Dead Man Walking | Study Guide

Sister Helen Prejean

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Dead Man Walking | Chapter 3 | Summary



Prejean contacts Millard Farmer, an Atlanta attorney who helps death row prisoners. Farmer has reviewed Patrick Sonnier's files and is preparing a petition on his behalf for the appeals court. A colleague of Farmer's tells Prejean to expect the Supreme Court to turn down Sonnier's appeal.

On January 18, 1984, Prejean and Farmer drive to Angola to visit with Patrick Sonnier. During the drive Farmer tells her about how the criminal justice system works, especially in death penalty cases. Prejean realizes the system is like a one-way "turnstile" and previous issues and errors cannot be raised. Millard describes Sonnier's public defender's errors during the trial that now cannot be used to alter the outcome because the appellate court would refuse to consider these earlier mistakes. Prior to 1976 federal courts could "monitor and check errors and abuses in state courts." But a Supreme Court decision took away that federal oversight and gave more power to the states, including the power to refuse to consider errors committed in previous trials. Farmer says he will raise the issue of Sonnier's inadequate defense, but he does not hold out much hope that it will have any positive effect.

Farmer and Prejean talk about how the poor defendants' reliance on public defense attorneys institutionalizes social injustice. The poor, and African Americans especially, suffer most from an inadequate or incompetent defense. Prejean learns "just how much depends on the skills of defense attorneys." A lot also depends on the race of the accused and the victim. Blacks are far more likely to be convicted if the victim is white, but Patrick Sonnier is white and his victims were also white. Although in 1987 the Supreme Court recognized "a discrepancy that appears to correlate with race" in criminal cases, it did not apply that to the death penalty, in which it stated racial discrepancies were "inevitable." Prejean presents a litany of cases in which poor, black, juvenile, and even mentally challenged perpetrators were put to death with the blessing of appeals courts. Prejean is convinced that if Farmer had been Sonnier's lawyer, Sonnier wouldn't be facing execution. At least now at this last moment Farmer will be advocating for him.

Farmer and Prejean meet Sonnier in the prison visiting room. Farmer is calm and logical as he lays out his plan of action. He stresses that if Sonnier had no intent to kill then he cannot be executed for first-degree (premeditated) murder. The judge had acted in error in instructing the jury to find either or both of the Sonnier brothers guilty of first-degree murder. Farmer will emphasize this error during appeal. Unfortunately Sonnier's original defense attorney "failed to raise this issue" during the trial. It's likely that the appeals court will refuse to consider it.

On the drive home Farmer tells Prejean that the best chance for clemency is to appeal directly to Louisiana's new governor, Edwin Edwards, "a reluctant supporter of capital punishment." Farmer will also mobilize anti–death penalty activists and religious leaders who are close to the governor to convince him to help Sonnier. Farmer will arrange a meeting with the governor to plead Sonnier's case. Back in Baton Rouge Prejean enlists the help of religious leaders who know Edwards and will intercede on Sonnier's behalf.

On February 21 the U.S. Supreme Court denies Sonnier's petition. On March 5 another date is set for Sonnier's execution (April 5, 1984). Prejean visits Patrick and Eddie Sonnier more frequently to "keep hope alive" for them. A psychologist prepares a favorable report stating that Patrick Sonnier is an excellent candidate for a life sentence.

On March 27, Prejean, Farmer, and others meet with the governor. Each of Sonnier's advocates makes a statement. The governor gives his prepared statement and promises to "look carefully at the case." Yet unless there is "striking evidence for innocence and a gross miscarriage of justice" he will not "interfere." Prejean then reflects on the political aspects of the death penalty and how often it's politically expedient. On the drive back from the governor's office Farmer, Prejean, and the others plan their approach to the upcoming Pardon Board meeting.

Prejean reviews the vast trial transcripts. She finds them "vivid" but contradictory and full of holes. Important lab tests were not done. Eddie's testimony is unbelievable. Farmer decides that Patrick should not attend the Pardon Board hearing. Prejean and Farmer visit the Sonniers' mother. Farmer decides she is not up to appearing at the hearing. Instead he has her write a letter to the Board.

Four days before his scheduled execution Sonnier is moved to the death house. On March 30 Farmer submits the petition to the Pardon Board. Farmer, Prejean, and Howard Marsellus, chair of the Pardon Board, talk over coffee. Marsellus seems "sympathetic" and promises to study the petition "carefully." Farmer and Prejean feel optimistic about the "pro-clemency" board.

The next day Farmer, Prejean, and others meet with the five-member Pardon Board. Each advocate makes a statement about Sonnier's case. The lawyers speak of legal issues. Prejean speaks of mercy. Then the prosecutor makes the case for execution. Lloyd LeBlanc, father of one of the victims, is called as a witness. He asks the Board to rule for the death penalty. The Board retires to reach its decision.

