Dead Man Walking

by: Sister Helen Prejean

Themes

Main ideas Themes

The Redemptive Power of Love

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.

The Linked Symptoms of Social Injustice

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.

The Importance of Personal Responsibility

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.

The Moral Cost of Executions

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.