The author and narrator of Dead Man Walking, Helen Prejean is a Catholic nun who has dedicated her life to working for social justice. She grew up in a loving and affluent household. Prejean believed that as a nun, she would live a life of quiet religious contemplation. But after experiencing a religious awakening, Prejean begins to work with residents of the St. Thomas housing project in New Orleans and realizes that in order to live up to her faith and ideals, she must shoulder the struggles of the poor as if they were her own. Through her work at the St. Thomas projects, she gains firsthand knowledge of the daily struggled faced by the poor.
Her work leads her to death row, where she begins corresponding with Patrick Sonnier. Her experiences with Patrick open her eyes not only to the cruelty of capital punishment but also to the widespread abuse and injustice of the American judicial system. Witnessing Patrick’s execution alters Prejean forever. She becomes a full-time anti-death penalty advocate and agrees to be a spiritual advisor to another inmate, Robert Willie, even though it means she will be forced to witness another execution. However, Prejean’s work to abolish the death penalty is incomplete until she realizes that in addition to ministering to the men on death row, she must also try to heal the families of their victims. Prejean now reaches out to the victims’ families and tries to support them as well.
Patrick is Helen Prejean’s first death row correspondent. He has been sentenced to death for the murder of two teenagers, a crime he committed with his brother Eddie. Patrick has been a model prisoner since his incarceration. He is desperate to talk to someone and eager for Prejean’s company. His small gestures of appreciation and gratitude toward Prejean are touching evidence of a man desperate for approval and love. Throughout Patrick’s poor and difficult childhood, love was a rare commodity. Patrick speaks fondly and lovingly of his mother and father, but he was independent from a very young age and has spent much of his life alone. He finds love in prison for the first time in his life when Prejean and her friends show genuine affection for him. Although he is put to death for a crime he didn’t commit (Eddie was the one who killed the teenagers), the experience of love transforms him and allows him to die with dignity. He feels real remorse for his role in the crime, and his last words are an apology to Lloyd LeBlanc, the father of one of the murdered teenagers.
Robert Willie is Helen Prejean’s second death row correspondent. He has been sentenced to death for the rape and murder of Faith Hathaway. Although Robert claims he did not stab her, his role in the murder remains uncertain. He is a complicated and mixed figure, at once contrite and defiant. Unlike Patrick, Robert knows his execution is inevitable and approaches it with false bravado. Robert has been an outlaw since he was fourteen, constantly in and out of jail. Prison has been a second home for him, perhaps more real than the one in which he grew up. In the days leading up to his execution, he gives interviews in which he expresses admiration for Hitler and Castro and touts the supremacy of the Aryan race. Like his steely determination, the interviews play up Robert’s constructed image of himself as a rebel and outlaw. Robert implicitly acknowledges the falsity of his act when he says he regrets the remarks he made to the press and expresses a desire to die peacefully. Robert opens himself up to Prejean’s love, believing that he has accepted the truth and that it will set him free. Robert does not protest or fight during his last moments of life but instead talks lovingly with his family. Just before he is executed, he says he hopes his death will bring peace to the parents of the woman he helped kill.
Vernon Harvey is the stepfather of Faith Hathaway, the teenage girl who was raped and murdered by Robert Willie and Joe Vaccaro. Before she introduces Vernon in the book, Prejean recounts the interviews he has granted saying he cannot wait to see Robert Willie executed for his crime. Vernon’s rage and grief have made him a vocal supporter of the death penalty, but he is also a compassionate and considerate man. From the first moment he encounters Prejean, he is willing to listen to her side of the debate, regardless of how much he disagrees with her. His position on capital punishment is unshakeable, but he respects the right of others to fight for what they believe in. After Faith’s murder, Vernon relies on anger to help him move beyond his grief. Every time he speaks of his stepdaughter’s murder, he is overcome with emotions that have not been healed by time or by Robert Willie’s execution.