21, 1951 - April 5, 1984) was a convicted murderer and rapist who
was executed by electrocution at Angola Penitentiary in Louisiana on
April 5, 1984.
troubled youth with a past riddled in criminal activity, received
along with his brother Eddie James Sonnier a sentence of death by a
jury of his peers on April 25, 1978 for the November 5, 1977 rape
and murder of Loretta Ann Bourque, 18, and the murder of David
on Louisiana's Death Row attracted the attention of anti-death
penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean, and became the first of many
death row inmates to receive her counsel. He also became the subject
of Prejean's best-selling book Dead Man Walking.
The book was
adapted to the big screen with the Academy-Award winning film of the
same name, and its lead character, Matthew Poncelet, was based on an
amalgom of both Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie, another inmate for
whom Sister Helen Prejean was spiritual advisor. Sean Penn portrayed
the Patrick Sonnier-inspired character of "Matthew Poncelet," and
earned an Academy Award nomination for his performance.
On the evening of
November 4, 1977, David LeBlanc, age 16, and Loretta Ann Bourque,
age 18, attended a high school football game. Later that evening,
the couple parked in a remote area of St. Martin Parish, known by
many young couples as a "lover's lane."
Later that night,
at approximately one 1am (now November 5), Elmo Patrick and Eddie
James Sonnier, who were rabbit hunting together, came across the
couple's car. Using a badge one of the brothers had obtained while
working as a security guard, and both armed with 22-caliber rifles,
the two posed as police officers and approached and entered
The victims were
informed that they were trespassing and that they would have to be
brought to the landowner to determine if the landowner desired to
press charges. They also confiscated each of the teens' driver's
licenses to further their act. Ms. Bourque and Mr. LeBlanc were then
handcuffed and placed in the back seat of their own car.
Leaving their own
car behind, the Sonnier brothers drove the couple twenty-one miles
to a remote oilfield located in Iberia Parish, an area known well to
the defendants. Once at the oilfield, both victims were removed from
David LeBlanc was
taken into the woods and handcuffed to a tree. Loretta Bourque was
taken a short distance away and raped by Elmo Sonnier. She then
reluctantly agreed to have intercourse with Eddie Sonnier on the
condition that they would safely release her and Mr. LeBlanc
afterwards. Upon completion of the rapes, Patrick Sonnier removed
their handcuffs and brought them back toward the road where the car
At that point,
Patrick Sonnier told his brother that he feared he would be "sent
back to Angola (Louisiana State Penitentiary)" should the victims
notify police. David LeBlanc and Loretta Bourque were then forced to
lie side by side, face down, and were each shot three times at close
range in the back of the head.
The Sonniers then
drove Mr. LeBlanc's vehicle back to the original site where the
couple was first accosted in order to pick up their own vehicle.
Finding their car with a flat tire, the brothers used a jack from
the LeBlanc vehicle to apply a spare tire. (The jack was later
seized by police from the trunk of Sonnier's car.)
The brothers then
destroyed the victims' driver's licenses and the following day
buried the rifles in a separate remote area. Investigation also
revealed that between $30-$40, which was in the possession of the
victims prior to the abduction, could not be accounted for.
The Sonniers were
arrested on December 5, 1977, following a tip from a local man who
reported seeing the Sonnier's 1961 blue-colored Dodge Dart parked in
the remore area during the early morning hours of November 5. They
were advised of his rights and taken to the Sheriff's Office in New
Patrick Sonnier gave verbal and written confessions. The defendant
was then transferred to a parish prison in an adjacent parish. While
enroute, he made other statements to the officers who were
The following day
he agreed to a videotaped confession. All three statements indicated
that Patrick Sonnier had participated in the abduction of the
victims and had personally shot them.
The police, after
direction from patrick Sonnier, later recovered the two rifles used
in the murders. Ballistics tests indicated that one of the bullets
taken from one of the victim's head and four brass casings found by
the police at the scene of the crime had positively been fired from
the rifle which belonged to the defendant.
excessive damage, the other five bullets that were recovered could
only be identified as having been fired from the same model, brand
and caliber rifle as that belonging to the Sonniers. The handcuffs
used in the abduction were later recovered from Patrick Sonnier's
The State also
produced a witness who testified that he had seen the defendants'
blue 1961 Dart at the place where the abduction occurred during the
early morning hours of November 5, 1977.
The defendant and
his brother were jointly indicted on two counts of first degree
murder by the grand jury of Iberia Parish. On January 19, 1978,
Patrick was arraigned and entered a plea of not guilty by reason of
During the trial,
the brothers traded accusations on who did the actual killing.
Patrick was inevitably convicted of first degree murder and
sentenced to death based on his confessions and his brother's
testimony that he was the initiator and more dominant participant.
This made no
difference because separate juries each returned guilty verdicts on
each brother and both were sentenced to death. After their first
appeal, the death sentences were reversed due to procedural mishaps
and new sentencing hearings were issued.
Now free from the
threat of death, Eddie James Sonnier dramatically recanted his
testimony during his brother's second penalty hearing. He had then
claimed that it was actually he that did the actual killings and not
Patrick. He also expressed that he was the more dominant offender,
and even sent a letter to Governor Edwin W. Edwards explaining this.
Prosecution successfully attacked Eddie James' credibility and
therefore was able to establish that Patrick was the most in charge
of the criminal situation. The state of Louisiana imposed a second
sentence of death on Patrick, this one to remain. Eddie's sentence
remained at life without the possibility of parole.
Sister Helen Prejean's book, Patrick Sonnier struggled with
ambivalent feelings toward the fathers of his victims, who asked to
watch the electrocution, during the last hours before his execution.
personal choice as spiritual advisor, sat with the condemned Sonnier
during his final hours. Godfrey Bourque and Lloyd LeBlanc, the
respective fathers of Loretta Bourque and David LeBlanc, were
granted permission to witness the execution.
Sonnier had heard
news reports quoting Bourque as saying he would "like to pull the
switch himself." Sonnier angrily expressed to Prejean that "If they
want to pull the switch, OK, let 'em!" Through much of his last day
he repeatedly smoked cigarettes and drank coffee.
But in the end,
Prejean convinced Sonnier that redemption would only be achieved
through repentance and taking responsibility for his role in the
murders. According to Prejean, Sonnier inevitably said he "doesn't
want my final words to be angry ones."
talked to Elmo Sonnier through a steel mesh window most of the day,
said he bore no ill will toward Eddie Sonnier and dictated a letter
to her Wednesday afternoon to give to his brother. "He told him to
be cool, keep his head and stay out of trouble. He ended it, 'I love
you, your big brother.'" Elmo Sonnier never really believed his
appeal would be successful, she said.
After he ate a
steak dinner, she said the death house phone rang and then a guard
came and told Sonnier his appeals had been turned down by the
federal courts. "I know I'm not going to make it," he told Prejean.
Sonnier received a telephone call from Governor Edwin W. Edwards,
who insisted that he personally deliver the news that he decided not
to interfere with the criminal process and that the execution would
move forward. It was then that "there was fear and anguish on his
face," as documented by Sister Prejean.
Guards, dressed in
customary black, came in and shaved his head, eyebrows, and leg.
Resigned to his fate, Patrick started talking about life after
death. He also vowed that "no one was going to see him break."
At the permission
of Warden Ross Maggio, Prejean was allowed to follow Patrick Sonnier
to the execution chamber. With her hand on his shoulder, she read
from Isaiah Chapter 43: "Fear not, for I have redeemed you ... When
you walk through fire, you shall not be burned ... Lead out the
people who are blind though they have eyes, who are deaf though they
Once in the
execution chamber, Sonnier directed his last statement to Lloyd
LeBlanc, saying "I can understand the way you feel. I have no hatred
in my heart. As I leave this world, I ask God to forgive...me for
what I did. I also ask your forgiveness for what I did." LeBlanc
nodded, and then Bourque remarked quietly "He didn't ask me."
He was then
strapped in what was known to Louisiana Death Row inmates as
"Gruesome Gertie," the state's oak electric chair. While the guards
secured Sonnier to the chair, he caught Prejean's eye, told her "I
love you," to which she replied "I love you, too." Then his face was
covered with a veil, and the executioner pulled the switch at 12:07
A.M., sending four alternating jolts of 2,000 volts and 500 volts of
electricity through his body. He was pronouced dead at 12:12 A.M.
