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Dead Man Walking

Sister Helen Prejean

Chapter 9

Chapter 8

Chapters 10–11

Summary

Liz Scott tells Prejean that the Harveys feel Prejean used them. Robert’s execution date is set for December 28, and Prejean visits him every week. His attitude is unchanged. He has to wear a black box that severely restricts his hands because an inmate told the warden Robert was hoping to escape. The lawsuit against the Department of Corrections has won the inmates some minor concessions, such as more televisions and food items. Robert says he worries most about his mother. Prejean tells him that even real men cry. She asks him to consider the suffering he has inflicted and talks about Faith’s relationship with her mother. Robert says he is sorry. Prejean tells him that his last words can be words of hate or of love: the decision is his.

Major Kendall Cody, the man responsible for death row inmates and guards, asks to speak to Prejean. He says he is not sure how long he can keep participating in the executions, because after talking to the men on death row, he can tell they are just “little boys.” Prejean gives Robert a box of Christmas cards and asks him if he wants her to be there for the execution. He says he does. He doesn’t trust anyone on the prison payroll because they are participating in his death. Robert says he is prepared to die. In his interviews with the press, he says the government shouldn’t kill people, that he admires Adolf Hitler, and that Aryans are the master race. He says if he could change his life, he would bomb government buildings.

Robert is moved to the death house on Christmas Eve. Prejean returns to the death house the day after Christmas. She notes that the procedures are more lax since her last visit with Patrick. After five executions, the state knows that it was overly prepared. Robert says he can sleep well because he has told the truth.. He asks Prejean for a lie detector test to prove he didn’t kill Faith Hathaway. Prejean wonders if he is lying about the murder, and if so, why he wants the polygraph. Prejean asks him about his statements on Hitler and bombing buildings. She tells him violence is a simple solution to a complicated problem. He tells her about his admiration for men of action like Hitler and Castro, and the sense of family that came with the Aryan Brotherhood. He talks fondly about his time spent in Marion.

Robert admits that he regrets spouting off in his interviews. Prejean finds a family friend to administer the lie detector test that he wantsbut warns Robert that it will be difficult to obtain accurate results because of the stress he is under. In her meetings with Robert, Prejean also addresses the evolution of religion and violence over the centuries. She places the biblical quotation regarding “an eye for an eye” in its proper context, noting that it was a call for restraint in a chaotic time; further, the Bible also advocates death for a number of other minor infractions, something that would never be adhered to in today’s world. She presents Elaine Pagels’s argument that Christianity moved from nonviolence to compliance with more violent policies. She contrasts this with the nonviolence movements of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, both of whom believed nonviolence was an aggressive form of social protest.

When Prejean arrives at the prison on the twenty-seventh, Robert’s mother, aunt, and stepbrothers are there. Robert teases and talks affectionately with his brothers. Warden Blackburn asks the family to leave three hours early, and Robert doesn’t protest. Prejean tells him the polygraph tests were inconclusive because of the stress he is under, which could either be from lying, or from facing imminent death. They have a conversation about Robert’s prejudice against African Americans. He eats his last meal and talks about his childhood and the jobs he has held. Prejean tells him what’s going to happen next. He calls his mother for the last time and finally cries. Guards shave Robert’s head, and Robert walks to the chair with his usual jaunty walk. He tells the Harveys that he hopes his death brings them relief and that killing is wrong. He is strapped into the chair and winks at Prejean. She watches the execution.

Analysis

As Robert’s execution draws closer, he becomes an increasingly complicated figure. His motives for wanting a polygraph are unclear, as is his involvement in the murder of Faith Hathaway. Prejean points out her own doubts about the murder without revealing whether or not she thinks he is guilty. Given his long history of violence and his willingness to blame Joe Vaccaro for much of what happened, it is difficult to believe that Robert didn’t kill Faith. His desire to take a polygraph test just before he dies could be a last-ditch effort to con Prejean and prison officials, rather than a genuine attempt to prove that he wasn’t responsible for the stabbing.

Robert’s interviews with the press seem almost deliberately self-destructive, as if he knowingly tries to paint himself in the worst light. By asserting his support for Hitler and Fidel Castro, Robert is clearly trying to paint himself as an outlaw, as a man beyond the reach of the government who laughs at death. His desire to be buried in his boots is part of the same act. He wants to present an image of himself as untouchable. Yet as Major Kendall Cody notes, most of the men on death row are just little boys, and Robert’s displays of bravado are those of a little boy. He knows how hollow his words are, and as his execution draws closer, he regrets his statements to the press and becomes remarkably passive. He does not protest when the warden denies him further access to the press or when his family leaves early. When the polygraph test results come in, he hardly raises a word of protest. For a man who spent his life defying authority, Robert’s last few hours are surprisingly peaceful.

Major Kendall Cody is the first prison official who not only registers his objection to capital punishment but also understands and accepts his responsibility for perpetuating its existence. His appearance in the narrative is brief, but tragic. Cody is closer to the condemned men than any other prison official, and his belief that the men on death row are just little boys makes it nearly impossible for him to strap them into the electric chair. Cody’s thoughtfulness and self-conscious acceptance of his responsibility make him a sympathetic, sad figure.

The last moments of Robert’s life are spare and unemotional compared to Patrick’s. The execution is anticlimactic, and everyone from the guards at the gate to the official who comes prepared with an extra meal for Prejean knows the routine. During Patrick’s execution, Prejean needed the support of Millard Farmer, and following it, she vomited on the drive home. Prejean attends Robert’s alone, and as she notes in the closing line, she keeps her eyes open and watches the entire execution.

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