Elmo Sonnier was a convicted murderer and rapist who was executed by electrocution at Angola Penitentiary in Louisiana on April 5, 1984.
Elmo Sonnier, a 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 LeBlanc, 16.
Sonnier’s plight 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 amalgam of both Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie, another inmate for whom Sister Helen Prejean was spiritual adviser. Sean Penn portrayed the Elmo Sonnier-inspired character of “Matthew Poncelet,” and earned an Academy Award nomination for his performance.
The Crimes of Elmo Sonnier
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 1 am (now November 5th), Elmo Sonnier 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 LeBlanc’s car.
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 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 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, Elmo Sonnier removed their handcuffs and brought them back toward the road where the car was parked.
At that point, Elmo 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 Arrest of Elmo Sonnier
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 remote area during the early morning hours of November 5. They were advised of his rights and taken to the Sheriff’s Office in New Iberia, Louisiana.
While there, Elmo Sonnier gave verbal and written confessions. The defendant was then transferred to a parish prison in an adjacent parish. While en-route, he made other statements to the officers who were transporting him.
The following day he agreed to a videotaped confession. All three statements indicated that Elmo Sonnier had participated in the abduction of the victims and had personally shot them.
The police, after direction from Elmo 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.
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 Sonniers. 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, Elmo Sonnier was arraigned and entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity.
The Trial of Elmo Sonnier
During the trial, the brothers traded accusations on who did the actual killing. Elmo Sonnier 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 Elmo. He also expressed that he was the more dominant offender, and even sent a letter to Governor Edwin W. Edwards explaining this.
However, the Prosecution successfully attacked Eddie James’ credibility and therefore was able to establish that Elmo Sonnier was the most in charge of the criminal situation. The state of Louisiana imposed a second sentence of death on Elmo, this one to remain. Eddie’s sentence remained at life without the possibility of parole.
The Execution of Elmo Sonnier
According to Sister Helen Prejean’s book, Elmo Sonnier struggled with ambivalent feelings toward the fathers of his victims, who asked to watch the electrocution, during the last hours before his execution.
Prejean, Sonnier’s personal choice as spiritual adviser, 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.
Elmo 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 Elmo 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.”
Prejean, who 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 Elmo 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, Elmo 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, Elmo Sonnier 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 Elmo 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 have ears.”
Once in the execution chamber, Elmo 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 Elmo 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.
Shortly after, 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.
The Burial of Elmo Sonnier
Helen Prejean and other Catholic nuns took responsibility in ensuring a proper Catholic burial for Elmo 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 funeral home.
Elmo 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.
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