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Dead Man Walking

Sister Helen Prejean

Chapter 7

Chapter 6

Chapter 8

Summary

Prejean drives back to New Orleans after leaving the Harveys’ house. She tries to imagine what Faith’s last moments of life were like, and the grief and anger felt by her parents. Prejean acknowledges the importance and value of retribution. She quotes Susan Jacoby, who states that society depends in part on a belief that victimizers will be punished for their actions, and that the punishment should be measured. Prejean makes an argument for nonnegotiable long-term sentences for first-degree murders. Forty states have criminal codes that guarantee such terms. Prejean considers her time spent with the Harveys one of the most difficult in her life. She acknowledges that Robert should spend his life repenting, but at the same time, his survival instinct is inevitable.

Prejean visits with Robert a second time. She tells him about her visit and confronts him with his crime. He says he is sorry about what happened, but that he didn’t kill Faith; Vaccaro did. He admits to taunting Vernon Harvey. He talks about his difficult childhood and long-term drug addiction. He continues to blame Vaccaro and says he has a hard time feeling sympathy for the Harveys. Prejean asks him to imagine that it was his daughter who had been killed. He says he believes in the death penalty for child molesters. Prejean quotes Camus, who said every murderer feels innocent when he kills, convinced that his particular circumstances excuse him.

Robert tells Prejean about being shot at and about a relationship he had with a married woman who was the only person he was ever able to talk to. Prejean tells him that if he dies, he should die with integrity and admit to his part in the crime. She wonders if he is capable of such a thing.

Robert asks Prejean to read over his files, which turn out to be exceptionally well organized. For Prejean, Robert’s carefully arranged and detailed files represent his willingness to take advantage of knowledge. She reads over the class action suit, listing the complaints of the inmates against the prison. Bill Quigley will eventually become the attorney for the suit. Prejean tells readers the suit is settled after the original plaintiffs have all been executed.

In the files, Prejean reads about Robert’s arrogance to the judge and about his long criminal record, which dates back to the age of fourteen. He has been in and out of jail his entire life. In Robert’s appeal petition, prepared with the help of Ronald J. Tabak, a Wall Street attorney, Prejean learns of the serious bias many members of the jury had against Robert. Four of the jurors were present when Vaccaro’s lawyer stated that Robert was responsible for the murder. Tabak also argues for the ineffectiveness of Robert’s defense counsel. In August, the Fifth Circuit denies Robert’s appeal, and in November, the Supreme Court does the same.

Analysis

In order for Prejean’s argument against capital punishment to be completely successful, she needs to present a viable alternative to capital punishment that satisfies society’s need for retribution. Prejean proposes the alternative of nonnegotiable, long-term prison sentences. To some extent, this stance mitigates potential criticisms that Prejean is unsympathetic to the victims’ families or soft on crime. She acknowledges that retribution is an essential part of our criminal justice system. For Prejean, the difficulty lies in degrees of punishment. There is a point at which punishment is no longer retribution, but vengeance. The difference between the two is essential. Retribution recognizes a limit. It seeks to address the crime without becoming a crime itself. Vengeance, in contrast, has no limits. Like the violence it seeks to repay, vengeance threatens the very fabric of a society.

Prejean believes that capital punishment is an act of vengeance. Execution accomplishes nothing for the state or for the victims’ family, whose losses can never be repaid. In addition to creating nothing positive, capital punishment takes a life. The long-term prison sentences that Prejean advocates ensure that the murderer can never again harm society. Long-term sentences also ensure that society does not compromise its most sacred value: respect for the dignity of human life.

Long before Robert’s execution, Prejean makes readers explicitly aware of his fate. We know he will die, and we carry that knowledge into our reading of his initial defense. The reader knows that the court’s refusal to acknowledge the obvious jury bias will result in death. Prejean again brings the specter of death to the forefront with her acknowledgment that the initial defendants of the class action suit will all be dead by the time the case is settled. Robert’s death, in other words, is just one of several to come. In addition, there is irony in the fact that the same courts that permit men to die will hear a suit for better treatment before their death.

When Prejean asks Robert about his involvement in the murder of Faith Hathaway, his answer is unsettling. He apologizes for what happened, but he is unwilling to accept responsibility, placing most of the blame on Joe Vaccaro and drugs and alcohol. His troubled childhood and early arrests make him sympathetic and repugnant at the same time. It is clear that Robert Willie is a violent, troubled man, but neither a poor background nor a difficult childhood is enough to explain away his life of violent crime.

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