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Dead Man Walking

Sister Helen Prejean

Chapter 8

Chapter 7

Chapter 9

Summary

John Croft, a local attorney, tells Prejean they have to convince Robert to drop his stance that he is a political prisoner in preparation for his upcoming Pardon Board hearing. The Pardon Board is composed of the same individuals that heard Patrick’s case. Prejean notes that as political appointees, the board members cannot ignore the governor’s wishes. Joe Doss, an Episcopalian priest, told Prejean the board is not supposed to put “pressure on Governor Edwards.” John tells Prejean that Marion Farmer, the D.A. in Patrick’s case, had been criticized by his opponent for not seeking the death penalty in a previous case. He likely sought the death penalty for Patrick because of his own reelection campaign.

Prejean visits Robert, bringing him money for coffee and cigarettes. He gives her a copy of his presentation to the Pardon Board and reads it aloud without any emotion. He says he confessed without an attorney because his mother had been arrested for driving him and Vaccaro to Mississippi, that he is a political prisoner, and that he did not have a proper defense attorney. He apologizes for the death of Faith Hathaway at the end. Prejean tells him not to mention politics. He agrees to drop it but says he will not grovel for his life. He says his mother served six months in prison for helping him, and he’s not sure if he wants her at the hearing.

Prejean drives to the Pardon Board hearing with Marcia Blum, the attorney director of the Louisiana Capital Defense Project, and Liz Scott, a reporter writing an article on Robert and the Harveys. Prejean knows the board is going to approve the execution, which makes this hearing harder than Patrick’s was for her. Prejean and her friends sign in and sit on the defendant’s side of the room. Elizabeth, Robert’s mother, doesn’t know what she’s going to say. Prejean shakes hands with the Harveys.

D.A. Marion Farmer and Assistant D.A. William Alford, Jr., represent the state. John Croft, in his presentation, lists all of the flaws in Robert’s initial case. Elizabeth tries to testify but quickly breaks down and is escorted out. Robert reads what he has prepared. Prejean follows him. She talks about Patrick’s execution, her visit to the Harveys, and the racial and class bias of the death penalty. She calls on the board to take personal responsibility for the execution, and not to hide behind bureaucracy. Mr. Marsellus, the Board chairman, say they cannot be held responsible. Prejean asks him what would happen if they recommended life, rather than death, for every person that came before them.

Marion Farmer reviews the details of Faith Hathaway’s murder and says Robert is unrepentant. He says Robert has given up his right to live. Vernon and Elizabeth Harvey talk about Faith and about having to wait for justice. After twenty minutes of deliberation, the board unanimously votes for the sentence to remain. Robert naively believes he could have won had it not been for Mrs. Harvey’s speech.

Prejean describes talking with Howard Marsellus in September 1991, after he was released from prison for accepting bribes while working on the Pardon Board. He witnessed one execution while on the board, that of Tim Baldwin, a man of whose guilt he was never convinced. He voted against Baldwin because as a political appointee, he was expected to be a “team player” and to spare the governor the political burden of having to commute a sentence. Marsellus describes the corruption in the Pardon Board and explains that legislators also work as criminal attorneys and buy commuted sentences for their clients by agreeing to support the governor. As he describes Baldwin’s execution, he begins to cry. He asks, “Who was I to sit in judgment?”

Analysis

Howard Marsellus’s remorse hammers home one of Prejean’s essential arguments against the death penalty. The state, she has argued, is not only fallible but often actively corrupt. Therefore, it cannot be trusted with the responsibility of deciding who lives and who dies. Camus’ assertion (i.e., if the condemned is considered absolutely evil, then the state that condemns him to death must be absolutely good) is especially appropriate in light of Howard Marsellus’s confession to Prejean. In addition to explaining the fraud and corruption that makes the Pardon Board system fallible, Marsellus recognizes the immense responsibility entrusted to the board, and to him specifically. The power to determine who should live and who should die was too great for him as an individual and for the entire system in which he worked.

During Robert’s Pardon Board hearing, Prejean challenges board members to consider their own actions, and the role they play as individuals in perpetuating the death penalty. Her challenge is answered at the end of the chapter with Marsellus’s apology. The man who once claimed that the members of the board were not responsible for the system is the man who, in the end, understands his role, accepts his responsibility, and apologizes. Throughout her narrative, Prejean has asserted the importance of individual responsibility. Marsellus’s startling admission of guilt and remorse is the first example of a government official acknowledging that responsibility.

Robert’s petition to the Pardon Board is a hopeless affair. What is striking is that the impossibility of saving Robert’s life makes his case all the more difficult. The motions to commute the death sentence feel just like that—motions performed for the sake of themselves. For Patrick, every moment and piece of information seemed to matter. For Robert, there is little to be said. There are no last-minute personal appeals to the governor, no religious leaders pleading on his behalf. The twenty minutes the Pardon Board spends deliberating seem mostly ceremonial. Robert, with his carefully scripted, passionless testimony seems to know this all too well himself. His plea to spare his life is emotionless, and the D.A.’s argument is simple and direct.

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