Warden Maggio, on behalf of the State of Louisiana, announced that
the sentence of death had been carried out. Elmo Patrick Sonnier was
33 years old.
Helen Prejean and
other Catholic nuns took responsibility in ensuring a proper
Catholic burial for Patrick Sonnier. The service, which was presided
over by a bishop (typically unheard of for non-well respected
members of the Catholic church), was held at a Baton Rouge area
Sonnier was laid
to rest in Roselawn Memorial Park, in a burial plot normally
reserved for nuns. Among those in attendance was his brother and
accomplice, Eddie - who was heavily shackled.
Sonnier was convicted of the slayings of Loretta Bourque, 18, and
her fiance, David LeBlanc, 16. Each was shot three times in the head
on Nov. 5, 1977.
Brothers Elmo and Eddie Sonnier were both
convicted and sentenced to die for the deaths.
The two pretended to be law enforcement officers,
abducted the couple from a lovers lane near New Iberia and drove
them more than 20 miles to a remote sugar cane field, where both
raped the girl while the boy was handcuffed to a tree.
Both teenagers were then murdered, shot three
times each in the back of the head with a .22-caliber rifle.
A month after the murders, both confessed that
Elmo was the one who pumped three .22-caliber bullets into each of
the victims' heads.
Although Eddie initially was also given the death
penalty, he managed to "give it back," as he put it, by claiming he
did not pull the trigger. It was after his sentence was reduced to
life in prison that he first said he was the triggerman.
Elmo's death sentence was also reversed on
procedural grounds. Upon a new sentencing hearing, he was again
sentenced to death, despite Eddie changing his testimony and
claiming that he had pulled the trigger.
The execution of Sonnier gained notoriety later,
when it served as the foundation for a book written by Sister Helen
Prejean: "Dead Man Walking."
Sonnier Executed for Double Murder
By James Hodge - The Times-Picayune
April 5, 1984
Angola, Louisiana - Elmo Patrick Sonnier,
convicted of murdering a teenage couple in a sugar cane field in New
Iberia, was electrocuted early Thursday after telling the father of
one of the victims, "I ask you to have forgiveness." Lloyd LeBlanc,
who witnessed the execution, nodded and said, "Yes." Sonnier, 34,
was then strapped into the electric chair, executed, and pronounced
dead at 12:15 a.m. by the local coroner.
He was convicted of the slayings of Loretta
Bourque, 18, and her fiance, David LeBlanc, 16. Each was shot three
times in the head on Nov. 5, 1977.
Sonnier was the third person executed in
Louisiana in four months. Robert Wayne Williams was electrocuted Dec.
14 for killing a Baton Rouge supermarket guard, becoming the first
person executed in Louisiana since 1961. Johnny Taylor Jr. was put
to death Feb. 29 for stabbing a Kenner man to death in a shopping
center parking lot. Sonnier was one of two men scheduled for
Arthur Frederick Goode II faced death at 6 a.m.
in Florida's electric chair for raping and strangling 6-year-old
Jason Verdow. Sonnier was the 17th man executed since the Supreme
Court lifted its ban on capital punishment in 1976. Goode's
execution would mark the first time two inmates have been executed
on the same day since the court lifted the ban.
State prison warden Ross Maggio
said Sonnier spent his last day with Sister Helen Prejean, a New
Orleans nun who serves as his spiritual adviser, and with a female
friend who is a lawyer but is not involved in his case. The
condemned man ate a steak dinner and was kept up to date as five
courts turned down his 11th-hour pleas for a stay.
As he was led into the execution chamber, he
looked at LeBlanc and said, "Mr. LeBlanc, I can understand the way
you feel. I have no hatred in my heart, and as I leave this world, I
ask God to forgive what...I have done." He then asked LeBlanc's
forgiveness. Immediately after, Godfrey Bourque, the father of the
other victim, who also witnessed the execution, said, "He didn't ask
Both fathers sat expressionless, with their arms
crossed, as the execution was carried out. They declined to talk to
reporters afterward. Sonnier's last words were addressed to Prejean.
"I love you," he said. "I love you, too," she replied.
Sonnier, wearing blue jeans and a blue T-shirt,
was then strapped into the death chair. Witnesses said he appeared
to be smiling. At 12:07, his body was jolted with 2,000 volts of
electricity for 20 seconds, followed by 500 volts for 10 seconds.
The sequence was repeated. There was no movement after the second
The way was cleared for the execution Wednesday
when the five courts turned down a plea to stop it. The U.S. Supreme
Court, the last of the five, turned Sonnier down only five minutes
after his attorneys filed their petition. Gov. Edwin W. Edwards then
decided not to intervene, telephoning the condemned man to convey
his decision personally.
In his appeal, Sonnier's attorney William Quigley
said a former Angola inmate has told him he heard Sonnier's brother
confess to the crime. Quigley said he received a call "out of the
blue" Wednesday morning from Richard Silvestri, who was in Angola
from 1978 to 1981 and was at one time assigned to a cell next to the
one occupied by Eddie Sonnier, who is serving a life sentence for
the slayings of the teen-age couple.
Silvestri said he could testify
that Eddie Sonnier admitted to him that he, and not his brother, was
the trigger man in the slayings. Eddie Sonnier had written a letter
to Edwards admitting he fired the shots and asking that Edwards
spare Elmo Sonnier's life. The information on Silvestri was filed
with the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme
Court after three other courts had rejected earlier appeals to delay
State District Judge Thomas Bienvenue, the state
Supreme Court and U.S. District Judge John Shaw all refused to stop
the execution. But Quigley said that when those courts ruled they
did not have the new information. The 5th Circuit, which was given
the new information, denied the stay request Wednesday evening. The
Supreme Court also rejected the bid without comment on a 6-2 vote.
Justices Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan
dissented as they always do in death penalty cases and Justice
William Rehnquist did not participate. The appeals all centered on
the question of who pulled the trigger when Bourque and LeBlanc were
killed. There was no question of whether the Sonnier brothers were
involved in the crime, only which one acted as the trigger man.
Elmo and Eddie, 27, were both sentenced to die
for the deaths, but the state Supreme Court changed Eddie's sentence
to life in prison because trial testimony indicated he only held the
flashlight while his brother shot the youths to death.
Prosecutors said the two pretended to be law
enforcement officers, abducted the couple from a lonely lovers lane
near New Iberia and drove them more than 20 miles to a remote sugar
cane field, where both raped the girl while the boy was handcuffed
to a tree. Both teen-agers were murdered, shot three times each in
the back of the head with a .22-caliber rifle.
Although Eddie initially was given the death
penalty, he managed to "give it back," as he put it, by claiming he
did not pull the trigger. It was after his sentence was reduced to
life in prison that he first said he was the trigger man. A state
district court, however, did not believe him when he testified in
Elmo's trial. Elmo was sentenced to die for the crime.
Killer Struggled With his Feelings Toward
By James Hodge - The Times-Picayune
April 6, 1984
In the hours before he was put to death, Elmo
Patrick Sonnier struggled with ambivalent feelings toward the
fathers of his victims, who asked to watch the electrocution, said
Sister Helen Prejean, the spiritual adviser who sat with the
condemned man during his final hours. Godfrey Bourque and Lloyd
LeBlanc --the fathers of Loretta Bourque, 18, and David LeBlanc, 16,
whom Sonnier was convicted of murdering in 1977-- were granted
permission to witness the execution Thursday.
Sonnier, 34, had heard news reports quoting
Bourque as saying he'd like to pull the switch himself, said Prejean,
a New Orleans nun. "If they want to pull the switch, OK, let 'em,"
he told Prejean angrily as he puffed on cigarettes and gulped coffee.
But in the end, she said, he decided "he didn't want his final words
to be angry ones."
Sonnier directed his last statement to LeBlanc,
saying, "I can understand the way you feel. I have no hatred in my
heart. As I leave this world, I ask God to forgive...me for what I
did." He then asked LeBlanc for his forgiveness. LeBlanc nodded, and
then Bourque remarked quietly: "He didn't ask me."
