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Dead Man Walking | Study Guide

Sister Helen Prejean

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Dead Man Walking | Chapter 11 | Summary



Prejean hesitates meeting with the Harveys, who rally at every execution at Angola. Prejean wonders, "On what common ground could we possibly meet?" In 1986 Prejean's abolition group sponsors a seminar on capital punishment. She is amazed the Harveys will attend. She sees them at the opening session but avoids looking at them. "Why have a confrontation?" she thinks. At the end of the seminar, Elizabeth Harvey asks Prejean when she is coming to see them. Prejean is "stunned" but agrees to visit.

Prejean visits them a few weeks later. The Harveys are helping the families of murder victims—going to court with them, telling them about the rights they have, which the Harveys learned through their experience. Elizabeth is angry that the accused are advised of their rights but the victim's family is not. They explain how law enforcement officials tend to dismiss or ignore them because they are "too busy prosecuting the criminal to be concerned about the victim's family." Of course, prosecutors build reputations on getting convictions, not on helping victims' families.

Prejean describes Willie's last hours. She tells them she thinks he meant it when he said "he hoped his death would relieve their suffering." Vernon weeps. The Harveys still suffer even after Willie's execution.

A few months later after a march to the state capitol by the abolition group Pilgrimage for Life, Prejean sees the Harveys at a rally. Against all advice Prejean allows Elizabeth Harvey to speak to the marchers. Instead of criticizing her and the marchers, Elizabeth speaks to garner support for retaining federal funding to aid victims' families. Everyone applauds. Prejean later helps circulate petitions in support of the Harveys' cause.

Prejean next meets the Harveys outside Angola on the night the nephew of a fellow nun is to be executed for his crime. They greet each other, but the meeting is awkward. As the group breaks up Vernon invites Prejean to a meeting of his organization Parents of Murdered Children. Prejean agrees to go despite the fact that she fears their anger at her. She also feels "so helpless in face of their suffering."

At the meeting Prejean notes all attendees are white and middle class. She feels nervous and guilty about having so long ignored victims' families. The group's motto is "give sorrow words," and throughout the meeting members share stories of their children's murder and their unbearable suffering. Some have lost jobs and friends; others have failed marriages. Prejean is so affected by their testimony she resolves to "help murder victims' families" in any way she can.

At the next Pilgrimage meeting everyone agrees to create a support group for families of murder victims. Prejean then explains the concept of monetary "settlement and restitution" made by prisoners to the families of their victims. For this to work inmates would have to be paid a lot more for prison jobs than they usually get. Prejean notes that despite an increase in executions in the 1980s and '90s the murder rate has increased, not declined. The millions spent on executions would, Prejean argues, be better used funding crime-fighting programs.

Prejean wonders how victims' families "recover from such a loss and pick up their lives again." To find out she contacts a coordinator at the Victims of Violence Program in Massachusetts. The coordinator says that recovery is a gradual process taking at least a year or more—although the pain and anger never disappear completely.

By August 1988 Prejean and others have organized the New Orleans victim assistance program. Prejean and another member visit the Harveys to learn what victims' families need and how they might provide it. The assistance group is to be called Survive.

Sometime later Prejean visits the Harveys in the hospital where Vernon is recovering from heart surgery. The pain of surgery has intensified his desire for revenge. He is still angry and unsatisfied by Willie's execution. Vernon suggests televising executions, and he and Prejean debate the effect public executions would have on public sentiment about the death penalty.

In 1991 Prejean attends a Survive meeting where most of the family members are black women. Prejean braces herself for the women's stories. They speak of losing several children to violence, of police corruption, of anger and despair. Yet most are determined to "carry on" with their lives. In contrast to the Harveys' group, most of these women don't expect justice for their murdered family members because prosecutors give their cases low priority. One congressional report supported the contention of "strong racial bias" in murder prosecutions. Prejean cites 1991 statistics revealing that of the 323 homicide victims in New Orleans that year 284 victims were African American. Prejean states that of the 40 black women at the meeting "only one hopes to see her child's murderer brought to trial." The other women describe official indifference to the murders of their family members. The women therefore distrust and lack faith in the criminal justice system. A congressional report aligns with this view. A Georgia study found that the death penalty was sought in 85 percent of cases in which the victim was white but it was sought in only 15 percent of cases in which the victim was black.

At the end of the meeting the women pray, yet they are not "devastated." Prejean feels their strength and attributes it to the fact that black women are "seasoned sufferers" who have "great capacity to absorb pain and loss and yet endure."