While waiting for the Board to return, Prejean meets LeBlanc, who berates her for never visiting with them, the victims' families. Prejean is "shocked" at her "failure" to do that. The Bourques, parents of the other victim, briefly say hello to her. They resent her for helping Sonnier and ignoring them. LeBlanc tells Prejean about the "evil" side of Patrick Sonnier she has never seen.

The Pardon Board returns and recommends that "clemency be denied" in this case. The execution will take place as scheduled. Back home Prejean begins to make arrangements for Sonnier's funeral and burial.


The issue of injustice—social, racial, and judicial—dominates this chapter. Prejean reveals racial injustice when she describes how much more likely an African American defendant is to get the death penalty for killing a white person than for a white person who has killed a black person. Prosecutors often "eliminate blacks from the jury" when the defendant is black even though this violates the "jury of one's peers" rule. Inexperienced and overworked public defense lawyers often fail to challenge this illegal use of jury selection.

Social injustice also arises out of poverty and the inability of the poor defendant to hire competent legal representation. Nearly all poor defendants are represented by public defenders, many of whom have little or no experience in criminal cases. They make mistakes during a trial that cannot be corrected later. Further, it is up to the defendant's appellate lawyer to prove that previous defense counsel "blunders" would have led the jury to a different (less severe) verdict. That is almost impossible to prove.

Judicial injustice may arise from a more limiting rule handed down by the Supreme Court. For example, "Federal courts [had previously been able] to monitor and check errors and abuses in state courts." But a Supreme Court ruling overturned that oversight "by removing the constitutional protection against capital punishment ... [so that] if states wanted to kill their citizens" federal law wouldn't stop them. Some states have used this ruling to expedite executions for slight infractions, such as lawyers filing papers one day late or refusing to hear exculpatory evidence that might clear the accused. In Sonnier's case the prosecution failed to carry out (or "suppressed") the most basic evidentiary tests, but the defense attorney failed to point out these omissions.

Also, judicial injustice intersects with social injustice in the paltry amount of money the state provides to public defenders. It is impossible to get expert witnesses to testify for your client when you have so little money to spend. Well-off defendants have lawyers with the resources to hire "investigators, a ballistics expert, a psychologist" and other experts to testify on behalf of the defendant. Poor defendants are essentially denied these benefits by lack of state funds allocated to public defenders.

The issue of the humanity of the accused also comes into play. Farmer explains that a trial attorney in a capital case should have family, friends, and others close to the accused testify to the defendant's good character. This is vital to the outcome of a trial because it helps that "the jury can see your client as a human being" so he has "a chance to live." In her statement to the Pardon Board Prejean emphasizes that Sonnier is not a "monster" but a "human being like the rest of us ... [who] deserves punishment but not death." In her statement Prejean blends the need for mercy with the equal need for some kind of retribution—but not a fatal kind. If Sonnier gets life in prison "he will pay for his deed and the public will be protected." In contrast, the prosecutor insists that the only type of retribution that will serve justice is the death penalty. This view is echoed by Lloyd LeBlanc, father of the boy who was murdered.

The morality of committing any murder meets responsibility and accountability in this chapter. Farmer hopes to appeal to the governor's "moral instincts" in arguing for clemency for Sonnier. However, Prejean explains that although the governor may personally oppose the death penalty he governs a state whose population overwhelmingly supports it. It is a type of corruption to authorize "murder" (an execution) in order to further one's political ambition. Later in the chapter Prejean explains how the generally "pro-clemency" Pardon Board acts as a buffer between the governor and the death chamber. But if the Pardon Board denies clemency the governor can claim he is not responsible for the execution. Even though the governor appoints the Pardon Board members he uses them to deny his accountability for their decisions. The governor says he will "not interfere" with the Pardon Board's decision unless it finds a "gross miscarriage of justice." The governor is so uncomfortable with the death penalty he has even "transferred responsibility for signing death warrants from [himself] to the sentencing judge." Prejean recognizes that the governor has found a "moral niche" on this issue. He claims he's not "personally" responsible for executions because they are part of the law. He tells himself he is "just doing his job," which is to carry out "the will of the people" of his state. Yet where is the governor's moral instinct in his abrogation of his responsibility regarding the execution of his state's citizens?

Another type of accountability confronts Prejean when she meets the families of Sonnier's victims. She feels guilty that she has not visited them to get to understand their feelings, point of view, and suffering. She accepts her own culpability and responsibility for her inaction. She promises to visit them and will include victims' families in her future work with death row inmates.

The road sign symbol pops up again. On the drive to Angola with Prejean, Farmer sees the "Do not despair" sign by the side of the road. He points to this ambiguous symbol and says, "Somebody knows this road real, real well." He seems to interpret this symbol as one that predicts a bad outcome but still advises not despairing over it.

The workings of the Pardon Board belie its name. Although Marsellus at first seems very sympathetic to Sonnier's appeal he is far less so during the actual hearing. To a certain extent Prejean and Farmer, who had earlier felt optimistic, are shocked by the near unanimity of the Pardon Board's decision to allow the execution to proceed. Only later will the true nature of the corruption surrounding the Pardon Board become clear.

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