Sonnier also said that his brother, Eddie, "did
it," Prejean said. Prosecutors said both Sonnier and his brother
abducted the couple from a lovers lane near New Iberia, drove them
to a remote sugar cane field, and raped the girl. The teen-agers
were shot three times each at close range in the back of the head.
Since their arrests, the Sonnier
brothers switched their stories about who did the shootings. But
Eddie Sonnier insisted in a letter to Gov. Edwin W. Edwards earlier
this week that he was the killer and not Elmo Sonnier. Elmo Sonnier
told Prejean that Eddie Sonnier was the trigger man. Eddie Sonnier's
sentence was reduced to life in prison because a court believed he
did not fire the fatal shots.
Prejean, who talked to Elmo Sonnier through a
steel mesh window most of the day Wednesday, said he bore no ill
will toward Eddie Sonnier and dictated a letter to her Wednesday
afternoon to give to his brother. "He told him to be cool, keep his
head and stay out of trouble. He ended it, 'I love you, your big
brother.'" Elmo Sonnier never really believed his appeal would be
successful, she said.
After he ate a steak dinner, she said the death
house phone rang and then a guard came and told Sonnier his appeals
had been turned down by the federal courts. "I know I'm not going to
make it," he told Prejean. Minutes later, after Edwards refused to
intervene, "there was fear and anguish on his face," she said.
Guards, dressed in black, came in and shaved his
head and leg. Later he resigned himself to his fate and started
talking about life after death, she said. "He also said no one was
going to see him break." Prejean followed Elmo Sonnier to the
execution chamber, her hand on his shoulder, reading from Isaiah
Chapter 43: "Fear not, for I have redeemed you...When you walk
through fire, you shall not be burned...Lead out the people who are
blind though they have eyes, who are deaf though they have ears."
After reading his last statement,
he was strapped in "Gruesome Gertie," the inmates' name for the
state's oak electric chair. Elmo Sonnier caught Prejean's eye: "I
love you," he said. "I love you, too," she replied. Then his face
was covered with a greenish-gray veil, and the executioner pulled
the switch at 12:07 a.m., sending four alternating jolts of 2,000
volts and 500 volts of electricity through his body. Prejean said
she closed her eyes for the minute the volts were administered.
The two fathers sat through the execution, side
by side, arms folded and without expression. They had no comment
afterward. "The fathers handled themselves well -- with dignity in
what was a very difficult situation. We had no complaints about
their conduct," Warden Ross Maggio said. Sonnier will be buried in
Baton Rouge Friday.
Larry Moore, director of Rebenhorst Funeral Home
in Baton Rouge, said, "A religious community has taken
responsibility for seeing that the man is properly buried." Prejean
said she and other Catholic nuns are involved. Moore said the
funeral home provided the nuns with a casket. The service will be
held at the home, with burial at Roselawn Memorial Park.
Executed Killer Blessed with Burial for the
April 7, 1984
Baton Rouge (AP) - In death, executed murderer
Elmo Patrick Sonnier received what few Catholics ever achieve -- a
funeral Mass conducted by a bishop and burial within the shadow of
graves of other bishops.
Sonnier's 27-year-old brother, also convicted in
the 1977 lovers lane murders of two teen-agers, attended the funeral
Mass in chains. The Mass was celebrated by Bishop Stanley Ott at a
local funeral home. Sonnier died in Louisiana's electric chair just
after midnight Thursday.
About 30 members of the family attended the
services, at first crowding around the plain gray steel casket
adorned with a red splash of roses. Eddie Sonnier, chained at the
ankles and wrists and watched by three Corrections Department guards,
hovered over the opened casket, gazing at the shaven head of his
brother, weeping and consoled by Sister Helen Prejean, spiritual
adviser of the murderer. "Patrick died for his brother," said Sister
Prejean of the Sisters of St. Joseph.
In December 1977, a month after the murders of
Loretta Bourque, 18, and David LeBlanc, 16, the brothers were
arrested and both confessed that Elmo was the one who pumped three
.22-caliber bullets into each of the victims' heads. The brothers
received the death penalty but the Louisiana Supreme Court reduced
Eddie's sentence to life because he was the youngest, was dominated
by his older brother and was not the triggerman. After the sentence
was reduced, Eddie changed his story and said he was the triggerman,
not his brother.
"Blessed are the merciful for they will obtain
mercy," Bishop Stanley Ott of the Diocese of Baton Rouge intoned. "At
the cross, Jesus said to the thief, 'today you will be with me in
paradise.'" Bishop Ott, who prayed for the victims and their
families, said, "We live in an imperfect world. We are all sinners.
"Jesus, who should have received mercy, did not. But he received
The bishop said Pope John Paul II noted that if
people went by the biblical phrase "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a
tooth," the world would be "very cold." "Finally, there must be
mercy," Ott said. "May the mercy of God be with Patrick."
Sister Prejean said her friends in the order took
on the responsibility of burying Sonnier because his mother is
infirmed and couldn't be at the funeral. As for the bishop's
presence, she said, "the bishops are taking more and more stands for
human rights. They are very much against capital punishment. That's
why he was here." Sonnier was buried in a special plot at Roselawn
Cemetery set aside for nuns. Just across the narrow gravel road is
the plot where bishops and noted priests are buried.
A Speaker Like Nun Other
Sr. Helen Prejean
brings message of forgiveness to Presentation High School students
By Michele Leung -
Sr. Helen Prejean is neither a typical political
activist nor a typical nun. An ardent death-penalty opponent and
author of Dead Man Walking, Prejean travels around the country to
share her experiences with death-row inmates. Her latest stop
brought her to Presentation High School, where she was the featured
School officials felt privileged to have Prejean
in their midst, believing she complements the school's ethics class.
"In our ethics class, we discuss whether capital punishment is just
and right. So, to have the guru on capital punishment come was
perfect," said Vice Principal Dina Garrett.
Prejean wasted no time in getting to the meat of
her message. "I want to take you to some special places in my heart,"
she said. "Capital punishment is not a peripheral issue." She argued
that the death penalty is not justly handed out. "Eight out of ten [criminals]
are chosen for the death penalty because they have killed a white
person. Race plays a part," she said. "The death penalty is very
selective in how its applied." According to Prejean, the poor also
receive an unfair share of capital-punishment sentences. While the
O.J. Simpsons of the world hire attorneys like Johnnie Cochran to
save them, "the 'No-Js' get the death penalty," she said.
Her journey with prison inmates began when she
lived in a housing project in New Orleans and a man approached her
to become a pen pal. "I never saw an address like that before--'Death
Row.' " That inmate turned out to be Patrick Sonnier, the subject of
her future book. "He wrote about being confined for 23 hours and how
everyone [in prison] was glad the summer in Louisiana ended because
it got so hot," she said.
Sonnier received the death penalty for the murder
of two teenagers in New Orleans; he was executed in 1984. His
brother, Eddie, is serving two life sentences for the same murders.
The Louisiana nun wrote and visited Patrick Sonnier during the
period leading to his execution. She thinks she made a grave mistake,
however, by failing to reach out to the victims' families. "That was
cowardice," she said.
Despite seeing several protests mounted against
her where she speaks, she remains unshaken. "Of course they feel
outraged. That's their moral sensitivity," Prejean said. "They're
outraged at me because they're outraged at what happened to their
loved ones. But is the only thing we can do as a society is to repay
evil with evil?"
After Sonnier's execution, Sr. Helen spent two
years writing her book. She got a call from actress Susan Sarandon,
who wanted to discuss her ideas for a movie. Initially, "I was not
going to let Hollywood touch it," Prejean said. "A nun and a death-row
inmate--I was afraid they were going to throw some romance in it.
Maybe we were going to elope. Or maybe I would tuck some cyanide
inside my bra," she wisecracked.
Though Prejean was familiar with Sarandon through
her work with Amnesty International ("You think I knew her through
her movies?"), she didn't want to be unprepared. She rented Thelma
and Louise , but didn't care for the Thelma character, "the ditzy
one." "Thank goodness [Sarandon] was Louise."
At the onset, Hollywood studios were uninterested
in the screenplay because they thought it wouldn't make a lucrative
movie. After it was released in 1995, Sarandon won an Oscar for Best
Actress for her portrayal of Prejean the following year. "There [Sarandon]
was at the Academy Awards, with an audience of 1.3 billion," Prejean
said. "That was God's way of giving the film to the world and make
them reflect on the death penalty."
