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Dead Man Walking

Sister Helen Prejean

Chapters 10–11

Chapter 9

Important Quotations Explained

Summary: Chapter 10

After the execution, Vernon Harvey tells reporters that Robert died too easily. Elizabeth Harvey says Robert was unrepentant, and her fourteen-year-old daughter says that Robert’s execution was the best Christmas present. Prejean tells the reporters that Robert’s execution accomplished nothing, and that he did show remorse.

The next day, ABC Evening News interviews Prejean. Her opinion about the death penalty is contrasted against the Harveys’ and that of syndicated columnist George Will. Vernon Harvey says he wishes every victim could see his or her killer executed. Prejean says she believes that if people could witness executions, they would see what a horrible and brutal act it is. The death penalty is surrounded with euphemisms that pretend torture and killing are dignified, and that mob vengeance is noble, she says.

When public executions were public events, Prejean says, the cruelty of the punishment was at least honest and apparent. She references a study that was done in the United States that found twenty-three people innocent after they were executed. In England, the hanging of an innocent man led to a moratorium and eventual abolition of the death penalty, but in the United States, the death penalty is still accepted.

At Robert’s funeral, his mother and stepbrothers huddle close together. His mother faints while staring into the casket. After the burial, they return to Elizabeth’s house and look at old pictures of Robert.

Summary: Chapter 11

Prejean says that after Robert’s execution, she decided to avoid the Harveys, but two years later they attended a seminar organized by Prejean’s abolition group and invited her over. The Harveys help other victims’ families by informing them of their rights, which they themselves never knew. They tell Prejean how poorly the D.A. and the police treated them after their daughter’s murder, and how their friends stayed away from them. Prejean tells them that Robert’s last words were sincere. Vernon, unable to let go of his grief, begins to cry.

After a weeklong abolition march, Prejean runs into the Harveys, who are staging a counter demonstration. Elizabeth Harvey speaks to the crowd, asking people to write letters protesting Congress’s plan to cut victims’ assistance funds. They meet again outside of another execution, where the Harveys defend Prejean against their pro death penalty friends. Vernon invites Prejean to a Parents of Murdered Children’s Meeting. She relays some of the tragic stories she hears at the meeting. She is amazed by how many people feel victimized by the D.A. and police. She organizes a victims’ families’ assistance program in the inner city with the assistance of local churches and federal funds and advocates for a reform that would allow for victim restitution and addresses the rise of violent crime. In August 1988, the victim assistance group is established. Prejean takes the new program director, Dianne Kidner, to visit the Harveys to seek their assistance and opinions.

In July 1989, Vernon Harvey has a heart attack. Prejean visits him in the hospital, and during their playful debate over the death penalty, she sees the life returning to him. Two years later, Prejean attends a meeting of Survive, the victims’ families assistance program she helped found. Most of the parents are poor, black women who have lost their sons to gun violence. Prejean discusses the drastically low number of prosecutions in murders in which the victim is black.

Prejean ends her story with Lloyd LeBlanc, whom she has kept in touch with throughout the years. One day, Lloyd, Prejean, and her brother meet for a prayer session at a small church. Prejean says that Lloyd prays not only for his son, but for Patrick and his family. Even as he stared at his son’s body, Lloyd says, he forgave the men who murdered him.

Analysis

As Prejean’s narrative draws to a close, the focus switches from the men on death row to the victims of murder. The last chapter of Dead Man Walking revisits the two families affected by the murders. The perspective of Lloyd LeBlanc and Vernon Harvey could not be more different, yet each is an understandable response to tragedy. Vernon Harvey’s rage at Robert has not subsided over the years. Even as he lies in a hospital bed, his thoughts turn to capital punishment and his daughter’s murderer. His anger is what sustains him. Advocating for the death penalty and assisting victims’ families keeps him going in the face of overwhelming grief. Vernon’s grief, however, is also self-destructive. His anger compels him to fight, but it’s clear that it does nothing to comfort him. He questions the value of life because for him, there is little pleasure left in the world. There is only anger and grief.

In sharp contrast to Vernon Harvey is Lloyd LeBlanc. Patrick’s execution has made him realize that capital punishment only causes more grief. Whereas anger sustains Vernon Harvey, Lloyd LeBlanc has made his way to forgiveness and reconciliation. His grief over his son’s death remains, but the rage is gone. He has forgiven his son’s murderer, and not only because Patrick asked for that forgiveness before he died, but because he believed in forgiveness as an article of faith.

Prejean has already argued that capital punishment is arbitrary and unjust, and now she adds that the criminal justice system mistreats not only criminals, but also victims. What lies at the heart of the mistreatment is the lack of value placed on the lives of minorities by state officials. The injustice of the criminal justice system goes both ways, especially for the poor and black. By pointing out yet another serious flaw in the judicial system, Prejean strengthens her argument for serious reform. Everything must be changed, from the way criminals are treated and prosecuted to the respect shown to victims’ families. Before we can do that, however, we need to take an honest look at the system and acknowledge its errors. The euphemisms that Prejean notes, which are so pervasive in the system, must be dispensed with: killing, whether it is done by hanging or by lethal injection, must be called by its name. In addition, we must acknowledge that capital punishment does not deter crime, and that race and class play far too great a role in determining not only who lives and who dies, but who is prosecuted in the first place.

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