Dead Man Walking | Study Guide

Sister Helen Prejean

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Dead Man Walking | Chapter 4 | Summary

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Summary

Prejean gets permission to carry a letter from Eddie Sonnier to the governor stating that Patrick is not guilty of the murder. Two weeks ago Eddie was allowed a prison visit with his brother. It will be the last time they see each other.

Prejean is driven to see Patrick in the death house. They speak through a door with a heavy mesh screen. Guards are nearby, always standing guard over death row inmates. Patrick says he doesn't want his family to witness his execution as it will be too hard on them. Prejean will be the only "friendly face" he sees. Prejean tells him about Eddie's letter to the governor, then relates what happened at the Pardon Board hearing. Patrick is angry he was not there but seems to accept that it was Farmer's decision. Patrick gives Prejean a letter he has written to the governor asking for the right to appear before the Pardon Board. Prejean acutely feels Patrick's sense of powerlessness.

Farmer asks Prejean to attend a strategy meeting for Sonnier. New petitions will be filed with the court the next day. This "is Pat's last shot in the courts." A friend reminds Prejean that while helping Sonnier avoid execution is important she should also spend time helping Sonnier face death.

Prejean visits Sonnier the next day and "he seems to be holding up well." He says, "I just pray God gives me strength to make that last walk ... I'm ready to go." Prejean chats with the guards who seem friendly toward Sonnier. She leaves that afternoon but returns early the next day. She speaks briefly with the warden. She phones the head of the Department of Corrections who says he wants the execution carried out "with dignity." Prejean feels extremely tired and hungry. She is taken to the death house where she meets with a priest and chaplain to arrange the prayer service for Sonnier. In the middle of the discussion Prejean faints from hunger. She is treated in the prison hospital (they thought she'd had a heart attack) but implores the officials to "tell Pat what happened" to her as he would be worried about why she had not returned to see him. Prejean recovers, and the associate warden takes her to the cafeteria for some lunch.

A priest arrives for the prayer service. Prejean is there as Sonnier receives Holy Communion. Afterward Prejean encourages Sonnier to share his feelings. "Everybody's scared of dying," she says. But Sonnier "is holding down his emotions" so he won't lose control. He tells Prejean that his love for her for what she has done on his behalf is the first real love he has experienced. Prejean feels "guilty ... in the face of this man's utter poverty." The execution is tomorrow night.

From her family home Prejean calls Farmer who says the appellate court has not yet ruled on the final petition. She sleeps fitfully, but when she awakes the next morning she knows "what day it is." She returns to Angola and visits Eddie first. His letter to the governor has been printed on the front page of the newspaper with the headline "Brother to Governor: you're killing the wrong man." Perhaps the publicity will help Sonnier.

Sonnier has slept little that night. He tells Prejean that he is "angry [at Eddie] for shooting the kids. I'm angry at the kids for being parked out in the woods in the first place ... I'm angry at myself for ... [the] mess over those kids." Prejean convinces Sonnier to make his last words a statement of love and apology to the victims' parents, without hate and anger. At 6:00 p.m. Pat enjoys his final meal, and soon after Prejean learns that the appellate court turned down Sonnier's appeal. Then she and Sonnier learn that the Supreme Court refused the appeal for clemency. Finally Prejean learns that Farmer failed to convince the governor to overrule the death penalty. In just a few hours Sonnier will be executed.

For a moment Sonnier's emotions break through and he says, "Sister Helen, I'm going to die." But he quickly suppresses the emotion. He makes out his will for the distribution of his few belongings. Sonnier writes an encouraging letter to Eddie. Then Prejean is asked to step away as Sonnier is taken into his cell by some guards. When he emerges his hair is shaved; his pants leg is cut to the knee. He has been prepared for his execution. Prejean hears the witnesses arriving and gathering in the death house hallway. Prejean sees Farmer, who has been given permission to witness the execution. Sonnier smokes his last cigarette and seems to welcome his impending death: "I'll be free of all this ... no more life in a cage." Prejean is even given permission to put her hand on Sonnier's arm as the guards walk him to the death chamber. As they walk she reads a psalm: "Do not be afraid ..."

Sonnier is strapped into the electric chair. His last words ask for forgiveness from the LeBlancs for murdering their child. He looks at Prejean, who is seated behind a Plexiglas barrier, and mouths, "I love you." Everyone is ready for the execution. The electrical switch is pulled, and at 12:15 a.m. a doctor pronounces Patrick Sonnier dead. As Prejean and Farmer leave the prison they see an anti–death penalty vigil.