Aside from sharing her experiences, Prejean also
made an appeal to Presentation's all-girl student body to serve the
bigger world outside of their school. "You're not going to be able
to do everything ... but you need to put your gifts out to the
community. It takes a while to discover your gifts," she said. "I
thought I was going to be a basketball player, but I found public
speaking is something I could really do."
Prejean's audience was appreciative and receptive
to her message. The school has agreed to take on the nun's petition
to put a moratorium on the death penalty. "It's the school's goal to
become more compassionate, so this is a perfect opportunity,"
Garrett said. "I think what comes across is this sense that she's
doing this for a greater good," said Sharon Bouska, chair of the
religion department. "There's something else moving in her life, and
that's God in her life."
Junior Alicia Sweringen found herself speechless.
"Oh my God, I had chills throughout her speech." She struggles to
find the right word to articulate her thoughts, but mid-sentence,
she runs off to Prejean when she sees her exiting the school gym.
Hugging her, she says a few words of thanks. "And you'll do
something special yourself," Prejean replied.
Book Review - Helen Prejean: Dead Man Walking
From Kirkus Reviews, May 1, 1993
A Catholic nun's impassioned memoir of her
friendship with two death-row inmates, coupled with a plea for the
abolition of capital punishment. In 1982, Prejean, a member of the
Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille, agrees to correspond with
convicted rapist and murderer Patrick Sonnier, awaiting execution in
Louisiana's electric chair. Letters lead to visits, and Prejean
becomes spiritual advisor to the condemned man. Her counsel takes
hold, and Sonnier dies repentant--far more so than Prejean's second
death-row friend, the arrogant Robert Lee Wilson, also a rapist and
murderer. Both killers come off as repellently fascinating, but the
real interest here is in Prejean, who begins as a frail but
courageous soul, utterly out of place inside a prison, and winds up
as a fierce spokeswoman for the right to life--even of those who
have taken the lives of others.
Her arguments against capital punishment are well
known but preached with passion: The death penalty is racist,
barbaric, and doesn't deter crime; innocent people get killed, etc.
But her real brief lies in the grim details of execution, both in
the degradation of the long weeks of waiting and in the torture of
the execution itself--which involves, says Prejean, extreme physical
and mental pain.
The details will turn heads and stomachs: last-minute
meetings with the governor, who always has his own agenda; last
meals with the prisoner (Sonnier feasts on steak and apple pie, and
thanks the cook); the last seconds of life, as the condemned man's
face is covered by a veil (Wilson winks at Prejean as the cloth
To Prejean, the whole story is a web of crimes--the
original murder; the execution; the moral hypocrisy of the judicial
system; the suffering inflicted upon the families of both killer and
victim - to which the only moral response is love inspired by Christ,
who `refused to meet hate with hate and violence with violence.'
Touching and compelling.
Elmo Patrick Sonnier
was executed on April 5, 1984. Sonnier was convicted, along with
his brother, Eddie, in the murders of teenagers Loretta Bourque and
David LeBlanc in a field in Iberia Parish on November 5, 1977. Both
Sonnier brothers also raped Bourque. Eddie Sonnier was also given a
death sentence for the crimes, but his sentence was commuted to life
by the Louisiana Supreme Court, which ruled that he did not commit
the killings. Although Eddie Sonnier later claimed that he had done
the murders, the courts and the governor let Pat Sonnier's death
sentence stand. Pat Sonnier was one of the two Death Row inmates
featured in the book version of Sister Helen Prejean's Dead Man
Walking. Sonnier's last words, addressed to Lloyd LeBlanc, the
father of one victim, and to Sister Helen Prejean, were:
"Mr. LeBlanc, I can
understand the way you feel. I have no hatred in my heart, and as I
leave this world, I ask God to forgive what . . . I have done. I
ask you to have forgiveness" (at which Mr. LeBlanc nodded and said,
"I love you" (directed to
v. Sonnier, 379 So.2d 1336 (La. 1979) (Direct
Trial was held on April 12-14, 1978. Defendant
was found guilty on each count by a twelve-person jury. Following
the sentencing portion of the trial, the jury recommended that the
defendant be sentenced to death on each count. The defense requested
that the jury be polled, both as to the verdict and the sentence.
The trial court was satisfied that the jury had
unanimously reached its conclusions. On April 25, 1978, defendant
was sentenced to death on each count of first degree murder.
On the evening of November 4, 1977, David LeBlanc,
age sixteen, and Loretta Ann Bourque, age eighteen, attended a high
school football game. Later that evening, the couple parked in a
remote area of St. Martin Parish.
At approximately one o'clock A.M., defendant and
his brother, Eddie James Sonnier, who were rabbit hunting together,
came across the couple's car. Using a badge one of the brothers had
obtained while working as a security guard and armed with 22-caliber
rifles, the two posed as police officers and approached and entered
The victims were informed that they were
trespassing and that they would have to be brought to the landowner
to determine if the landowner desired to press charges. At this time
the driver's licenses of both victims were confiscated.
The two victims were then handcuffed and placed
in the back seat of their (the victims') car. Leaving their own car
behind, the defendant and his brother drove the couple twenty-one
miles to a remote oilfield located in Iberia Parish, an area known
to the defendant.
Once at the oilfield, both victims were removed
from the car. David LeBlanc was taken into the woods and handcuffed
to a tree. Loretta Bourque was taken a short distance away and raped
by the defendant, Elmo Sonnier. She then agreed to have intercourse
with Eddie Sonnier in exchange for the couple's safe release. Upon
completion of the rapes, the two youngsters were unhandcuffed and
brought back toward the road where the car was parked.
At that point, Elmo Sonnier told his brother they
could not let the couple go because if the youngsters talked, it
would mean he (Elmo) would have to go back to Angola. David LeBlanc
and Loretta Bourque were then forced to lie side by side, face down,
and were each shot three times at close range in the back of the
Eddie Sonnier testified that he held a flashlight
while the defendant shot the youngsters with a 22-caliber rifle. He
further related that Bourque began to cry when the defendant fired a
first shot at her which missed. The defendant then fired a second
shot which succeeded in striking Bourque in the back of the head.
The third shot likewise struck LeBlanc in the
back of the head. Each victim was then shot two additional times. At
the trial, expert testimony indicated that any one of the shots
would have resulted in instantaneous death to the victims.
The defendant and his brother then drove the
victims' vehicle back to the original site where the couple was
first accosted in order to pick up their own car. Finding their car
with a flat tire, they used a jack from the LeBlanc vehicle to make
the change. The jack was later seized by police from the trunk of
the defendant's car. The brothers then destroyed the victims'
driver's licenses and the following day buried the rifles in another
remote area. Investigation also revealed that thirty or forty
dollars which was in the possession of the victims prior to the
abduction could not be accounted for.
The defendant was arrested on December 5, 1977.
He was advised of his rights and taken to the Sheriff's Office in
New Iberia. While there, he made a free and voluntary confession
which was transcribed by one of the police officers who was present.
The statement was then read and signed by the defendant.
The defendant was then routinely transferred to a
parish prison in an adjacent parish. While enroute, he made another
statement to the officers who were transporting him. The following
day he made a third confession which was taped. All three statements
indicated that the defendant had participated in the abduction of
the victims and had shot them.
The police later recovered the two rifles which
belonged to the defendant and his brother. Ballistics tests
indicated that one of the bullets taken from one of the victim's
head and four brass casings found by the police at the scene of the
crime had positively been fired from the rifle which belonged to the
defendant. Because of excessive damage, the other five bullets that
were recovered could only be identified as having been fired from
the same model, brand and caliber rifle as that belonging to the
The handcuffs used in the abduction were later
recovered from Elmo Sonnier's bedroom. The State also produced a
witness who testified that he had seen the defendants' blue 1961
Dart at the place where the abduction occurred during the early
morning hours of November 5, 1977.
The defendant and his brother were jointly
indicted on two counts of first degree murder by the grand jury of
Iberia Parish. On January 19, 1978, the defendant was arraigned and
pled not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity.
"Elmo Patrick Sonnier is a white male, age twenty-eight
years (twenty-six at the time of the offense). He attended school
through the seventh grade at which time he quit and went to work in
the oil fields.
The Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale Test
conducted on January 31, 1978, indicated a verbal I.Q. score of dull-normal
range (84), a performance I.Q. score in the average range (98) and a
full scale I.Q. in the average range (90). No neurological
impairment was noted by the Bender-Gestalt Test. The Rorschach
Examination indicated the defendant had contact with reality and
there were indications of a potential for above average creativity
"Sonnier's criminal record reveals five arrests
as a juvenile: disturbance (no disposition); simple burglary and
simple criminal damage (indefinite period of supervised probation);
simple burglary (continued probation until April 24, 1967); fight (released);
juvenile trouble (released). His adult record includes an attempted
theft of a boat for which he was released. He was convicted on two
counts of auto theft in 1968 and sentenced to four and three years
at hard labor. (The sentences ran concurrently.) He was paroled in
On July 7, 1970, he was arrested on a charge of
theft by false pretenses but the case was dismissed. In November of
1970, he was arrested and charged with the theft of a shotgun and a
television which resulted in his parole being revoked. During the
period he was on parole, he was in trouble for non- support, and
changing jobs and residences. Defendant served out his term at
Angola and was discharged on March 10, 1972.
The state first prosecuted Elmo Patrick Sonnier
and obtained convictions of first degree murder and death sentences,
*654 based primarily on Sonnier's confessions and his brother's
testimony, which, contrary to Elmo Patrick Sonnier's trial testimony,
depicted Elmo as the instigator and the victims' actual executioner.
The state next prosecuted the younger brother,
Eddie James Sonnier and was again successful in obtaining
convictions and death penalties. However, both brothers' death
penalties were reversed on appeal: Elmo Patrick Sonnier's because of
a procedural error, which required that his case be remanded for a
new sentencing proceeding. Eddie James Sonnier's because the death
penalty was excessive in view of his subsidiary role in the crimes,
requiring reduction of his sentences to life imprisonment without
At Elmo's second penalty hearing, on remand, his
brother Eddie, no longer exposed to the death penalty, dramatically
changed his story to coincide with Elmo's testimony. Eddie recanted
his previous testimony and claimed that he, instead of Elmo, pulled
the trigger of the murder weapon and played the dominant role
throughout the criminal episode.
The prosecution, however, effectively used the
brothers' confessions and Eddie's previous trial testimony to
challenge their credibility. Consequently, the jury's threshold
question was whether Elmo Patrick Sonnier was the principal
malefactor or a compliant follower in the course of criminal conduct.
The jury's apparent conclusion that Elmo Patrick Sonnier was
primarily responsible for the murders and should be sentenced to
death is warranted by the record.
Ross Maggio, Jr., Warden,
Louisiana State Penitentiary, Etal.,
United States Court of Appeals,
Nov. 10, 1983.
Rehearing and Rehearing En Banc
Denied Dec. 15, 1983.
Certiorari Denied Feb. 21, 1984
Appeal from the United States District Court for
the Western District of Louisiana.
Before REAVLEY, RANDALL and HIGGINBOTHAM,
RANDALL, Circuit Judge:
16, 1983, the district court denied the
application of petitioner
for federal habeas corpus relief, but
granted a certificate of probable cause to
appeal. On August 17, 1983, we stayed
execution to permit him an opportunity to
address the underlying merits of his appeal.
Pursuant to an expedited schedule, the
parties have briefed the issues, and orally
argued the merits on October 24, 1983. For
the reasons set forth below, we affirm the
denial of the petition for a writ of habeas
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND.
Sonnier arose out of the 1977 murder
of two teenagers in Iberia Parish,
Louisiana. According to the evidence at
trial, Sonnier and
his brother abducted the victims from their
car under the guise of being police officers.
The brothers drove the victims to a remote
field, raped one of them, and murdered both.
The brothers repeatedly shot their victims
in the head from close range.
Louisiana Supreme Court has twice discussed
the particulars of the crime at length. See
State v. Sonnier,
402 So.2d 650 (La.1981), cert. denied, ---
U.S. ----, 103 S.Ct. 3571, 77 L.Ed.2d 1412
(1983); State v. Sonnier,
379 So.2d 1336 (La.1979).
Parish jury initially found
Sonnier guilty of
first degree murder and condemned him to
death in April of 1978. Although the
Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed
conviction, it vacated the death sentence
and remanded for a second trial on the
penalty only. State v.
Sonnier, 379 So.2d at 1368-72.
change of venue, a St. Mary's Parish jury
returned a second verdict of death. The
Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed the
sentence on appeal, and the trial court set
the execution for August 19, 1983.
before his scheduled execution,
Sonnier filed the
present habeas corpus petition. He raised
six issues: (1) the prosecution allegedly
excluded jurors with personal or religious
scruples against capital punishment; (2)
application of Louisiana Code of Criminal
Procedure, article 798(2)(b), purportedly
violated the constitution by excluding from
the jury opponents of capital punishment
without also authorizing exclusion of
proponents of capital punishment; (3) the
trial court did not give instructions
adequate to inform the jury of the relative
weight it should accord to statutorily-defined
aggravating and mitigating circumstances;
(4) the death penalty in this case allegedly
imposed excessive punishment
disproportionate to death sentences in other
cases; (5) the conviction resulted from the
warrantless search of his automobile in
violation of the fourth amendment; and (6)
the trial court deprived him of access to a
court-appointed psychiatric expert. The
state concedes that
Sonnier has exhausted his state
remedies with respect to these issues.
scheduled execution, the district court
denied the petition and entered judgment
dismissing the action. At the same time, the
district court denied
Sonnier's motion for a stay of
execution. When Sonnier
filed the present appeal, however, the
district court issued a certificate of
probable cause and granted
Sonnier pauper status on appeal.
Sonnier's motion to
this court for a stay of execution ensued.
of a certificate of probable cause requires
that the petitioner make a "substantial
showing of the denial of [a] federal right."
Stewart v. Beto, 454 F.2d 268, 270 n. 2 (5th
Cir.1971), cert. denied, 406 U.S. 925, 92
S.Ct. 1796, 32 L.Ed.2d 126 (1972). Once the
certificate has issued, this court must
afford the petitioner an opportunity to
address the merits. Barefoot v. Estelle, ---
U.S. ----, 103 U.S. 3383, 3394, 77 L.Ed.2d
1090 (1983). In order to prevent
from mooting the issues on appeal, we were
obliged to stay the execution.
Sonnier v. Maggio,
714 F.2d 20, 21 (5th Cir.1983).
II. THE ISSUES.
1. Exclusion of Jurors.
ground for appeal invokes Witherspoon v.
Illinois, 391 U.S. 510, 88 S.Ct. 1770, 20
L.Ed.2d 776 (1968). In Witherspoon, the
Supreme Court limited the states' authority
to excuse prospective jurors for cause
merely because they expressed conscientious
objections to imposing the death penalty. Id.
at 521-23, 88 S.Ct. at 1776-1778.
not only that the trial court improperly
excluded jurors on the basis of their views
on capital punishment in violation of
Witherspoon, but also that the prosecution
used peremptory challenges to remove from
the panel any juror who expressed the
slightest reservation about returning a
verdict of death.1
is noticeably lacking in factual particulars.
Although he attacks the composition of the
jury that convicted him as well as the jury
that sentenced him, he does not challenge
the excusal of specific jurors. Rather,
Sonnier relies upon
a conclusory allegation that the selection
process produced panels uncommonly willing
to condemn him to death. As the district
court noted, however, this circuit has
recognized that a state may excuse jurors
"so unequivocally opposed to the death
penalty that they would not follow the law
on the subject." Smith v. Balkcom, 660 F.2d
573, 578 (5th Cir.1981), cert. denied, ---
U.S. ----, 103 S.Ct. 181, 74 L.Ed.2d 148
district court rejected
Sonnier's first claim on the
authority of Smith v. Balkcom, apparently
because Sonnier had
not alleged that the state court actually
dismissed any juror who expressed equivocal
now complains that the district court failed
to ascertain whether each excused juror
sufficiently expressed unalterable
opposition to the death penalty.
without deciding, that
Sonnier's petition adequately
presented an issue of the exclusion of
and that the state concedes exhaustion of
state remedies with respect to this claim.
