Dead Man Walking | Study Guide

Sister Helen Prejean

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Dead Man Walking | Chapter 2 | Summary

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Summary

Patrick Sonnier is excited to meet Prejean, and he puts her on the prison visitor list. He requests having her as his spiritual adviser, which means she can be with him as he is escorted to the death chamber.

The prison chaplain interviews Prejean before she's permitted to be Sonnier's spiritual adviser. The chaplain is an elderly, "old-school" Catholic. During the interview he tells her that "these people" are the "scum of the earth." He explains that her mission as spiritual adviser is to get the prisoner to "receiv[e] the sacraments of the church before he dies."

A couple of months later Prejean gets approval from the prison and schedules her first meeting with Sonnier for September 15. A guard walks Prejean through three gates to the separate prison for death row inmates. Prejean feels increasingly tense as she waits while the guard gets Sonnier. Prejean hears the clanking of Sonnier's chains before she sees him. They speak through a heavy mesh screen that separates them.

Sonnier is glad to see her. He is handsome, well groomed, and talkative. He speaks about his childhood when he was a "loner" who had few friends. He chain-smokes as he talks, but he is "obviously very happy to have someone to talk to." Sonnier recounts his unsuccessful history with women. He describes his impoverished, troubled family life growing up and how often he went hungry after his sharecropper father died. Sonnier has a daughter with a former girlfriend, but they are estranged. By the time she leaves Prejean has a splitting tension headache.

Prejean is thankful for the freedom she feels outside the prison. She wonders that Sonnier had said nothing about the crime he had committed, but she realizes she has to give him time and not "demand that he confess ... his terrible sin." Prejean realizes she'd been expecting to meet a Charles Manson–like character, and she is pleased that Sonnier is so likable. Yet even if he were like Manson, she thinks that "the state should not kill him."

Years later in reflecting on her experience, Prejean acknowledges the mistakes she made and how naive she was. Her biggest mistake was not having reached out to the victims' families. Her naïveté was mainly her ignorance of how the criminal justice system functioned. She had thought that those accused of capital crimes would get the best public defense lawyers. Sonnier had not had good legal representation, and now it is too late to relitigate his case.

Prejean and Sonnier continue to correspond by mail, and she visits him monthly. Sonnier often speaks of his brother, Eddie, who is also in prison (for life) as an accomplice to the same crime. Eddie is having trouble adjusting to prison life. "He's got to learn to control his temper," Patrick says of his brother. He worries about Eddie constantly getting into trouble and being punished.

In July 1983 Prejean visits Eddie Sonnier in the main prison visiting room for the first time. He is tense and wary like a "caged panther." Prejean is the first visitor Eddie has had in prison. She can tell that "prison is torture for him." Like his brother, Eddie is a loner who "kept to himself." He says "he is afraid of 'this place,'" especially the threat of violence from other prisoners.

That same month Prejean gets a phone call from Sonnier who tells her a guard handed him an official "Warrant of Execution." He is now scheduled to be executed just after midnight on Friday, August 19, 1983. Prejean begins visiting Sonnier once a week. On Wednesday, August 17 Prejean gets permission to visit with Sonnier for four hours. Sonnier looks thin and haggard and says he cannot sleep. He is waiting to be moved to the "death house." Prejean tells him that a lawyer with the Prison Coalition has filed a petition for a stay of execution, which will very likely postpone it. During her visit Prejean and Sonnier talk about many things but not about death and dying. Sonnier is full of "bravado," talking and laughing. Yet Prejean "can see the terror in his eyes." While they wait for news about the stay Prejean and Sonnier pray.

Prejean explains that she wants to be with Sonnier when he dies. At first he refuses, not wanting to put her through that. She explains she wants him to see a "loving face," although she is "terrified" at the prospect of the execution. Sonnier then agrees. When Prejean asks if he believes in God Sonnier says he does. Only then does he speak about the murders. He says "nobody was supposed to get killed" but the situation got out of hand and Eddie shot the boy they had attacked. When Prejean mentions the "hell" the children's parents must be going through, Sonnier says, "I will go to my grave feeling bad about those kids ... and their parents." Later a guard tells Prejean that "he never saw anyone with more remorse than Patrick Sonnier."

Sonnier then describes the plan he had hatched with his brother in which each would say he had committed the murders. This would, they hoped, confuse the police. Still Prejean senses that he accepts responsibility for his role in the crime even though he continues to claim he did not commit the murders. Prejean does not know if she should believe him. Soon it is time for her to leave. On her drive home she hears that the stay of execution has been granted pending an appellate review of the petition.

During her next visit Prejean sees Patrick and then Eddie. Eddie admits that he was the one who committed murder. His voice is flat and affectless. He seems to be more regretful over his fate than for his crime. Eddie recounts the events that led up to the murder. Eddie wishes he "could turn back the clock" and undo the murder and thus relieve the pain he has caused the murdered teens' families. He thinks saying "he's sorry" would make no difference to the parents, but Prejean learns later that saying that would mean a lot to them. Eddie tells Prejean about how he misunderstood the plan he had made with Patrick and how this led to Patrick's death sentence.

In October 1983 Prejean learns that the appellate court has turned down Sonnier's appeal. She contacts a lawyer, Millard Farmer, who defends death row inmates to find out if anything more can be done to prevent the execution.

