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Dead Man Walking

Sister Helen Prejean

Important Quotations Explained

Chapters 10–11

Key Facts

1. The mandate to practice social justice is unsettling because taking on the struggles of the poor invariably means challenging the wealthy and those who serve their interests. “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”—that’s what Dorothy Day, a Catholic social activist, said is the heart of the Christian Gospel.

In Chapter 1, Prejean describes her call to work for social justice. No longer content to live a life of quiet religious contemplation, Prejean is seized by a new understanding of the Gospels and Jesus’ teachings. The transformation she undergoes is a difficult one. It means foregoing peace and comfort for confrontation, challenges, and problems. For Prejean, the call is a “mandate,” an inescapable demand placed on her by Christ’s teachings. Dorothy Day, known for her lifetime of work on behalf of the poor, inspires Prejean with her idea that the gospels call people to confront the rich. Comforting the afflicted is not enough. In order to fully realize the message of the Gospels, those who directly or indirectly participate in a system of social inequality must be challenged.

2. I see a column of inmates, most of them black, marching out to soybean and vegetable fields, their hoes over their shoulders. Behind and in front of the marching men, guards on horseback with rifles watch their charge. In antebellum days three cotton plantations occupied these 18,000 acres, worked by slaves from Angola in Africa . . . Since its beginnings in 1901, abuse, corruption, rage, and reform have studded its history.

In Chapter 2, Prejean describes seeing Angola for the first time. Her description suggests that the modern day prison bears a strong resemblance to the slave plantation Angola once was. Long before Angola became a prison, its history was filled with abuse, corruption, and rage. Its reincarnation as a prison has done little to mitigate that legacy. Prejean notes that since the prison was opened in 1901, abuses have continued. The penal system and slavery are drastically different institutions that are connected by a shared history of human rights abuses, racial discrimination, and violence.

3. “What would happen, Mr. Marsellus,” I ask, “if each time a condemned man appeared before you, the members of this board began recommending life, not death? What if you shared with the governor that you find the death penalty so morally troubling that you cannot bring yourself any longer to give your vote of approval to these executions? What would happen then, Mr. Marsellus?”

In Chapter 8, Prejean describes confronting the members of the Pardon Board during Robert Willie’s hearing. The board, which has so far refused to grant clemency to any of the death row inmates who have come before it, is supposed to be the last hope for the condemned man, yet political concerns guide it more than justice. Prejean believes that every individual is ultimately responsible for his or her own actions, and individuals cannot ignore their moral obligations by claiming bureaucracy or politics is to blame. By asking the board members what would happen if they commuted the sentences from death to life, Prejean is asking them to acknowledge the responsibility they share in perpetuating a system that some, including the board chairman, have openly acknowledged as unjust and arbitrary. Her question is at once a challenge and an opportunity. In accepting their responsibilities as individuals, she is suggesting the board members can empower themselves to bring about real change.

4. “I did these things,” he says. “I sat in judgment on these men like that—the guilty and the innocent. But who was I to sit in judgment? It still bothers me. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.

At the end of Chapter 8, Howard Marsellus, the former Pardon Board chairman, apologizes to Prejean for the role he played in helping the state enforce the death penalty. Marsellus, who was arrested and jailed for taking bribes while serving as the Pardon Board chairman, embodies the inevitable fallibility of the state. Throughout her narrative, Prejean asks how we can possibly trust governments with the right to decide who should live and die given their long history of abuse and errors. Marsellus’s description of the rampant abuses in the Pardon Board system is startling and disturbing evidence of just how fallible the justice system is. Marsellus, in his apology, acknowledges the extraordinary power granted to him and implies that power should not be entrusted to any one man or system.

5. That, I believe, is what it’s going to take to abolish the death penalty in this country: we must persuade the American people that government killings are too costly for us, not only financially, but—more important—morally.

After discussing Gandhi’s and Martin Luther King’s perspectives on nonviolent aggression as a form of social change in Chapter 9, Prejean states her belief that capital punishment will be abolished only when the American people turn against it. In order for that radical shift in perspective to occur, the American people, who are collectively responsible for the actions of their government, must take an honest and informed look at the death penalty. Prejean believes that widespread misconceptions about justice must be corrected, and a moral examination of capital punishment must be undertaken. There is a practical argument against capital punishment, based on the financial cost of each execution, but also a more substantial moral argument: killing, whether done by an individual or government, is essentially wrong. Prejean’s arguments against the death penalty take both arguments into consideration, but it is always the moral cost that lies at the heart of her assessment.

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