We have examined the voir dire preceding the
penalty phase of Sonnier's
trial and, perhaps out of an excess of
caution, the voir dire preceding the guilt
phase of Sonnier's
trial as well. Pretermitting the problem of
the appropriate standard of review,3
we find that the state trial court excused
no juror as to whom the grant of the motion
to excuse for cause violated Witherspoon.4
does not run afoul of Witherspoon where the
excluded juror has unequivocally stated his
or her inability to vote for the death
sentence without regard to the evidence
adduced. E.g., Bell v. Watkins, 692 F.2d
999, 1006 (5th Cir.), cert. denied, --- U.S.
----, 104 S.Ct. 142, 78 L.Ed.2d 134 (1983);
Williams v. Maggio, 679 F.2d 381, 384 (5th
Cir.1982) (en banc), cert. denied, --- U.S.
----, 103 S.Ct. 3553, 77 L.Ed.2d 1339
though the juror may equivocate initially,
exclusion comports with our interpretation
of Witherspoon if the juror ultimately
concludes that he or she opposes the death
penalty irrevocably. See id. at 385-89;
O'Bryan v. Estelle, 714 F.2d 365, 381 (5th
first to the jury that determined the
penalty, we note that the state judge
excused a total of twelve potential jurors
Of these, three stated that they had already
formed an opinion about the merits on the
basis of prior knowledge of the case.6
These excusals obviously did not implicate
Witherspoon. Each of the remaining nine
jurors indicated that he or she could not
vote for the death penalty in this case, or
that he or she could never vote for the
conclude that these jurors made their
irrevocable opposition to the death penalty
clear. Five of the jurors repeatedly stated
that they could never vote for the death
penalty regardless of the evidence.7
Three of the jurors expressed uncertainty at
some stage of the questioning, but
ultimately stated that, at least in this
case, they could not return a verdict of
remaining juror stated that he was "neutral"
on the issue of capital punishment.
Nevertheless, he unequivocally stated that
his neutrality would prevent him from
participating in deliberations concerning
the death penalty, and that no evidence
would move him to vote for such a verdict.9
challenge on Witherspoon grounds the
selection process for the original jury that
convicted him, we do not perceive any
shortcoming in that process. First, we note
that Sonnier did
not oppose any of the state's motions to
excuse jurors for cause.10
jurors excused on the state's motion, only
one would have presented any serious issue
under Witherspoon. Juror Rodrigue originally
stated that she "couldn't bring [sic] the
death of another human being." State Exh. 1
G, at 1014. Thereafter, she retracted the
statement, but went on to state that she
might require Sonnier
to produce evidence before she could change
her opinion about his guilt. Id. at 1021.
The court excused the juror without
objection. Id. at 1021-22. We find no
Witherspoon violation in these circumstances.
contends that the prosecution accomplished
an end prohibited by Witherspoon by
exercising its peremptory challenges to
exclude jurors who expressed any hesitancy
about imposing the death penalty. Exercise
of peremptory challenges, however, does not
implicate Witherspoon. Jordan v. Watkins,
681 F.2d 1067, 1070 (5th Cir.1982). See also
Adams v. Texas, 448 U.S. 38, 48, 100 S.Ct.
2521, 2528, 65 L.Ed.2d 581 (1980) (describing
peremptory challenges as "grounds for
exclusion having nothing to do with capital
punishment"). "The essential nature of the
peremptory challenge is that it is exercised
without a reason stated, without inquiry and
without judicial control." Swain v. Alabama,
380 U.S. 202, 220, 85 S.Ct. 824, 836, 13
L.Ed.2d 759 (1965).
even a showing of the systematic exercise of
peremptory challenges on racial grounds in a
series of cases did not necessarily require
the prosecution to justify its reasons for
exercising its challenges. Id. at 222-24, 85
S.Ct. at 837-838. In this case, where there
is not even a showing of systematic
exclusion, as in Swain, it is clear that we
lack a compelling basis to look behind the
exercise of peremptory challenges in an
attempt to discern the prosecutorial motive.
In this case the prosecution bears no burden
to explain its reasons.
Louisiana Code of Criminal Procedure, art.
argument presents a variant of his first. He
attacks the provision of the Louisiana Code
of Criminal Procedure that authorizes
challenges for cause against jurors whose
opposition to capital punishment would
prevent them from returning an impartial
decision on the defendant's guilt. See
La.Code Crim.Proc.Ann. art. 798(2)(b) (West
that the failure of article 798(2)(b)
similarly to authorize exclusion of
proponents of the death penalty violates the
sixth, eighth and fourteenth amendments to
the United States Constitution in two
respects. First, he alleges that the statute
operates to produce juries incapable of an
impartial determination of guilt or
innocence. Second, he asserts that the
operation of the statute results in juries
that do not represent a fair cross-section
of the community. He urges the court to
remand for evidentiary hearings on the
fairness and representativeness of the
juries selected under article 798(2)(b).11
has rejected the argument that a jury from
which the state has excluded opponents of
the death penalty in a manner that otherwise
comports with Witherspoon thereby become
unfair or partial. In Spinkellink v.
Wainwright, we held that a "death qualified"
jury does not deprive a defendant of a fair
and impartial jury even assuming that
defendant showed that such a jury, on the
average, would be more likely to favor the
prosecution. 578 F.2d 582, 592 (5th
Cir.1978), cert. denied, 441 U.S. 937, 99
S.Ct. 2064, 60 L.Ed.2d 667 (1979). As we
explained in Smith v. Balkcom:
veniremen are potentially biased. The
process of voir dire is designed to cull
from the venire persons who demonstrate that
they cannot be fair to either side of the
case. Clearly the extremes must be
eliminated--i.e. those who, in spite of the
evidence, would automatically vote to
convict or impose the death penalty or
automatically vote to acquit or impose a
guarantee of impartiality cannot mean that
the state has a right to present its case to
the jury most likely to return a verdict of
guilty, nor can it mean that the defendant
has a right to present its case to the jury
least likely to acquit. But the converse is
also true. The guarantee cannot mean that
the state must present its case to the jury
least likely to acquit or impose the death
sentence nor that the defense must present
its case to the jury least likely to find
him innocent or vote for life imprisonment.
at 578-79 (emphasis in original).
likewise rejected the argument that a jury
from which the state has excluded opponents
of the death penalty in a manner that
otherwise comports with Witherspoon deprives
defendant of a jury representing a fair
cross-section of the community. The sixth
amendment principle of a fair cross-section
does not enable either the prosecution or
the defense to foist upon the other "an
unfair juror whose interests, biases or
prejudices will determine his or her
resolution of the case regardless of the law
and regardless of the facts." Smith v.
Balkcom, 660 F.2d at 583.
fair cross-section does not compel disregard
of legitimate grounds for disqualification.
Id.; see Spinkellink v. Wainwright, 578 F.2d
at 597 (state's interest in "evenhanded
application of the law" justifies deviation
from fair cross-section requirement).
Jury Instructions on Aggravating and
challenges the instructions under which the
penalty jury considered his death sentence.
Although the state trial court properly
informed the jury of the existence of
statutory aggravating and mitigating
circumstances provided under Louisiana law,
La.Code Crim.Proc.Ann. arts. 905.3-.5 (West
asserts that the instructions were
insufficient to ensure that the jury would
not impose the death penalty arbitrarily.
posits that the state trial court must, in
its instructions, supply criteria for
assessing the relative weight that the jury
should assign to aggravating and mitigating
this argument on Proffitt v. Florida, 428
U.S. 242, 96 S.Ct. 2960, 49 L.Ed.2d 913
(1976). There, in approving a Florida
capital punishment statute that explicity
required the jury to consider whether
aggravating factors outweighed any
mitigating factors, the Supreme Court stated
that the state had adequately "guided and
channeled" the jury with respect to
sentencing discretion. Id. at 258, 96 S.Ct.
basis of this language,
Sonnier urges us to conclude that an
explicit instruction on the weight to be
accorded aggravating and mitigating
circumstances is necessary to avoid
unchanneled discretion in capital sentencing.
