Throughout Dead Man Walking, Prejean presents love as the one force that has the power to alter and redeem a human life, as well as restore dignity. Prejean says that love has sustained her throughout her life. She grew up in a household filled with love, and she has faith in God’s love, which gives her energy and courage. The loveless lives of Patrick Sonnier and Robert Willie stand in stark contrast to Prejean’s life. Patrick acknowledges that he never knew love in his ordinary life but says that he has found it in prison. Patrick’s relationship with Prejean becomes his source of strength and courage in the last hours of his life. The love between Patrick and Prejean allows Patrick to atone for his sins at the end of his life.
Prejean’s fight to abolish the death penalty is not just a fight against one component of the penal system; it is a battle in the greater war for social justice. Prejean begins her career of social activism by working with the residents of the St. Thomas projects. From there, she becomes an anti-death penalty advocate. Her experiences in the projects and in prison are linked not only by violence, but also by poverty and by a flawed, arbitrary, and biased justice system. Capital punishment, poverty, and violence must be understood as three symptoms of the general injustice of society. Each struggle for the poor and disposed is a struggle for justice.
Prejean stresses the importance of personal responsibility by challenging the government officials responsible for capital punishment, as well as the men on death row, to hold themselves accountable for their actions. In her moral and philosophical perspective, every individual is responsible for his or her own actions, regardless of circumstances. For Robert Willie and Patrick Sonnier, taking responsibility for their crimes is the first step to atonement. The state officials Prejean encounters must understand that they bear some of the responsibility for the executions they carry out. Prejean believes that most of these officials are decent men and women, but she also believes that their participation in an unjust system cannot go unnoticed. Only when each individual claims responsibility for his or her role in the state’s death penalty policies can change happen.
At the heart of Prejean’s argument against capital punishment is her belief that the moral cost of state-sanctioned killing is too damaging to tolerate. In addition to the obvious and quantifiable cost of executions, society pays a greater, more abstract moral cost every time it condones the killing of an individual. The death penalty violates society’s most fundamental belief: that human life is worthy of respect. By violating that trust, society violates its own values. Justice is transformed into vengeance, and the very crime that outrages the state—murder—becomes its means of punishment. The moral cost of executions, unlike the fiscal cost, cannot be assessed with a calculator but is instead determined by every individual in a society.
The Supreme Court, beginning with Furman v. Georgia in 1972, has played a pivotal role in shaping capital punishment in America. Prejean cites many of the Court’s decisions in clarifying and the death penalty; the Court has become progressively more conservative and determined to protect the states’ rights at the cost of the individual’s rights. Prejean condemns the Court’s decisions not only to uphold capital punishment, but also to extend it to teenagers, the mentally retarded, and the insane. She also points out that the Court’s tolerant interpretation of capital punishment stands in direct opposition to the majority of the industrialized world, which believes that the death penalty is torture.
Dead Man Walking is filled with grief. First and foremost, there is the grief of the victims’ families, of Vernon and Elizabeth Harvey and Lloyd LeBlanc. Prejean recognizes their grief as immeasurable, and she never trivializes it or plays down its extent. The Harveys’ grief overwhelms her to the point that it becomes difficult to hear them speak of it. The mothers of Robert Willie and Patrick Sonnier also feel deep grief. Like the Harveys and LeBlancs, they have lost a child, although in drastically different circumstances. For the families of both murderers and murder victims, killing, whether it is done by an individual or by the state, causes an indescribable amount of grief and leaves a wreck of shattered lives in its wake.
Early in her narrative, Prejean argues that governments are not responsible enough to be trusted with capital punishment. The state, like the individuals who comprise it, is an imperfect, flawed entity. It is given to widespread abuse, as demonstrated by history and the absence of social justice in much of the country. Therefore, it cannot claim the moral and practical grounds necessary to justify the killing of its citizens. Government’s primary responsibility is to protect its citizens and their rights, Prejean believes, and yet the capital punishment system is so arbitrary and biased that it often violates its citizens’ rights. Prejean repeatedly asks how the state can be trusted to determine who should live and who should die given the mistakes it makes when performing its most basic functions.
As head of the Department of Corrections, C. Paul Phelps embodies the moral ambiguity surrounding the death penalty. He is a decent, compassionate man who does not believe in capital punishment but who readily ignores his personal beliefs in order to do his job. His decency and compassion are what make his acceptance of capital punishment so difficult for Prejean to fathom. At the same time, Prejean acknowledges that the penal system desperately needs men like Phelps. If Phelps adhered to Prejean’s mandates concerning individual responsibility, he would most likely leave his position out of principle. His departure, while serving one moral purpose, would also most likely be a blow to the prison system he has helped reform for the better.
The death house to which Patrick and Robert are moved in the days preceding their executions is the first physical step in the path to the electric chair. The death house, with its particular rules and around-the-clock guard watch, is the last residence any of these men will know. A holding pen for the condemned man, it occupies the physical space between life and death. It is the place where the inmate has his last meal and conversation, and where he is strapped to a chair and killed. Its very existence strikes Prejean as absurd. Death is supposed to be unexpected and unknown, but the death house turns it into something quotidian and routine. The death house makes the taking of a life an orchestrated, state-sponsored event.
Prejean frequently quotes Albert Camus, whose writings on capital punishment are a philosophical model and source of moral support. Camus, a philosopher, novelist, and playwright, is known for the strong moral perspective that suffuses his work. Like Prejean, Camus believed in the inviolable dignity of the human spirit and considered capital punishment cruel. He also stressed the need for action in the face of injustice and absurdity.