Analysis

Responsibility and remorse are important to this chapter. After several visits Prejean gets to know Patrick Sonnier. As his execution nears, he begins talking about the murder he was involved in. He admits he was complicit in the crime and takes responsibility for his actions. However, he denies he committed the murder, insisting that his brother Eddie did the actual killing. Still, during one of their last meetings Sonnier shows deep remorse for what he has done. He says he will "go to [his] grave feeling bad about those kids" and that "nobody was supposed to get killed." He admits that "every night when they dim the lights on the tier I kneel by my bunk and pray for those kids and their parents." A trustee working on death row later tells Prejean "the guy [Patrick Sonnier] was eaten up by what he did" and he had "never [seen] anyone with more remorse than Patrick Sonnier." Although earlier Sonnier had felt "even God hated" him, after confessing and taking responsibility for his crime he now understands "God forgives me." Prejean recognizes that Sonnier "seems to accept that he is responsible for what had happened, even though he claims not to have killed the teenagers. He does not press his innocence." His feelings of responsibility for the terrible crime he has committed have left Sonnier consumed with guilt and self-loathing, as is made clear in his favorite psalm, Psalm 31:

I am contemptible,
loathsome to my neighbors,
to my friends a thing of fear ...
I am forgotten, as good as dead in their hearts,
something discarded.

Eddie Sonnier is less repentant and far less adapted to prison life. Prejean says, "He seems remorseful about the killings, but I can tell his most tangible regret is his own fate behind bars. Self-survival seems to dominate his moral horizon." Eddie details the events that led up to the murder of David, the teenager he killed. Eddie cites problems with his girlfriend and her family as a main reason he lost control and shot the boy.

Asking for forgiveness is shown to be a way to begin healing. Eddie has thought about asking for forgiveness from the victims' parents, but then he rejected doing that: "What words could I ever say to the families of those kids ... I'm sorry? What good are those words now? No words can bring those kids back." Yet as Prejean will later learn from the father of the murdered boy his "main reason for attending Patrick Sonnier's execution was to hear an apology." So Eddie is incorrect in his assumption that an apology will do no good. Sometimes an apology could initiate a process of forgiveness in the family of the victim.

Inhumanity and humanity are both evident in this chapter. The prison chaplain who interviews Prejean refers to the death row inmates as the "scum of the earth," denying them full status as human beings deserving of respect. The very invasive physical strip searches of the prisoners may be justified as necessary for security, but this does not negate the humiliation such a personal violation has on the person who is dehumanized by them.

As Patrick Sonnier's execution nears Prejean quotes Albert Camus on the dehumanization of the condemned prisoner who "is no longer a man but a thing waiting to be handled by the executioners." Prejean suspends judgment of the Sonnier brothers and understands that she must help build trust between them before they will open up to her. She treats them as actual human beings who deserve to be treated justly and with compassion. She even surprises herself when she realizes "how human, even likable" Patrick Sonnier is.

The issue of injustice takes two forms here: social injustice and legal injustice. In the latter instance Prejean is appalled to learn that people accused of capital crimes are not provided with the best criminal defense attorneys. They get the same overworked and underpaid public defenders as those accused of lesser offenses. In Patrick's case had his attorney had the time to interview Eddie before putting him on the stand during Patrick's trial, Patrick might not have gotten the death penalty. The defense attorney "didn't know what the hell was going on. He didn't know what [Eddie] was going to say when [he] got up [on the stand to testify]." Eddie's testimony was decisive in his brother being sentenced to death, but Patrick's lawyer had no time to ascertain Eddie's testimony beforehand.

Social injustice is in general tied up with poverty and family. The Sonnier brothers grew up in a poor family whose father was a sharecropper. When the father died the family became truly impoverished. The Sonnier boys had to hunt to bring food home to feed the family, and they still often went hungry. Patrick feels that if his father had been alive to speak for him, he would never have ended up in prison. He says, "You can bet your bottom dollar that if Daddy had been living, he'd been there to get me out." Patrick was close to his father, and perhaps if his father had lived and given Patrick the familial support he needed, Patrick would never have gotten involved in such a terrible crime. Perhaps he would have been able to afford to hire his own lawyer. A good private one is often crucial in death penalty cases. But the injustices arising from Patrick's family's poverty made this impossible.

Eddie's participation in the murder very likely also arises from feelings of inadequacy derived from his impoverished upbringing. Rage built up in him when his girlfriend's family treated him coldly and she refused even to come out to speak to him when he went to her house to propose marriage. She was pregnant with his child, but she and her family froze him out. Angry at this mistreatment, Eddie went home and got a shotgun. He returned to the "girl's house ... threatening to kill them all." Though it is not stated explicitly, the reader might conclude that Eddie's difficult early family life made him desperate to start a family of his own. His rejection by his girlfriend (and thus the loss of his soon-to-be-born child) and her family probably made his feelings of inadequacy and his rage at the unfairness of his life even more unbearable. Eddie says that he killed the teenage boy because his name was David—the same name of his girlfriend's new love interest. When David, the murder victim, challenges Eddie's manhood, Eddie "snaps" and kills the teenager. Eddie is filled with "pain and bewilderment" by what he has done and how his life has turned out.

The symbol of the road sign passed on the way to the prison makes its first appearance here. The sign reads "Do not despair. You will soon be there." The symbolism is ambiguous. It might be intended to give a person hope. It may mean that a person headed for the prison should not despair because they (the accused) may soon be free—or in the case of the death penalty will soon be released from the torment of this life and possibly (eventually) be in heaven. On the other hand the sign may indicate that there is hope that a death sentence might be overturned so the accused should not despair. There is also the possibility that the sign is telling the accused to accept his punishment—even his death—and not feel needless despair about it.

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