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Dead Man Walking

Sister Helen Prejean

Chapter 6

Chapter 5

Chapter 7

Summary

Millard tells Prejean about Robert Lee Willie and Joseph Vaccaro, who went on an eight-day rampage, raping and murdering Faith Hathaway, raping another young woman and paralyzing a young man. Prejean has heard Faith’s stepfather, Vernon Harvey, give interviews saying he cannot wait to see Robert’s execution. In addition to this murder, Robert was involved in two other murders. Robert and Vaccaro were tried in the same courthouse. Vaccaro received life in prison, while Robert was sentenced to death.

Prejean is terrified, but Millard says she will find a child behind Robert’s macho exterior. Prejean writes to Robert asking him if he wants her to be his advisor. He says yes. Since Patrick’s execution, bad rumors have been spreading about Prejean. People say she was emotionally involved with Patrick and caused problems for the staff by fainting. In addition, the two Catholic chaplains are trying to bar any female spiritual advisors.

Prejean meets with Frank C. Blackburn, a lay Methodist minister and the new warden of Angola. Prejean challenges him on the death penalty, but he says he sees no contradiction.

Prejean wonders how Jesus’ nonviolent teachings are so easily brushed aside by people. She says she can’t accept the idea of an angry, wrathful God. She grapples with the role Christianity has played in accommodating violence throughout history.

Blackburn gives her permission to serve as Robert’s advisor. Prejean moves out of St. Thomas into a house near death row attorney Bill Quigley. In October 1984, she visits with Robert, a short young man in his mid-twenties. She tells him about her life, faith, and opposition to the death penalty. He asks her if she wishes she were married. She tells him that she has all the intimacy she needs in her life. Robert says that he is part of a class action suit on behalf of death row inmates.

On October 26, Prejean and forty others begin their three-day march to Baton Rouge. During the march, Prejean presents facts about the death penalty, such as the cost of execution and the lack of effect the death penalty has on the crime rate. She also presents the moral argument that if murder is wrong, it is wrong for everyone. In Baton Rouge, Prejean and her companions find a counter-protest waiting for them. Vernon Harvey is there.

The following week, Prejean visits him and his wife. Full of grief and anguish, they tell her in detail about Faith and her murder. Faith was planning to join the military on the day she was kidnapped, raped, and murdered. Eight days passed before her body was found in the woods. Vernon’s pain nearly overwhelms Prejean. He describes how he almost killed Robert himself. Robert almost avoided the death penalty because he was serving life in a federal prison, so Vernon wrote a letter to his congressman, Bob Livingston, who gave the letter to President Reagan. Shortly afterward, Reagan called Vernon and told him that once the Supreme Court turned Robert down, he would be sent to Louisiana to stand trial.

Analysis

Robert Willie’s role in the brutal rape and murder of Faith Hathaway, along with his long criminal record and involvement in two other murders, make him a much less sympathetic person than Patrick was. Prejean’s doubts and fears about meeting him probably reflect the readers’ feelings about Robert. As with Patrick, Prejean hears about Robert’s crime before meeting him. The public finds out about criminals in the same way, reading about their crimes and later, perhaps, learning about their lives. Society’s judgment, like Prejean’s, is cast as soon as the nature of the crime is discovered. Prejean’s narrative takes on the difficult task of working backward, of building a sympathetic and complete portrait of a man we have already judged to be terrifying and evil.

What emerges from Prejean’s initial visits with Robert is a complex image of a man who is seemingly unrepentant and surprisingly affable. He is also intelligent, extremely well organized, and gentle. His evident humanity makes it all the more difficult to reconcile the crime with the man. Prejean is aware, however, that she cannot let Robert’s crime recede into the background of her mind. The crime must remain as evident as his personality and charm, for to allow his good qualities to overshadow it would be an insult to the victim and her family.

Prejean’s encounter with Vernon and Elizabeth Harvey, in addition to being one of the most painful experiences in her life, is the first full portrait of grief in the narrative. It provides an essential counterpoint to the suffering of the men on death row. In order to fully consider the damage caused by murder, and therefore honestly assess the value of capital punishment, the victims’ families must also be understood. Vernon and Elizabeth Harvey, in all of their grief and anger, become symbols of victims’ struggles. They are the other half of Prejean’s narrative. Just as Prejean never minimizes the suffering of Patrick or Robert, she never minimizes the Harvey’s overwhelming grief. She also makes it clear that Robert’s execution won’t heal their pain. Their anger is understandable and justified, but of limited use.

Until now, Prejean’s faith has been a source of comfort and support. In this chapter, she acknowledges that same source of support has also played a role in the world’s long history of violence. At the heart of Prejean’s religious argument against capital punishment is her belief in a God who does not seek vengeance. Starting at that fundamental point, Prejean is able to lay out a religious argument that is uncompromising in its stance against capital punishment.

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