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Prejean drives back to New Orleans after leaving the Harveys’ house.
She tries to imagine what Faith’s last moments of life were like,
and the grief and anger felt by her parents. Prejean acknowledges
the importance and value of retribution. She quotes Susan Jacoby,
who states that society depends in part on a belief that victimizers
will be punished for their actions, and that the punishment should
be measured. Prejean makes an argument for nonnegotiable long-term
sentences for first-degree murders. Forty states have criminal codes
that guarantee such terms. Prejean considers her time spent with
the Harveys one of the most difficult in her life. She acknowledges
that Robert should spend his life repenting, but at the same time,
his survival instinct is inevitable.
Prejean visits with Robert a second time. She tells him
about her visit and confronts him with his crime. He says he is
sorry about what happened, but that he didn’t kill Faith; Vaccaro
did. He admits to taunting Vernon Harvey. He talks about his difficult
childhood and long-term drug addiction. He continues to blame Vaccaro
and says he has a hard time feeling sympathy for the Harveys. Prejean asks
him to imagine that it was his daughter who had been killed. He says
he believes in the death penalty for child molesters. Prejean quotes
Camus, who said every murderer feels innocent when he kills, convinced
that his particular circumstances excuse him.
Robert tells Prejean about being shot at and about a relationship he
had with a married woman who was the only person he was ever able
to talk to. Prejean tells him that if he dies, he should die with integrity
and admit to his part in the crime. She wonders if he is capable
of such a thing.
Robert asks Prejean to read over his files, which turn
out to be exceptionally well organized. For Prejean, Robert’s carefully arranged
and detailed files represent his willingness to take advantage of
knowledge. She reads over the class action suit, listing the complaints
of the inmates against the prison. Bill Quigley will eventually
become the attorney for the suit. Prejean tells readers the suit is
settled after the original plaintiffs have all been executed.
In the files, Prejean reads about Robert’s arrogance to
the judge and about his long criminal record, which dates back to
the age of fourteen. He has been in and out of jail his entire life.
In Robert’s appeal petition, prepared with the help of Ronald J.
Tabak, a Wall Street attorney, Prejean learns of the serious bias
many members of the jury had against Robert. Four of the jurors
were present when Vaccaro’s lawyer stated that Robert was responsible
for the murder. Tabak also argues for the ineffectiveness of Robert’s
defense counsel. In August, the Fifth Circuit denies Robert’s appeal,
and in November, the Supreme Court does the same.
In order for Prejean’s argument against capital punishment
to be completely successful, she needs to present a viable alternative
to capital punishment that satisfies society’s need for retribution.
Prejean proposes the alternative of nonnegotiable, long-term prison sentences.
To some extent, this stance mitigates potential criticisms that
Prejean is unsympathetic to the victims’ families or soft on crime.
She acknowledges that retribution is an essential part of our criminal
justice system. For Prejean, the difficulty lies in degrees of punishment.
There is a point at which punishment is no longer retribution, but
vengeance. The difference between the two is essential. Retribution
recognizes a limit. It seeks to address the crime without becoming
a crime itself. Vengeance, in contrast, has no limits. Like the
violence it seeks to repay, vengeance threatens the very fabric
of a society.
Prejean believes that capital punishment is an act of
vengeance. Execution accomplishes nothing for the state or for the
victims’ family, whose losses can never be repaid. In addition to
creating nothing positive, capital punishment takes a life. The
long-term prison sentences that Prejean advocates ensure that the
murderer can never again harm society. Long-term sentences also
ensure that society does not compromise its most sacred value: respect
for the dignity of human life.
Long before Robert’s execution, Prejean makes readers
explicitly aware of his fate. We know he will die, and we carry
that knowledge into our reading of his initial defense. The reader
knows that the court’s refusal to acknowledge the obvious jury bias
will result in death. Prejean again brings the specter of death
to the forefront with her acknowledgment that the initial defendants
of the class action suit will all be dead by the time the case is
settled. Robert’s death, in other words, is just one of several
to come. In addition, there is irony in the fact that the same courts
that permit men to die will hear a suit for better treatment before
When Prejean asks Robert about his involvement in the
murder of Faith Hathaway, his answer is unsettling. He apologizes
for what happened, but he is unwilling to accept responsibility,
placing most of the blame on Joe Vaccaro and drugs and alcohol.
His troubled childhood and early arrests make him sympathetic and
repugnant at the same time. It is clear that Robert Willie is a
violent, troubled man, but neither a poor background nor a difficult
childhood is enough to explain away his life of violent crime.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Dead Man Walking!