We do not,
however, read Proffitt as standing for the
proposition that the constitution requires a
state judge to provide the jury with a
formula for balancing aggravating and
mitigating circumstances. We have never so
held. See Spivey v. Zant, 661 F.2d 464, 471
(5th Cir.1981), cert. denied, 458 U.S. 1111,
102 S.Ct. 3495, 73 L.Ed.2d 1374 (1982)
have deemed frivolous the argument that a
failure to provide "any standard for the
jury in weighing the aggravating factors
against the mitigating factors" rendered a
capital punishment statute unconstitutional.
Gray v. Lucas, 677 F.2d 1086, 1106 (5th
Cir.1982), cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 103
S.Ct. 1886, 76 L.Ed.2d 815 (1983). Moreover,
the Supreme Court has recently emphasized
that the constitution does not require
states to guide jury consideration of
aggravating and mitigating circumstances by
developing specific balancing standards.
Zant v. Stephens, --- U.S. ----, 103 S.Ct.
2733, 2741-44 & n. 13, 77 L.Ed.2d 235
(1983). Accordingly, we reject
Sonnier next argues
that his death sentence is excessive and
disproportionate to the sentences imposed in
other cases. Specifically, he argues that
the Louisiana court's consideration only of
those capital cases that arose from the
judicial district in which he was convicted
provides inadequate proportionality review.13
Noting that the Supreme Court has granted
certiorari in a case involving
proportionality review, Harris v. Pulley,
692 F.2d 1189 (9th Cir.1982), cert. granted,
--- U.S. ----, 103 S.Ct. 1425, 75 L.Ed.2d
787 (1983), Sonnier
urges us to stay his execution pending
disposition of that case.
already considered and rejected the claim
that the Louisiana district-wide
proportionality review violates any nascent
right to proportionality review. Williams v.
Maggio, 679 F.2d at 395. We think that the
review that took place in
adequate safeguards against freakish
imposition of capital punishment. Just as a
venire chosen from a cross-section of the
community in which the crime is committed is
a safeguard against arbitrary enforcement of
verdicts and sentences, so a review of the
murder conviction imposed within the venire
is sufficient to ensure against arbitrary
imposition of the death penalty.
Although we stayed the execution in Williams
v. Maggio, 719 F.2d 729 (5th Cir.1983), the
Supreme Court vacated that stay on November
7, 1983. Maggio v. Williams, --- U.S. ----,
104 S.Ct. 311, 78 L.Ed.2d 43 (1983).
Accordingly, we discern no basis for
stay of execution due to the pendency of
Warrantless Search of
Sonnier also seeks
review on the basis that his conviction
resulted from the unlawful search of his
car. We may not routinely reach such issues.
Stone v. Powell, 428 U.S. 465, 96 S.Ct.
3037, 49 L.Ed.2d 1067 (1976), bars
relitigation in a federal habeas corpus
action of fourth amendment issues unless the
petitioner demonstrates that he was deprived
of an opportunity fully and fairly to
litigate these issues in the state trial
ground on which Sonnier
asserts abridgement of that opportunity to
litigate derives from the summary treatment
of this issue in his appeal to the Louisiana
Supreme Court. See State v.
Sonnier, 379 So.2d
allegation that the state court erred in its
determination of a fourth amendment issue
does not suffice to circumvent Stone v.
Powell. In Swicegood v. Alabama, 577 F.2d
1322, 1324-25 (5th Cir.1978), for example,
we rejected the argument that an error of
law, even on a constitutional issue,
vitiated the opportunity for full and fair
litigation. Our view does not change simply
because the Louisiana court disposed of the
issue in a terse fashion.156.
Refusal to Appoint a Psychiatric Expert.
that the state trial court deprived him of
an opportunity to present either an insanity
defense, or adequately to present a defense
based on his mental condition, a factor
allegedly mitigating the severity of his
Although a sanity commission examined him,
that the court's refusal to enlist further
experts denied him access to favorable
psychiatric evidence because, as an indigent,
he could not provide his own expert.17
acknowledged that the state in certain
circumstances must provide psychiatric
experts to indigent defendants. See Davis v.
Alabama, 596 F.2d 1214, 1216 n. 5 (5th
Cir.1979); Pedrero v. Wainwright, 590 F.2d
1383, 1390-91 & n. 8 (5th Cir.1979); accord
Bush v. McCollum, 231 F.Supp. 560 (N.D.Tex.),
aff'd, 344 F.2d 672 (5th Cir.1965).
noted, however, that a mere request by the
defendant for psychiatric assistance does
not, as a matter of constitutional law,
require a court to appoint an expert. In the
context of an asserted insanity defense we
have held that the state court must appoint
an expert only if the defendant's sanity at
the time of the offense is "seriously in
issue," Pedrero v. Wainwright, 590 F.2d at
1391, or if "reasonable ground to doubt"
sanity exists. Id. (quoting Brinks v.
Alabama, 465 F.2d 446, 449 (5th Cir.1972)).
here, the asserted need for psychiatric
evidence relates to the penalty phase of a
capital case, we assume that the same
standard applies. But see Westbrook v. Zant,
704 F.2d 1487, 1497 (11th Cir.1983) (examining
state court's determination under an abuse
of discretion standard).
note the narrow nature of the issue
presented by this ground of
This is not a case in which the state court
refused to provide psychiatric assistance at
all. Before the first trial in this case,
the state court did convene a sanity
commission, which returned findings
unfavorable to Sonnier.
Not only did the commission find that
competent to stand trial but it also found
him sane at the time of the offense.
Furthermore, the commission members
indicated at the sanity hearing that they
did not believe that further evaluation
would point to a different conclusion. After
the trial court denied motions to appoint a
new commission, Sonnier
dropped his insanity defense, and
submitted evidence of his mental condition
at the second penalty trial.
We do not
think that the state court deprived
Sonnier of an
opportunity to present his insanity defense.
The sanity commission's report did not place
capacity at the time of the offense "seriously
hearing did not create "reasonable grounds
to doubt" the initial finding of the
commission. Even if the record arguably
supported a different view, we would not
lightly disregard the Louisiana Supreme
Court's finding that the trial court did not
abuse its discretion. Cf. Maggio v. Fulford,
--- U.S. ----, 103 S.Ct. 2261, 2265, 76 L.Ed.2d
794 (1983) (court may not disregard state
court finding of competency unless
conclusions not fairly supported by record).
claim that the state bore a constitutional
obligation to appoint a psychiatric expert
to establish that his mental condition was a
circumstance mitigating the crime.
reiterate that mental capacity was not "seriously
in issue," and note the Louisiana Supreme
Court's observation that the record does not
indicate that Sonnier
suffered a "mental disease or incapacity."
State v. Sonnier,
402 So.2d at 661. In these circumstances, we
do not find that the state thwarted any
effort by Sonnier
to establish a mitigating circumstance based
on mental incapacity.18
examined each of Sonnier's
arguments and find them meritless. The
judgment of the district court is hereby
AFFIRMED, and the stay of execution is
first ground for relief is stated as follows:
The exclusion of jurors
with scruples against, or who are opposed to
capital punishment produces a prosecution-prone
and impartial [sic] jury in violation of the
Sixth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to
the United States Constitution. This
exclusionary practice is contrary to the
rule established by the United States
Supreme Court in Witherspoon v. Illinois,
[391 U.S. 510, 88 S.Ct. 1770, 20 L.Ed.2d 776
(1968) ], in that Witherspoon excludes such
jurors from the sentencing phase and not
from the guilt phase. SUPPORTING FACTS: the
record reveals that during voir dire at the
trial the prosecution obtained the excusal
of prospective jurors for cause because they
were opposed to the death penalty, and
exercised peremptory challenges against
others in the venire who had scruples
against the imposition of capital punishment.
Petition, at 4.
The language of the
petition quoted in note 1, supra, by no
means clearly alleges that the excusal of
any particular juror did not comport with
Witherspoon. Our reading of the Memorandum
Opinion leads us to assume that the district
court did not so construe the petition.