Analysis

The humanity of the accused is accepted by many of the officials in the prison. For example, the warden permits Eddie to visit Patrick, something that is usually not allowed. The warden, the guards, and others in the death house are both friendly and relatively compassionate toward Sonnier as he awaits his execution. They treat him as a fully human being. However, the appeals courts and the governor continue to treat Sonnier as a "thing" they must extinguish. They are impervious to the appeals and arguments of Farmer, Prejean, and others who try to save Sonnier. Even the press treats Sonnier more humanely than the governor and the appeals courts. Although a major newspaper prints Eddie's letter that attests to Patrick's innocence in the murder, the governor refuses to take that into account. Patrick Sonnier has already been written off; his humanity and his life no longer warrant consideration. Yet even the head of the Department of Corrections recognizes Sonnier's humanity when he explains that the execution should be "carried out with as much dignity and respect [for the accused] as possible."

When she visits with Sonnier, Prejean is overwhelmed by his "powerlessness" because "everything goes on outside of him." He has no agency in his own fate. She thinks, "He is no longer a man but a thing waiting to be handled" at his execution. Her words reflect what the French writer Camus said about the condition of humans condemned by the state to die.

During the prayer service Prejean thinks, "This man about to die is not innocent, but he is human, and that is enough to draw you [God] here." Prejean feels a spiritual connection to Sonnier as a human who must be beloved of the creator. These feelings seem not to apply to the priest conducting the service. Prejean writes, "For him, the human ... interaction of trust and love is not part of the sacrament." The ritual seems soulless and likely does not nourish Sonnier spiritually.

Yet Sonnier's humanity is respected even by the prison chef who prepares a delicious last meal for him. The warden tells Sonnier that the cook "put himself out for you, Sonnier," indicating that the chef respected Sonnier's humanity and the importance to him of his final meal. Prejean underscores Sonnier's humanity when she asks for and gets permission to place her hand on his arm as he is escorted to the execution chamber. This is the first time she has touched him, and this moving touch is an act that reveals a deeply human connection with someone about to die.

The governor refuses to be accountable for his inaction in Sonnier's case. Although Eddie writes to him, "You're about to kill the wrong man ... I'm the one who killed the teenagers," the governor ignores the likely truth of what happened. As was discussed earlier, Prejean comes to believe that the governor's political career is more important to him than justice. The governor will continue to hide behind the Pardon Board and the courts in his refusal to be accountable for his inaction.

Patrick Sonnier raises the issue of injustice when he writes to the governor. He states that being barred from his own Pardon Board hearing was "unjust" because he was prevented from speaking for his "own life." He asks the governor to allow him "to appear before this Board which is deciding whether I live or die." Again the governor refuses to accept his role and his responsibility for the execution. He never replies to Sonnier's letter. Yet Sonnier does not blame Prejean, Farmer, or any of the other lawyers who tried but failed to get his death sentence commuted. Sonnier says to them, "You didn't fail, it's the justice system in this country, it stinks."

Sonnier seems to accept responsibility for his actions. He says he is "ready to go." He has come to terms with his role in the crime and the intransigence of the justice system. Even though he maintains that he did not commit the murder, he seems to accept responsibility for the crime. He may not want to die—and he feels that his execution is unjust—but he has attained a sort of peace with his fate. Sonnier takes responsibility for his life in another way: "He wants to be fully awake" during his execution. He will experience all of his life—even his death—fully.

Forgiveness is important to Prejean. She asks Sonnier "to think about the parents of David and Loretta and how they have already suffered torments." She asks Sonnier if he wouldn't rather die "a free and loving man" who asks these parents for forgiveness rather than a man "shriveled up by hate." Sonnier's last words are words of apology. He asks Lloyd LeBlanc to forgive him for the crime he has committed: "I don't want to leave this world with any hatred in my heart. I want to ask your forgiveness for what [I've] done." Yet Sonnier cannot bring himself to ask for forgiveness from the other victim's family, the Bourques, who were vocal in their desire to see Sonnier executed. Mr. Bourque had even wished "he could pull the switch himself."

The morality of murder is detailed in a quote from Albert Camus that Prejean cites in the text. Camus, an atheist, wrote appreciatively about the Early Christian attitude toward capital punishment: "Emperor Julian ... did not want to give official offices to Christians because they systematically refused to pronounce death sentences or to have anything to do with them. For five centuries Christians therefore believed that the strict moral teaching of their master [Jesus Christ] forbade killing."

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