patrick’s files. Chava tells Prejean that a week after Patrick’s conviction, the trial judge mailed Patrick the date of his execution, and his court-appointed lawyer quit. Chava says that it is difficult to find lawyers to represent the convicts. Patrick has a new volunteer lawyer from Louisiana.
Prejean reads the newspaper clippings, which describe the happy lives of the victims and details their brutal murder and rape. Patrick and his brother confessed during the trial, although each blamed the other for pulling the trigger. Patrick was sentenced to death, and Eddie was sentenced to life in prison. Eddie recanted his testimony and said he pulled the trigger, but a new jury sentenced Patrick to death once more. The depravity of the crime stuns Prejean.