Dead Man Walking | Study Guide

Sister Helen Prejean

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Dead Man Walking | Chapter 1 | Summary

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Summary

At the beginning of the book Sister Helen Prejean agrees to become a pen pal to a death row inmate in Louisiana's Angola State Prison. Prejean is a nun who in 1981 began to live among the poor families in New Orleans's St. Thomas housing project, where she teaches. Her mission in the neighborhood arises from a Catholic reform movement that links religious faith to the fight for social justice for the poor. Prejean understands that part of Jesus's "good news" is that those who have more than they need should give up their "affluence and ... share their resources" with the poor. Prejean recounts incidents in her privileged childhood and her disturbing encounters with violence and racism. She then describes some of the problems she (and the few other nuns she lives with) tries to help the people of St. Thomas overcome. Prejean describes the injustices borne by the poor and supports her view with statistics that prove her point. She also shares stories of poverty-stricken families and individuals who through great effort and commitment manage to overcome the constraints of their poverty.

Prejean understands that most death row inmates in Louisiana come from poor, underserved families whose children are incarcerated far more than the children of more well-to-do families. The children of the poor end up in jail (or on death row) because of poverty, addiction, gangs, guns, and overall lack of opportunities to overcome their and their family's problems. One of the most serious and ubiquitous problems poor African Americans living in St. Thomas must face occurs when they must deal with abusive members of the New Orleans police department.

Patrick Sonnier is Prejean's pen pal. Chava Colon from the Prison Coalition (which works to see that inmates' constitutional rights have been upheld) gives Prejean an account of Sonnier's "blood chilling" crime along with his address: "Death Row." At first Prejean is at a loss to know what to write to this white inmate from a generally nonviolent part of Cajun country. So she writes about herself and her work. As she seals her letter Prejean contemplates the suffering of the victims' families and wonders how she might comfort them.

Sonnier writes back to Prejean in just a few days and says her letters are "welcome." He just asks that she write him in "regular words" and not get too preachy. Prejean writes that "regular words" are fine with her. They exchange several letters. Sonnier describes his cell and his daily routine but does not mention his crime. He is "indigent," so she sends him stamps so he can send more letters.

After a while Prejean goes to the offices of the Prison Coalition to read Sonnier's file and trial transcripts. Her reading leaves Prejean horrified at Sonnier's crime (he and his brother have shot to death two teenagers). The crime led the Sonnier brothers to be convicted of murder, kidnapping, and rape. Prejean relates the details of the horrific crime and the terrible death the teenage couple suffered. She states, "The details of the depravity stun me." Documents show that the brothers' confessions are confusing and contradictory. Patrick and Eddie Sonnier are tried separately. Eddie gets life in prison; Patrick is sentenced to execution in the electric chair. The parents of the victims—the Bourques and the LeBlancs—are glad that Patrick will be put to death. Their pain at the loss of their children is unbearable, and they feel that the death penalty will ease this suffering because it represents their version of justice for their dead children.

Prejean describes how terrible death in the electric chair is, as substantiated by eyewitnesses to such executions. The details do not depict a death that complies with the constitutional injunction against "cruel and unusual punishment." What she learns makes Prejean refuse to "accept that the state now plans to kill Patrick Sonnier in cold blood." She quotes Albert Camus on the immorality of capital punishment. Yet she wonders if her stand "betrays" the victims and their families.

Prejean recognizes how lonely Patrick Sonnier is on death row. She decides that with his approval she will visit him in prison.

Analysis

Injustice—both social and legal—is a major theme in this first chapter. Prejean provides both statistical and anecdotal evidence of the ways in which poverty impacts the lives and prospects of the poor and the likelihood that a family member will be incarcerated. She shows that the social ills that plague poor neighborhoods create an "explosive mixture of dead-end futures [from] drugs and guns." She goes on to cite statistics showing that the overwhelming majority of prisoners in the United States are from poor families and neighborhoods. Even the "working poor" must struggle to keep poverty at bay. Prejean deplores the cuts to social services that make it increasingly difficult for poor people to work their way out of poverty.

