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In 1982, Sister Helen Prejean begins corresponding
with a death row inmate at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola,
Elmo Patrick Sonnier. Prejean has recently gone through a spiritual
transformation and renewed her commitment to a life of social justice.
As a result of this transformation, she has moved to the St. Thomas
housing projects in New Orleans, where she witnesses crime and social inequality.
After exchanging several letters with Patrick, who has
been convicted of the kidnap and murder of two teenagers, Prejean
decides to become his spiritual advisor. During Prejean’s first
visit with Patrick in Angola prison, Patrick tells her about his
impoverished childhood and shares memories of his father and brother.
After several months, Prejean also begins to visit Patrick’s brother,
Eddie, who kidnapped and murdered the two teenagers along with Patrick
and is serving a life sentence.
A judge sets Patrick’s execution date. Patrick says that
on the night of the murders, Eddie lost control and killed the two
teenagers. Eddie confesses to Prejean that he was the one who pulled
the trigger. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit grants Patrick
a stay pending a review of his petition but eventually denies it.
Prejean contacts Millard Farmer, a death row attorney in Atlanta, to
help with Patrick’s case. Millard agrees to help and prepares petitions
for the Supreme Court and the Fifth Circuit. During a drive to Angola,
he describes the history of capital punishment and the legal and
political decisions that have shaped it. Millard paints a portrait of
an arbitrary system that determines who lives and who dies primarily
on the basis of race and class.
Millard appeals to Governor Edwin Edwards directly, but
the governor has already decided against granting a stay based on
political concerns. At the Pardon Board hearing, the chairman, Howard Marsellus
(who will later be convicted of taking bribes in exchange for pardons),
agrees with Millard and Prejean that the death penalty punishes
poor men. While waiting for the board to make a decision, Prejean
meets Lloyd LeBlanc, the father of one of the murdered teenagers.
LeBlanc reprimands Prejean for not speaking to the victims’ families
as well as to the killers. The Pardon Board votes in favor of Patrick’s
With only four days left until Patrick’s execution, Eddie
writes a letter to the governor confessing to the murder. Patrick
is moved to the death house. On Patrick’s last day, Prejean encourages
him to die with words of love instead of hate. The governor, Supreme
Court, and Fifth Circuit all reject Patrick’s last appeals. Patrick
has his last meal and talks fondly about his life. Millard Farmer
and another death row attorney, Bill Quigley, arrive at the prison.
Guards shave Patrick’s head and lead him out to the execution chamber.
Prejean walks behind Patrick. Patrick apologizes to Lloyd LeBlanc
for his crime and tells Prejean he loves her. At 12:15 A.M., the
warden pronounces him dead.
With the help of Patrick’s family and the Catholic Church,
Prejean buries Patrick. She helps raise money for a full-time death
row attorney. For a time, Prejean believes she will never go back
to death row, but on a spiritual retreat she decides she must continue
to fight against capital punishment.
Prejean eventually agrees to become spiritual advisor
to a man in his late twenties, Robert Willie. After learning that
Robert brutally raped and murdered a teenage girl, Faith Hathaway,
Prejean is briefly afraid of meeting him. Robert is eager for Prejean
to visit him, but first Prejean has to convince the new prison warden
that rumors of her emotional involvement with Patrick are false
and that she does not represent a security hazard.
To raise awareness about the death penalty, Prejean has
helped organize a three-day march from New Orleans to Baton Rouge.
The march takes place shortly after Prejean meets Robert. In Baton Rouge,
they meet a counterdemonstration. Vernon Harvey, Faith Hathaway’s
stepfather, is at the demonstration and speaks to Prejean. The following
week, Prejean visits Vernon and Elizabeth, Faith’s mother. They
describe the details of Faith’s murder. Vernon cannot get past his
Prejean confronts Robert with his crime and asks him to
think about the grief he has caused. He says he is sorry about what
happened and blames the murder on Joe Vaccaro, his accomplice. Robert
asks Prejean to look over the files he has prepared. Prejean reads about
Robert’s long history of incarceration, his inadequate defense,
and the clearly biased jury.
The Supreme Court and Fifth Circuit deny Robert’s appeals.
At the Pardon Board hearing, Robert’s mother, Elisabeth, tries to
testify but breaks down. Prejean asks the Pardon Board members not to
participate in a system they know to be unjust. The Pardon Board rules
against Robert unanimously. Howard Marsellus, the Pardon Board chairman,
later describes to Prejean the corruption within the Pardon Board
and apologizes for his participation in it.
As Robert’s execution date approaches, Prejean visits
Robert every week. Major Cody, the man responsible for the death
house, tells Prejean about the haunting effect executions have had
on him. Robert is moved to the death house on Christmas Eve. He
asks for a polygraph test; he wants to prove to his mother that
he didn’t kill Faith. The test is inconclusive. Robert grants interviews
to the press saying he admires Hitler and Castro and believes in
the supremacy of the Aryan race. Robert visits with his mother,
aunt, and stepbrothers for the last time on December 27. After his
family leaves, he calls his mother and finally cries. He goes to
the chair with his usual jaunty walk. With his last words, he tells
the family of Faith Hathaway he hopes his death brings them comfort,
but that killing is wrong.
After Robert’s execution, the Faith Hathaway’s parents
give interviews in support of the death penalty. Prejean presents
her arguments against it on ABC News and challenges the assertion
that capital punishment can be a noble thing. She lists a number
of men put to death for crimes they did not commit.
Two years after Robert’s execution, Prejean meets the
Harveys, who are now advocates for victims’ families’ rights. Prejean
helps found an organization, Survive, to assist victims’ families
in the inner city. At one of Survive’s meetings, Prejean learns
about the terrible treatment poor black women in the inner city
have received at the hands of the district attorney and police.
Prejean closes with a description of a prayer vigil she attends
with Lloyd LeBlanc, the father of one of the murdered teenagers
in the Sonnier case. LeBlanc says that even as he stared at his
son’s corpse, he knew he had forgiven whoever had killed his son.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Dead Man Walking!