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Dead Man Walking

Sister Helen Prejean

Study Questions & Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Study Questions

1. How does Prejean’s portrayal of Patrick’s execution differ from her portrayal of Robert’s execution?

Patrick’s execution is Prejean’s first encounter with death row. Through her experiences with him, she learns about the rules and procedures that govern executions, from the court appeals to the shaving of Patrick’s head. She is often taken aback by what she sees. The death house, the guards, and her conversations with the warden and prison chaplains are so unreal, and yet so ordinary, that they border on the incomprehensible. She is struck by how systematic and carefully planned the entire procedure is. The months before Patrick’s execution are also characterized by hope. Since it is her first experience with the Pardon Board system and the appeals process, and since Patrick’s brother has confessed to shooting the teenagers, Prejean believes almost until the last moment that the state might spare Patrick’s life. That hope permeates Prejean’s attempts to save Patrick’s life. The narrative has urgency and desperation. In the end, Patrick is executed, and the experience alters Prejean forever.

Prejean’s approach to Robert’s execution reflects her experience with Patrick. What shocked Prejean the first time around is now expected and familiar. Prejean and the reader can anticipate all of the steps that will lead to Robert’s death. Also, unlike Patrick, Robert has little hope that the state will spare his life. Prejean notes that the absence of that hope makes his inevitable execution even harder to bear. In addition, Robert is aware of his impending fate, and his tough, determined attitude reflects that awareness. As a result, Robert is a more ambiguous and less sympathetic figure than Patrick. His death, while tragic, is haunting precisely because it seems so routine.

2. Discuss the role of faith in Prejean’s social activism.

When Prejean first became a nun, she believed her religious devotion would take the form of a quiet, peaceful life dedicated to God. As her understanding of Jesus’ message and the Church’s role in the world evolved, Prejean came to believe that to truly follow in Christ’s path meant to struggle and work on behalf of the poor. That understanding radically changed her life, demanding her active and sustained engagement with social justice. Prejean began her life of social activism in the St. Thomas housing projects. Her experiences living in St. Thomas opened her eyes to the struggles of the poor and gradually led her to death row. While working with Patrick and Robert, Prejean’s faith gave her comfort and support and, perhaps more importantly, allowed her to see the underlying humanity that each man possessed. Her faith bolstered her fundamental belief that Christ’s message was one of forgiveness and nonviolence. Prejean never minimizes the damage either man caused and forces each of them to consider the consequences of their actions. By challenging them to do so, Prejean convinces them to seek forgiveness for their actions.

3. What are some of the influences that have shaped Prejean’s moral philosophy?

Prejean frequently references Albert Camus, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and Dorothy Day. Each figure has played a role in shaping Prejean’s belief in nonviolence as a force for social change, individual responsibility, and the teachings of Christ. Camus, whom Prejean refers to most frequently, gave thoughtful consideration to the individual’s relationship to the state. He argued that the state, as an imperfect actor, does not have the right to take an individual’s life. This argument informs Prejean’s portrayal of the very human and fallible men and women behind the death penalty.

Prejean is also aware that in order to abolish capital punishment, she must do more than just minister to men on death row. Gandhi’s and Martin Luther King’s nonviolent movements are an important source of inspiration for the three-day march Prejean and her organization stage in order to raise awareness about capital punishment. Their march is an act of peaceful aggression, a direct challenge to the complacency and passivity surrounding the death penalty.

Dorothy Day, a Catholic activist in the mid-1900s, lived a life worthy of emulation and admiration. She believed that the Gospels asked Christians to comfort the poor and agitate nonviolently against the rich, a belief that Prejean comes to accept as true. Prejean, through her work at St. Thomas and death row, has dedicated her life to fighting on behalf of the poor and comforting them. The two approaches reflect the two sides of love Day found in the Gospels.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. What is the author’s attitude toward Robert’s role in the murder of Faith Hathaway?

2. Why does Prejean stress the importance of individual responsibility?

3. Discuss the role of race in capital punishment.

4. Why does Prejean use the last chapter to focus on victims’ families?

5. How has the Supreme Court’s position on capital punishment changed since 1972?

6. What is your own opinion about capital punishment?

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