Poverty and lack of programs and institutions to help people rise above it have led to an explosion of incarceration, a form of injustice. Prejean correlates the slashing of social programs—economic injustice—with the booming building of prisons. The United States has the highest number of incarcerated people per capita of any other nation on earth. Are Americans innately more criminal than other people? Or are social injustice and an unjust legal system at the core of this dismaying statistic?

The legal system often exacerbates, even embodies, injustice. At the Prison Coalition Prejean learns how deficiencies in the legal system send the poor accused to prison. She documents how overworked the few available (state-funded) public defenders are and how little time they can spend on each case they handle. Lack of time and resources result in injustices arising from lack of oversight in jury selection to failure to see that the accused's rights are upheld. The Coalition seeks justice for those wrongfully convicted. The Coalition helps prisoners appeal their convictions and provides them with effective legal representation. The lawyers who work for the Coalition are unpaid volunteers who "believe in fairness" and justice. In the Sonniers' case, "contradictions" in the accused men's statements and mishandling of appeals led to Patrick's death sentence. More effective counsel might have prevented this.

Race plays a role in legal injustice. Prejean cites city police who too often "verbally abused, handcuffed, beaten, and sometimes killed" poor people (mainly young black men) in the St. Thomas neighborhood. In the 1980s one in four young black men in America was "under the control of the criminal justice system."

Remorse—or the lack of it—is introduced here. Prejean is rather shocked when she learns of the lack of remorse Patrick Sonnier evinces during his arrest and trial. Newspaper photos of Sonnier show him "sneering" at the public and in court. He shows no remorse for the brutal murders he has committed.

Prejean discusses the role of family as an important determinant of a child's future. She uses her own family to typify middle- and upper-middle-class families and the advantages they bestow on their children. Few children from this privileged class end up in jail largely because they receive the material and emotional support they need from their family. A well-off family can also pay for high-quality lawyers who can get criminal charges reduced or dismissed. The families of the poor, some of whose stories are told briefly, often must struggle for the most basic necessities of life, leaving parents with too little time and resources to protect their children from the dangers of the streets. They almost certainly haven't the money to pay for their own criminal defense attorney and are therefore dependent on the inadequate public defense system.

Patrick Sonnier mentions his family in his letter to Prejean. His family is poor ("indigent"), and he explains that his mother is in poor health. "It's hard for her to come to this place," he writes. So the Sonnier brothers get little support of any kind from their family.

Related to the issue of family is Prejean's concern about the families of the murder victims. Prejean wonders about the victims' parents and assumes that since the murders occurred five years earlier "by now the Bourques and LeBlancs have tried to put the pain behind them." She will discover later how wrong she is. The pain of having a child murdered is, for most parents, a lifelong pain. These parents will be "outraged and hurt" and "berate" her for comforting the murderer and not them.

Prejean humanizes Patrick Sonnier. As her correspondence with Sonnier continues, Prejean comes to "think of him as a fellow human being" and not as a monster (despite his brutal crime). Her humanizing of Sonnier is an outgrowth of her compassion, and being seen that way helps Sonnier open up to her as his spiritual adviser.

Prejean's description of death in the electric chair relates to the issues of retribution and the morality of murder. The parents of the murdered young people seek retribution and view the death penalty as a just punishment for the murderer. Yet the eyewitness accounts Prejean includes reveal that death in the electric chair may be "cruel and unusual punishment." She shows that this supposedly "painless" method of execution is instead more like "torture," like murder by the state "in cold blood."

Prejean reflects on the morality of murder through her religious beliefs. She rejects the "eye for an eye" form of retribution. She writes, "I cannot believe in a God who metes out hurt for hurt, pain for pain, torture for torture." She rejects humans taking on the role of "God's Avengers." She cites French thinker Albert Camus, who (in his essay "Reflections on the Guillotine") wrote, "To assert ... that a man must be absolutely cut off from society because he is absolutely evil amounts to saying that society is absolutely good, and no one in his right mind will believe this today."

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