Dead Man Walking | Study Guide

Sister Helen Prejean

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Dead Man Walking | Chapter 10 | Summary

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Summary

After Willie's execution Prejean is interviewed by the assembled press. Vernon Harvey is interviewed as well about his witnessing Willie's execution. Each of them gives a point of view of the death penalty and the execution.

Prejean spends the night at her mother's house. She remembers Willie's request "not to mourn him" but to "now and then go and pour a beer on my grave." He had a brave exterior and a sense of humor to the end. Remember the wink.

The next day Prejean is invited to appear on a network news program to discuss the execution. She has little time to change her clothes and get to the TV studio. Prejean would rather not go but realizes the network interview will give her viewpoint national coverage. The audience size convinces her to go. At the studio, anchor Peter Jennings informs Prejean that they want her point of view about the death penalty as a counterpoint to a feature they are doing about the Harveys.

The Harveys are featured first. Vernon says that "every victim [should] have the opportunity he had tonight." He says, "Willie saw Faith die, her parents should see him die." Then Jennings asks Prejean what purpose is served by letting the victim's parents attend the execution. She replies that witnessing is the parents' right, but too often it "emphasizes" revenge. At Jennings's prompting Prejean says that "people [should] be exposed to executions ... because then they would see its violence unmasked and this would lead them to abolish executions." Another guest on the program, conservative commentator George Will, argues for the death penalty as "satisfying" a deeply felt need for "just" punishment. He calls this act of "justice" noble but admits that televising executions would be "coarsening." Then this segment of the show is over.

Prejean writes her thoughts about the contradiction between finding executions "noble" at the same time as seeing them as "coarsening." Another writer who opposes televising executions says it is because they are "vulgar." Prejean counters by stating that "hiding the ugliness [of an execution] from view ... numbs our minds to the horror of what we're doing. This is what truly 'coarsens' us."

Prejean contrasts Camus's anti–death penalty arguments with those of President Ronald Reagan. As governor of California in 1971 Reagan advocated for the use of lethal injection to execute prisoners because it is more "humane." Louisiana switched to lethal injection in 1990. One prison official opposed the method because witnesses would be "bored." Prejean discusses the expanding use of lethal injection in the 1990s. She explains that it is preferred because "it virtually eliminates visible, bodily pain." Yet that does not mean the prisoner is not feeling any pain. And death rows prisoners still suffer the agonies of awaiting the day of execution. Experts have called old-time public executions "vulgar" because death is so visible. Prejean argues that with today's "hidden" executions the "coarseness" is "more subtle."

Prejean provides insight into the number of innocent people who are executed in the United States. A study published in 1992 revealed that in the 20th century 417 Americans were "wrongly convicted of capital offenses" and of these "23 were actually executed." Prejean then provides brief examples from some of the cases in which the death penalty was overturned or wrongfully carried out.

Following this discussion Prejean describes going to Robert Willie's funeral. Willie's family and a few other people are in attendance. His mother is understandably distraught and cries over his casket how much she loved him. Prejean gives a eulogy in which she talks about Willie's last days of life and Jesus's teachings of compassion for everyone. Willie's father is at the gravesite, and Prejean weeps as she greets him. Prejean returns with Willie's family to their house. Mrs. Willie gives Prejean a photo of Robert from Marion prison on which he wrote, "Hello, Mom, here is the picture of me living every day to the fullest."

Analysis

The beginning of the chapter deals primarily with the issue of retribution. Prejean quotes Vernon Harvey's comment that "he's sorry every victim doesn't have the satisfaction of watching a murderer die." Yet he laments Willie "died too quickly ... he wishes Willie could have had the same kind of painful death that Faith had." Fourteen-year-old Lizabeth Harvey rather ghoulishly crows that Willie's execution made this year "the 'best Christmas'" because "the man who had killed her sister was finally executed."

Yet retribution is not satisfying. The Harveys did not get the satisfaction they sought in wreaking "vengeance" on Willie by witnessing his execution. Vernon complains, "[Willie] didn't suffer no pain, and my daughter had to." The Harveys had witnessed the most extreme form of justice, yet they were not satisfied by Willie's death. His death was not the cathartic release through retribution that they thought it would be. They will continue to suffer the torment of remembering Faith's murder.

It must be kept in mind that although Robert Willie expressed sorrow for the Harveys' suffering, he never accepted responsibility for the murder. He never apologized and owned up to his part in Faith's death. Willie's failure to accept responsibility, to apologize to Faith's family, or to show any remorse for his actions no doubt fueled the Harveys' feeling that his execution was just. He was irredeemable, so they felt the ultimate retribution was justified.

Prejean understands the Harveys' feelings. She counters their statements by asking, "What have we accomplished by killing Robert Willie? Now two people are dead instead of one ... and another mother will bury her child." Coupled with the Harveys' lack of satisfaction with Willie's execution, Prejean makes a strong argument that retribution through the death penalty is ineffective as a palliative for grief and anger, and that is one reason it is morally indefensible.

Commentator George Will says the death penalty is morally justifiable because it "satisfies a deeply felt moral intuition that there are some crimes for which death is the only proportionate punishment, and this murder certainly seems to be one of those crimes." Yet the Harveys' "deeply felt" need for retribution did not satisfy them or their craving for justice for their murdered daughter.

Prejean explores the moral contradiction in George Will's argument that executions are "noble" but making them public is "coarsening." "How ... does a noble act coarsen society?" she wonders. Another pro–death penalty writer seems to agree with George Will. He writes that executions are "dignified events" but the viewing of them is "vulgar." Again there is a moral contradiction. How can something dignified be vulgar? In Prejean's view "hiding the ugliness [of an execution] from view and rationalizing it numbs our minds to the horror of what we are doing. This is what truly 'coarsens' us." People use euphemisms to hide the moral dilemma: government-run vengeance is noble, state-run killing is dignified, "death by lethal injection is humane."

The use of lethal injection confuses the morality of executions because "killing is camouflaged as a medicinal act." Prejean favors public witnessing of executions to reveal their terrible reality. Yet the lack of recognition of the morality of killing is revealed when a prison official complains that lethal injection makes executions "boring" for the witnesses. For Prejean when killing is akin to entertainment it surely has lost its "deeply moral" meaning in our lives.

The issue of injustice is presented in the statistics and overviews of miscarriages of justice in which innocent people were wrongly convicted of capital crimes. Nearly two dozen were executed for crimes they did not commit. Prejean cites a case of wrongful execution in the United Kingdom that led to public repudiation of the death penalty. She asks with passion, Why doesn't a similar moral outrage lead to banishing the death penalty in the United States?

Finally the Marlboro Man toughness of Robert Willie is shown to have persisted to the end. Prejean regrets that he was not executed with his boots on as he had wanted to be. Willie also kept his sense of humor, asking those who visit his grave to "pour a beer" on it instead of weeping and mourning. Prejean comforts Willie's family by telling them "how bravely he had met his death."

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