Dead Man Walking
Prejean pleads with Millard Farmer to take Patrick’s case. He says he will. On December 14, 1983, just a month after the court denies Patrick’s appeal, Robert Wayne Williams, another inmate at Angola, is put to death. Robert Williams’s mother insisted on an open casket at the funeral so people could see the burn scars on her son’s body.
Millard Farmer prepares petitions for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court. On January 18, he and Prejean visit Patrick. During the drive to the prison, Millard explains the flaws and inadequacies of Patrick’s initial defense. It is now very difficult to correct the mistakes made during the trial. He believes the Supreme Court’s decision to allow execution is a byproduct of a political compromise made after the federal government enforced Civil Rights Laws. The courts, he says, are now so interested in speeding up executions that they are violating people’s constitutional right to fair trials. Prejean offers two examples of the courts doing so.
Millard says he will argue that Patrick had ineffective counsel, although he doesn’t believe this will work. He says that ninety-nine percent of death row inmates are poor. He points out that Patrick’s lawyer failed to offer personal testimony on his client’s behalf during the sentencing. During law school, Millard witnessed case after case in which white juries sentenced black men to death, proof that white lives are clearly valued more highly than black ones. In 1987, the Supreme Court acknowledged a racial discrepancy in capital sentencing, but nonetheless excused it as “an inevitable part of our criminal justice system.” Millard offers further evidence that poverty and a poor defense largely determine sentencing in capital cases. In three different cases, the Supreme Court upheld the right of the state to execute the mentally retarded, sixteen-year-olds, and the formerly insane.
At the prison, Millard explains his defense strategy to Patrick. Patrick tells Millard he met his defense counsel for the first time the day before the trial. On the drive back, Millard tells Prejean his plan to appeal to Governor Edwin Edwards, who he believes is a reluctant supporter of the death penalty. Prejean asks Bishop Ott, the Catholic Bishop of Baton Rouge, and Reverend James Stovall, head of the Louisiana Interchurch Conference, to talk to the governor on Patrick’s behalf. They both agree. The Supreme Court denies Patrick’s petition. The execution is set for April 5, 1984.
On March 17, Archbishop Phillip Hanna, a man who in the past advocated on behalf of the death penalty, agrees to intervene on Patrick’s behalf. Brad Fisher, a clinical psychologist, evaluates Patrick and concludes he is an extremely productive prisoner. Prejean grows increasingly hopeful.
On March 27, Prejean and seven others—including Bishop Ott, Reverend Stovall, Archbishop Hanna, and Brad Fisher—meet with Governor Edwards, who is surrounded by cameras and reporters, and argue on behalf of Patrick. The governor says it is his job to carry out the laws of the state. His position gives him a moral loophole that allows him to sleep peacefully at night, despite his reluctance to enforce the death penalty. Prejean quotes a political writer who refers to the governor’s power to pardon as the last “vestige of the power of kings.”
In preparation for the Pardon Board hearing and appeals, Prejean reads the trial transcripts. In addition to the horrors of the crime, she finds several omissions and discrepancies. On March 30, they file a petition with the Pardon Board. They meet with Howard Marsellus, chairperson of the board. He is sympathetic and agrees that the death penalty is a poor man’s punishment. In the future, Prejean says, Marsellus will serve time in jail for fixing pardons and taking bribes.
The next day, both sides present their cases before the Pardon Board. While waiting for the board’s decision, Prejean meets Lloyd LeBlanc, David’s father, who reproaches her for not reaching out to the victim’s family. They talk for an hour, and Lloyd describes his vision of Patrick as a rapist and murderer. The board votes four to one in favor of execution. Later that night, Prejean asks her friend, Sister Kathleen Lory, to help her prepare for Patrick’s funeral.
Prejean dedicates much of Chapter 3 to the history of capital punishment in America. In the retelling, her long car ride with Millard Farmer becomes a concise summary of the legal battles surrounding capital punishment. What emerges from Prejean’s account is a portrait of a legal system that cares more for procedural rules than for protecting the life and rights of the individual. The law takes center stage as Prejean’s narrative shifts from the specifics of Patrick’s case to a larger indictment of the death penalty. In example after example, Prejean shows not only the arbitrary nature of capital punishment but also the gradual shift in the courts toward giving states the right to execute their citizens. A system of punishment that the Supreme Court once deemed arbitrary has been extended to teenagers, the mentally retarded, and the formerly insane.
Prejean’s narrative addresses broad questions of social justice. She presents Patrick’s execution not as an isolated event, but as one symptom of a societal illness. She wants her readers to have a proper understanding of the history of capital punishment, and to see the startling importance of race and poverty in determining punishment. The Supreme Court may have accepted that such biases are an inevitable part of our judicial system, but for Prejean and Millard Farmer, passively accepting unfair treatment is unacceptable. In light of the courts’ historical treatment of capital punishment cases, Patrick’s case becomes an aperture through which the failures of our legal system are clearly seen. The glaring inadequacy of Patrick’s initial defense and Millard Farmer’s inability to do anything to repair the damage show the disturbing degree to which procedure is more important than a person’s life. But Prejean never loses sight of the fact that behind the technical legal details lies a man’s life.
Behind the death penalty are the men and women responsible for its enforcement. Capital punishment is not an abstract force or system, but one that depends upon the actions of a handful of individuals. Prejean’s narrative shows the great power of the few men and women entrusted to decide who should live and die. That such power should lie in the hands of any one individual strikes Prejean as absurd.
Prejean and her dedicated friends continue to act and argue on behalf of Patrick’s life. Once again, Camus’ philosophy is relevant. As an existentialist philosopher, Camus argued on behalf of individual action even in the face of the world’s overwhelming absurdity. Prejean is aware of how illogical it is to argue with the state about sparing a man’s life, yet that is precisely what she does.
Prejean’s conversation with Lloyd LeBlanc, touched on briefly earlier in the narrative, helps complete the portrait not only of Patrick, but of the suffering his crime has caused. For Prejean to live up to her ideals and values, she must fully consider the perspective of the victims’ families. Lloyd LeBlanc thinks of Patrick as a man who spent his time hunting for women and teenagers. His perspective is not only understandable, but also partially accurate. This is the other side of Patrick and the justification for the death penalty. His crime has shattered the lives of two families. For these families, the execution of Patrick is not a violation of his rights, but an act of justice.
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