Prejean then ends the book by describing her relationship with Lloyd LeBlanc whose son, David, was killed by Patrick Sonnier. She meets him before dawn at a chapel prayer service he wants her to come to. At the Pardon Board hearing, LeBlanc had asked for the death penalty for Sonnier but was later troubled by the execution. Now he includes Sonnier in his prayers. At the chapel Prejean kneels and prays beside LeBlanc. LeBlanc tells Prejean now he would have been satisfied with life imprisonment for Sonnier. He had gone to witness the execution to see if he would get an apology, but he realizes now he had already forgiven Sonnier in his heart.


This chapter is unique in this book because its focus is solely on the families of the victims of murder, not on the fate of the inmates who committed the murders. This focus brings to the fore the issues of retribution and forgiveness, as well as the theme of injustice. The motif of family is explored in depth as well.

The content of this chapter necessarily emphasizes the importance and the experiences of families. Those portrayed here all mourn the loss of a murdered family member. Yet Prejean shows how different families respond to this tragedy differently. Some families seem like they will never be able to forgive the murderers and will never find satisfaction and peace in their execution. Other victims' families are more resilient and determined to "carry on" despite the trauma and grief of their loss.

The desire for retribution is paramount for some victims' families, such as the Harveys. Prejean had been dreading a meeting with them because of their past "irreconcilable differences" on the death penalty. When she visits the Harveys' home, Prejean learns about the injustices suffered by the victims' families who do not receive any information about their rights or the prosecution's case. Official indifference to them tends to fuel their anger and stir up their desire for the most extreme form of retribution.

When Prejean tells Vernon that "I believe [Robert Willie] was sincere when he said that he hoped his death would relieve their suffering," Vernon weeps. Yet her statement seems to rekindle his anger and need for revenge—even though Willie is already dead. Prejean realizes "that now, with Robert Willie dead, [Vernon] doesn't have an object for his rage ... I know that he could watch Robert killed a thousand times and it could never assuage his grief." The death penalty was not enough to satisfy the Harveys' desire for retribution and revenge.

When Prejean visits Vernon in the hospital his rage and desire for revenge are at full throttle. It is likely that the pain from his surgery is exacerbating his vengeful feelings. Yet his demands for retribution are extreme. He says they should have "strapped [Willie] in that chair ... then ... taken him out of [it] and let him sit in his cell for a day or two and then strapped him in the chair again. It was too easy for him. He went too quick." Vernon envisions long-term psychological torture as a way that might satisfy his desire for revenge. When arguing the deterrent effect of public execution with Prejean, Vernon claims that it would encourage support for the death penalty if we "execut[ed] enough of 'em ... We have to make executions more frequent and more consistent. No exceptions."

A woman who supports the death penalty quotes the Bible to Prejean to convince her that "an eye for an eye" is the way to obtain justice and that "whosoever doth shed blood shall have his blood shed." Prejean does not respond with quotes about Jesus's mercy and compassion. The woman's pain, anger, and desire for bloody retribution are too strong for her to counter.

At the Harveys' victims group meeting one member advises the others to not "let that minister pressure you into forgiveness that you do not feel." Prejean wishes the families could forgive, but she understands that healing is a gradual process that can take years.

Prejean suggests that restitution—payment of a monetary settlement to victims' families—might be one way to get the families to abandon calls for lethal retribution. (However, the pay scale of inmates working in prisons would have to change for this idea to be feasible.)

A theme of injustice arises and persists among these families of murder victims. Many family members attending the Harveys' group "feel victimized by the criminal justice system" whose district attorneys are "insensitive" to their needs—and their rights. The injustice of the criminal "justice" system is most evident in the Survive group meeting. The stories some of the black women tell at the meeting reflect the indifference—and the racial bias—of police and prosecutors when it comes to investigating and prosecuting those who murder black victims. Prejean goes on to describe instances of unjust and racially biased behavior on the part of prosecutors in murder cases.

Forgiveness is an enduring and constant aspect of this chapter. Prejean tells Vernon Harvey that Robert Willie sincerely hoped "his death would relieve [the Harveys'] suffering." Yet Vernon cannot bring himself to forgive Willie. Later he will rage about the even more torturous punishments he thinks Willie should have been made to suffer.

An advocate for victims' families tells Prejean that the "healing process" takes time—"at least a year for the rage, grief, and loss to settle so that they can begin to integrate what happened to them." She says that although "the feelings of rage never entirely go away ... gradually, over time ... victims can accept other emotions." It is implied, though not stated, that perhaps some time after this happens they can begin to forgive.

In a type of counterbalance, Lloyd LeBlanc reappears and is featured at the end of the book. Although he had asked for Sonnier's execution at the Pardon Board, that decision has haunted him. Even when he was first taken to view his murdered son's body he admits that he said, "Whoever did this, I forgive them." By the time he meets Prejean to pray, he has forgiven Sonnier and keeps him in his prayers. LeBlanc represents not only forgiveness but also the important role that deep religious belief and morality play in a victim's ability to live on.

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