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Dead Man Walking

Sister Helen Prejean

Chapter 4

Chapter 3

Chapter 5

Summary

There are four days left until Patrick’s execution. Prejean visits Eddie, who hands her a note confessing to the killing. He asks her to get it to the governor. Prejean describes her conversations with the guards, many of whom are the second or third generation workers at the prison. Prejean also describes the death house to which Patrick has been moved.

Prejean tells Patrick about the Pardon Board hearing. He is angry about not being there. He has Prejean write a letter to the governor asking permission to plead before the board.

Prejean drives to New Orleans for a strategy meeting with Millard and the other attorneys. Her friend Kathleen reminds Prejean to help Patrick prepare for death. At the prison, Patrick and a guard watch a basketball game together as if they are friends. Patrick says he hopes he has the strength to make that last walk, and that he’s ready “to go if it comes down.”

Prejean has a brief conversation about the death penalty with Captain John Rabelais, the man responsible for Camp F and the death house. One of the guards on duty says he does not want to be there, but he has a wife and kids to support. Prejean organizes a prayer service with the prison chaplain for the following afternoon. Prejean hardly sleeps that evening. She is on antibiotics for a bronchial infection.

At the prison, Warden Maggio says he is just doing his job, and that nobody is excited about this execution. After speaking on the phone with C. Paul Phelps, head of the Department of Corrections, Prejean drives to the death house. She meets with Captain Rabelais to discuss Patrick’s prayer service. Exhausted, she passes out during the conversation.

She goes back to see Patrick, who is worried about her. The prison chaplain, an old Catholic priest, arrives, and they have a prayer service in Latin. Prejean says she feels sorry for the old man, who believes rituals are enough. Prejean encourages Patrick to share his emotions. He says he can’t let go or he will lose control. The only love he has known, he says, has been here in prison with Prejean. Prejean says she feels humbled “in the face of this man’s utter poverty.”

Prejean’s brother and sister are waiting for her. The next morning is a beautiful April day Prejean visits Patrick, who tells her that he is angry with Eddie, at the kids he killed, and at the victims’ families for coming to watch him die. Prejean encourages him to not let the last words of his life be hateful ones. Millard is visiting with the governor. The Fifth Circuit has yet to make a decision. Prejean notes that people become exact about time when it comes to births and deaths. At 6 P.M., the warden serves Patrick his final meal and says the Fifth Circuit has turned him down. So has the Supreme Court, but there is still no word from Millard. Patrick says he wants the chef to know he truly appreciates his last meal. The prison is abuzz with people.

Millard calls Patrick and tells him his appeal to the governor has failed. Patrick says, “Sister Helen, I’m going to die.” He makes out his will, leaving everything to Prejean. Two guards enter his cell to shave his head in order to keep his hair from catching on fire. Prejean thinks of a quote from Camus calling for the individual to resist collaborating with an evil act. Patrick writes the date of his death in a Bible, along with some loving words, and gives it to Prejean. He talks rapidly about his childhood and life. Bill Quigley and Millard Farmer arrive. The governor gives Millard permission to be a witness. At 11:30, three guards step into Patrick’s cell. He is forced to wear a diaper. Prejean touches Patrick for the first time as they begin the final walk. She reads a passage from Isaiah to him. Patrick apologizes to Mr. LeBlanc. He tells Prejean he loves her and then is strapped into the chair. At 12:15, the warden pronounces Patrick dead. Prison guards drive Millard and Prejean out of the death house. On the drive home, Prejean vomits.

Analysis

By focusing on the details of Patrick’s execution, Prejean shows how incomprehensible the entire event is to her. Minor gestures and sounds, such as typed witness forms and conversations with the prison guards, are part of ordinary life, and it seems amazing to her that they are what bring about and surround the execution. In order for the state to put Patrick to death, it must tend to the tedious details dictated by protocol. Forms must be typed, a last meal must be prepared. In the usual course of life, forms and meals go practically unnoticed, but now the specter of death invests everything with a nearly overwhelming weight.

Every hour and moment matter as Patrick’s death draws nearer. As a result, Prejean is careful to note the time frequently. Dinner occurs at 6:00, death occurs at 12:15. The two events, one mundane and one momentous, are separated by only a handful of hours. At one of the end of the timeline is Patrick fully alive, enjoying the contents of his last meal, while at the other end he is a lifeless body strapped to a chair.

Patrick’s execution is a well-planned event that depends on several people to act as complicit participants in what Prejean clearly believes to be a state-sanctioned crime. The prison is a world apart, which Prejean emphasizes by describing its cemetery, post office, and store. It is as if the prison grounds are a small town whose principle commerce is incarceration and death. By focusing briefly on the guards, the nurse at the hospital, the prison chaplain, and the officials, Prejean suggests that a wide range of decent, caring individuals can come together to participate in the killing of a man. This realization is a part of what makes Patrick’s execution so incomprehensible to Prejean. There are no villains and no bloodthirsty individuals, just men and women quietly doing their jobs as they are expected to. All it takes to make a crime possible is a handful of decent people who say nothing and do nothing, Prejean believes. By participating in Patrick’s death, everyone bears the guilt of Patrick’s execution. A job and the necessity of feeding a family does not grant immunity to anyone, even the prison chaplain.

Prejean’s deep religious faith is a source of both strength and tension. As Prejean notes at the start of her narrative, her decision to work for social justice instead of living a life of quiet religious contemplation marked a shift not only in her own life but also for the Church, which is starting to place more importance on real-world actions. The Catholic prison chaplain, however, stills hold fast to an old belief that rituals will accomplish God’s work. Prejean disagrees. For Prejean, acts of love are just as important as rituals when it comes to comforting the scared and lonely.

Even though death is at the center of the chapter, love is always present. Prejean’s family has always loved and supported her, and they continue to do so. Their affection contrasts with the almost total lack of love in Patrick’s life. Patrick thinks it is ironic that in order for him to experience love, he had to be imprisoned. Prejean suggests that no one should go through life alone, and that perhaps what determines our fates more than anything else is the presence or absence of love in our lives.

Patrick’s death is painful and tortured, but he manages to die with dignity and strength. Just before he is strapped into the chair, he speaks his last words, which are filled with love. He has atoned for his crime with the help of Prejean’s compassion and support.

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