Memorandum Opinion, at 5-6. The pleading,
drafted by counsel for
Sonnier, does not merit the liberal
reading required for pro se pleadings. See
Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520-21, 92
S.Ct. 594, 595-596, 30 L.Ed.2d 652 (1972)
See O'Bryan v. Estelle,
714 F.2d 365, 371-73 (5th Cir.1983) (discussing
inconsistent standards concerning the degree
of deference a habeas court must accord the
decision of the voir dire judge)
This court has expressly
rejected the proposition that "exclusion of
a venireman is impermissible unless he
states in response to all questions that he
absolutely refuses to consider the death
penalty." Williams v. Maggio, 679 F.2d 381,
386 (5th Cir.1982) (en banc) (emphasis in
original), cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 103
S.Ct. 3553, 77 L.Ed.2d 1339 (1983). We focus
instead on the prospective juror's "ultimate
conclusion," informed by the entire
interrogation. O'Bryan v. Estelle, 714 F.2d
Our review of the
proceedings was complicated by the absence
of specific rulings in the transcript.
Instead, the rulings on challenges for cause
and the listing of peremptory challenges
appears on a roster in State Exh. 1 K,
44-45. We assume that the state moved to
excuse each of the jurors removed, and that
each motion, although the record provides no
means of ascertaining the accuracy of this
The jurors were Ann
Landry, State Exh. 1, 239, Kenneth Jacob, id.
at 251-52, and Aline Bodin, State Exh. 1 A,
Juror Natalie Johnson
indicated that she could not serve on a
capital sentencing jury or vote for a
sentence of death. State Exh. 1, 77, 137.
Voir dire disclosed that juror Thelma Feast
would never vote for the death penalty, even
if the victim had been her own child. Id. at
169. Juror Glynda Lasseigne was also
unequivocal. Although she stated that she
might react in favor of capital punishment
if the victim were someone close to her, she
said that she would not take another life
once she had had time to reflect. Id. at
179-183, 205, 209. Juror Sophie Mallet
repeatedly affirmed that she was absolutely
against the death penalty and could not
return a verdict of death. Id. at 236-37,
209, 215, 236-37. Juror Joanne Markerson
repeatedly agreed that she could not vote
for death, regardless of the circumstances.
State Exh. 1 A, 315-16, 209, 215, 315-16
Juror Rebecca Banks
originally expressed uncertainty, State Exh.
1, 85, and at one point agreed that she
could vote for death in the most severe
case. Id. at 117. Under questioning by the
court, however, she stated that she might be
able to condemn the murderer of her own
children to death, but that she could vote
for death in no other case. Id. at 138-39
Juror Cynthia McClue was,
at first, unsure whether she could condemn a
defendant to die. State Exh. 1, 206. Her
ultimate position, however, was that she
could not enforce the death penalty, and
could definitely not vote for death in any
case. Id. at 206-07, 214.
Although juror Catherine
Ayo stated that she was not absolutely
opposed to capital punishment, Id. at 175,
she acknowledged that she could not vote for
the death penalty in that case. Id. at
Voir dire examination of
juror Charles Kately revealed that his "neutrality"
on the death penalty would prevent him from
imposing a death sentence on any evidence.
State Exh. 1, at 253-56, 279
The trial judge noted on
the record only five instances in which the
state moved to excuse jurors for cause, and
the defense did not object. Although the
judge referred to the jurors by number only,
a numerical roster appears in State Exh. 1
L., 22-24. Four of the jurors challenged by
the state expressed unequivocal opposition
to imposing the death penalty. State Exh. 1
G, at 817 (juror Mallery); State Exhibit 1
F, 625-26, 668 (juror Bonini); State Exh. 1
H, 1064-65, 1067-69 (juror Alexander); id.
at 1067-69 (juror Raymond). Excusing the
final juror, for reasons discussed in the
text, presented no Witherspoon problem. The
state has not urged the contemporaneous
The petition reads, in
Louisiana Code of
Criminal Procedure Article 978(2)(b)
violates the Sixth, Eighth and Fourteenth
Amendments to the United States Constitution
because it provides that a prospective juror
may be challenged on the basis that his
attitude on the death penalty will prevent
him from making an impartial decision on the
defendant's guilt. On the other hand, no
similar connection is made between support
for the death penalty and a propensity to
convict, by the Code. The result is that a
defendant is deprived of his right to a fair
and impartial jury that is a representative
of the community....
Petition, at 4-5.
The death penalty is
imposed after a failure to instruct the jury
on the weight and effect to be given to
mitigating circumstances violates the Eighth
and Fourteenth Amendments to the United
States Constitution. SUPPORTING FACTS: In
the charge to the jury, at the sentencing
stage, the trial judge told the jury only
that it must consider mitigating
circumstances in reaching its recommendation.
The jury was given a list of the statutorily-defined
mitigating circumstances, and was told it
could consider any relevant mitigating
circumstances. Beyond being told to consider
mitigating circumstances, the jury was not
instructed as to the effect or weight to be
given to any mitigating circumstances and
was given no criteria by which to weigh any
mitigating circumstances against any
Petition, at 5.
The relevant portion of
the petition reads:
Petitioner's sentence of
death is excessive and disproportionate, in
violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth
Amendments to the United States Constitution.
SUPPORTING FACTS: In reviewing petitioner's
sentence of death for possible
disproportionality, the Louisiana Supreme
Court used only capital cases in the
Sixteenth Judicial District.... At the same
time, there were no other death sentences in
other cases from the district with which to
compare petitioner's sentence. The proper
standard for meaningful proportionality
review is one which allows for state-wide
Petition, at 5-6.
points out that his proportionality review
did not encompass other death sentences,
because no other death sentences had been
imposed in his judicial district, this did
not deprive him of proportionality review.
In the course of the two appeals of this
case, the Louisiana Supreme Court did
compare the sentence in
Sonnier's case to other capital
cases. See State v.
Sonnier, 379 So.2d at 1362-64 (two
first degree murder cases, one resulting in
second degree murder conviction, the other
resulting in a jury recommendation for life
imprisonment); State v.
Sonnier, 402 So.2d at 660-61 (three
additional first degree murder cases, one
resulting in a second degree murder
conviction, one resulting in a sentence of
life, and the third, Eddie
Sonnier's, resulting in a death
penalty set aside by Louisiana Supreme Court
This case would not avoid
the bar of Stone v. Powell even under the
most generous view of the "opportunity for
full and fair litigation" standard that any
circuit has adopted. The Tenth Circuit has
held that Stone does not foreclose a habeas
corpus challenge to a fourth amendment issue
if the state court "wilfully refuses to
apply the correct and controlling
constitutional standards." Gamble v.
Oklahoma, 583 F.2d 1161, 1165 (10th
Obviously, this is not
such a case. We decline to review the
district court's conclusions because we
think it clear that Stone precludes us from
The petition alleges in
The refusal to furnish an
indigent defendant in a capital case with
the resources to obtain sufficient
psychiatric evaluation rendered defense
counsel unable to provide effective
assistance, not only as to the possible
defense of insanity, but also as to the
existence of a mental condition as a
mitigating circumstance. This refusal of
psychiatric assistance constitutes a denial
of due process, and because of the indigency
of the defendant, also constitutes a denial
of equal protection in violation of the
Fifth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to
the United States Constitution.
Respondents contend that
defense counsel retained a psychologist who
supplied test results to the sanity
commission, and that the defense did not use
the results of the tests, which
introduced during the penalty stage of the
first trial, during the second sentencing
trial as a deliberate trial tactic. Brief
for Appellee, at 18-19. Because our cases
require that a defendant both raise the
issue of mental incapacity and lack the
resources to procure evidence because of
indigency, Davis v. United States, 413 F.2d
1226, 1229 n. 5 (5th Cir.1969), these
allegations, if established, would defeat
We also think it implicit
in our cases that the state would bear no
obligation to provide expert support for a
defense unless a defendant asserted it. See
Davis v. United States, 413 F.2d at 1229 n.
5 (constitution may require government to
provide expert assistance where indigent
defendant properly raises defense and cannot
procure adequate evidence); cf. Davis v.
Alabama, 596 F.2d at 1216 n. 5 (defendant
does not place sanity "seriously in issue"
by waiting to request psychiatric evaluation
until the day of trial). We find no
indication in the record that
mental incapacity as a mitigating
circumstance or requested psychiatric
evaluation in aid of such a claim. In light
of the state trial court's denial of the
motion for appointment of a psychiatric
expert, however, we decline to rely on this
ground because we have held, in analogous
circumstances, that renewing the request
would have been futile. See Barnard v.
Henderson, 514 F.2d 744, 746 (5th Cir.1975)