Dead Man Walking

by: Sister Helen Prejean

Motifs

Main ideas Motifs

Supreme Court Decisions

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.

Grief

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.

The Role of Government

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.