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Dead Man Walking

Sister Helen Prejean

Chapter 5

Chapter 4

Chapter 6

Summary

Ann, Prejean’s sister, describes watching the SWAT team outside of the prison during the execution. Ann, a doctor, has a difficult time finding resources to take care of her patients. Prejean spends the night at her mother’s house. The next day, friends and reporters call. Patrick will be buried in the nuns’ cemetery. On Friday, approximately thirty people gather for Patrick’s funeral. Eddie attends, handcuffed and flanked by guards. Bishop Stanley Ott delivers the homily. He says that God is a God of compassion and love, not retribution. Eddie says goodbye to his family, most of whom will never see him again. Patrick is buried next to Sister Isabel, a friend of Prejean’s. A reporter at the funeral asks Prejean if she was in love with Patrick.

Patrick’s possessions arrive at Prejean’s mother’s house. Prejean decides to meet with C. Paul Phelps, head of the Corrections Department. Phelps is personally opposed to the death penalty, which he believes is biased and arbitrary. He says he does not believe the execution accomplished anything, but his job is to obey the law and make the death process as humane as possible. Prejean acknowledges that a man like Phelps can do a lot of good in his position. Phelps explains the execution process he created. The electrician who wired the chair refused to accept payment for it, and the executioner works anonymously, with no contract. Phelps says he will never witness an execution himself. Prejean is disturbed that such a good man could be a participant in such a process. She vows to make no more prison visits except to see Eddie.

Prejean and her sister deliver Patrick’s belongings to his mother, Gladys Sonnier, who lives in a small project apartment. Gladys’s daughter, sister, and niece tell Prejean about the misrepresentation of the family in the press. Prejean tells Gladys about Patrick’s last moments.

Back in St. Thomas, Prejean looks forward to returning to normal life. She wonders if the execution has left an indelible mark on her. Over the next six weeks, she reads a number of newspaper articles expressing outrage at Patrick’s seemingly preferential treatment by the Catholic Church. The only criticism Prejean takes seriously blames her for failing to visit with the victims’ families.

Prejean reads an article describing a murder very similar to the one Patrick committed. She wonders whether executions actually cause more violence and cites several statistics that indicate a rise in crime following an execution. Prejean and Tom Dybdahl begin a training program for people willing to become spiritual advisors. They later decide they need a lawyer to work only on death-row cases. They raise $25,000 and open an office in September 1984.

Prejean goes on her annual retreat. Several days into it, she reads a newspaper clipping showing Bishop Ott speaking in favor of abolishing the death penalty. She discusses the Supreme Court’s ruling in Furman v. Georgia and Gregg v. Georgia, in which the Court said capital punishment is not cruel, but retributive.

Bill Quigley takes Prejean to a meeting of death row abolitionists. The participants decide to walk from New Orleans to Baton Rouge to protest and raise awareness. Although support for the death penalty is very high, Prejean notes that support drastically drops with more information. Prejean decides to work full time on death penalty abolition and education. Six months after Patrick’s execution, Millard Farmer asks Prejean to become spiritual advisor to a man named Robert Lee Willie, who is about to be executed.

Analysis

As with her earlier religious awakening, Prejean undergoes a gradual transformation from socially active nun to full-time death row abolitionist. The first part of that journey began with Chava Colon’s simple request for Prejean to correspond with Patrick. In this chapter, Prejean decides to work with Robert Lee Willie and to become a full-time advocate. Her new path in life is the product of reflection, experience, and direct confrontation with the world. In the wake of Patrick’s execution, Prejean’s initial desire to return to a normal life is understandable. But just as Prejean was unable to live the life of a quiet nun after hearing her faith’s call to action, she finds herself unable to return to her former life. The experience of watching Patrick’s execution has indeed left an indelible mark on her, and the course of her life changes as a result.

Prejean’s experiences with the individuals involved in Patrick’s execution are as much a guiding force for her activism as are her faith and convictions. Bill Quigley, Bishop Ott, Millard Farmer, her sister Ann, and Tom Dybdahl are sources of inspiration and hope. After seeing the newspaper clipping describing Bishop Ott’s speech, Prejean knows she cannot step away from anti-death penalty advocacy.

The challenges presented by figures such as the D.A. and C. Paul Phelps are another call to action. Both men are honest, decent, law-abiding individuals who nonetheless participate in state-sanctioned killing. Most of the startlingly large number of Americans who support the death penalty are good people who desire a safe, healthy community, and the same applies to officers in the prison system. In order to change the system, everyone from the head of the Department of Corrections to the average citizen must refuse to participate.

Underpinning Prejean’s arguments against the death penalty is a philosophical perspective that holds the individual responsible for his or her actions. For Prejean, people like C. Paul Phelps or Governor Edwards cannot hide behind their jobs. In addition to being employees of the state, they are individuals responsible for the decisions they make. Prejean acknowledges that the situation is complex. Despite their participation in capital punishment, compassionate men like Phelps can and do make an important difference by treating prisoners as humanely as possible. Nonetheless, in order for capital punishment to succeed, the system of men and women who enforce it must agree, passively or actively, to its continuation. From the electrician who wires the chair to the warden who nods his or her head, each individual is accountable for the preservation of the system.

Prejean is aware of the power of information. The death penalty will never be abolished unless society understands its ineffectiveness as a social tool. Prejean’s narrative is meant to convince readers using facts and figures, not just win their hearts. In this chapter, information about Supreme Court decisions and reports from Amnesty International present a harsh portrayal of capital punishment in America, one of only two NATO countries that still has capital punishment.

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