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Dead Man Walking | Study Guide

Sister Helen Prejean

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Dead Man Walking | Chapter 5 | Summary



Prejean is deeply shaken after the execution and helps finalize the arrangements for Sonnier's funeral and burial. Angola's warden has given Eddie permission to attend his brother's funeral, along with about 30 other people, both family and nuns. Patrick's mother is absent because her son's funeral would be "too much for her." Eddie attends the funeral wearing handcuffs. He is weeping and says, "Now three people are dead because of me." Eddie cannot go to the cemetery, so it is likely this is the last time he will see his family.

Press crews follow and record the proceedings. They cruelly try to sensationalize Prejean's relationship with Sonnier ("Were you in love with ... Sonnier?"), but Prejean explains she loved Sonnier as Jesus "taught us to love each other."

Prejean helps sort Sonnier's effects, which she will bring to his mother. As she works she reflects on the public execution of Saint Joan and how modern executions behind closed doors make the horror of the act a mystery to most people. Today, she thinks, hidden executions make it possible for those involved to avoid accountability. She reflects on the remark made by C. Paul Phelps, the Department of Corrections chief, who said he wanted executions to be carried out with dignity. Prejean realizes now that he had meant dignity for the state, not dignity or respect for the accused.

Prejean visits Phelps. He admits that "absolutely nothing" was accomplished by Sonnier's execution. He explains how costly death sentence cases are compared to life sentences. He also admits that the death penalty is imposed "arbitrarily" depending on the prosecutor and how "respectable" the victim is. Although Phelps seems to feel the death penalty is immoral, he falls back on the excuse that "he's just doing his job" and "following the law." Prejean asks him to describe the execution process. Phelps says it is "bizarre" how impersonal and "technical" the process of designing the execution is. Phelps also relates the instructions he gives to execution witnesses. No "emotional outbursts ... or undignified behavior" is permitted. Prejean counters that ensuring the witnesses are "polite" does not ensure the "rights of the man being killed" or his dignity.

Prejean thinks she will never again counsel a death row inmate. She will just continue to visit Eddie Sonnier.

Prejean drives to Patrick Sonnier's mother's home to return his belongings. Patrick's mother is tearful but grateful to Prejean. The family complains about the bad press coverage they are getting regarding the execution and burial. Prejean promises she will write a letter in their defense for the newspapers.

Prejean returns to New Orleans and looks forward to teaching again. A fellow nun shows Prejean press clippings about Sonnier. Most clips critically state that "Pat Sonnier was buried as a hero." Letters to the editor of New Orleans newspapers express similar outrage at how well Sonnier was treated by his lawyers and the nuns. Some letters attack Prejean personally, but she refuses to respond to her accusers.

A short while later Prejean gets a letter about an inmate who committed a crime similar to Sonnier's. It seems like a "copycat" crime, so obviously executing Sonnier did not prevent it. Prejean presents data showing that the death penalty does not deter capital crime.

A reporter, Liz Scott, comes to interview Prejean to get her story (and to counteract the negative press she has been getting). The two women will go on to become good friends.

Prejean decides she will work to ensure that every death row inmate is afforded "a decent attorney for his appeals." She works with lawyers at the Prison Coalition to set up training sessions for potential spiritual advisers. They also start raising money for legal defense lawyers. While fundraising continues, Prejean goes on her annual spiritual retreat. One day she gets a newspaper article reporting that a bill to abolish the death penalty in Louisiana was defeated. Prejean then explains Amnesty International studies regarding the death penalty globally. As in the United States, it is mostly the poor who are executed for crimes. Prejean recounts a Supreme Court ruling stating the death penalty is unconstitutional because it is too often "arbitrary," "capricious," and "frequently based on race or random luck." Yet a later Supreme Court ruling states that "guided discretion" removes the randomness and makes the death penalty constitutional. The ruling will serve to open the floodgates for states wishing to impose the death penalty.

Prejean cannot ignore the implications of these decisions. If she does she will feel like an "accomplice" to execution. She will "speak out and resist." Prejean continues to help create an organization to get inmates competent defense attorneys. She also works on an effort to bring the issue before the people of Louisiana.

Then, at the end of the chapter, Farmer asks Prejean to be the spiritual adviser to yet another death row inmate—Robert Willie.


Official accountability for carrying out the death penalty comes into sharp focus in this chapter, especially in Prejean's discussion with Phelps, the head of the Department of Corrections. Phelps admits that "zero" is accomplished by an execution and that executions are carried out when the perpetrator "kill[s] somebody important," not "a nobody." When Prejean challenges his feelings about the morality of the death penalty he falls back on "he's only following the law" so he is not personally responsible or accountable. "It's like a drill ... [with] no personal responsibility." Prejean calls this "the severance of personal values from public duty," or the denial of responsibility. Phelps, the governor, the warden, and others involved in executions refuse to be accountable for their actions: "Despite [their] personal reservations about the moral rightness of state executions ... [they play their] part in carrying them out." Prejean realizes that "everybody can argue that he or she was just doing a job ... Nobody feels personally responsible for the death of [a] man." Prejean is so deeply affected by this lack of accountability she determines to "speak out and resist" so she, too, does not abdicate her responsibility to oppose morally repugnant executions.

The morality of dehumanizing the inmate facing execution is also emphasized. Hiding executions deep within prisons adds to their acceptability. Prejean quotes from George Bernard Shaw's play, Saint Joan (1923), in which a chaplain is a character who had been eager to see Saint Joan burned at the stake. Yet after witnessing her death he says, "I did a very cruel thing ... because I did not know what cruelty was like. I had not seen it, you know. That is the great thing: you must see it." Prejean raises the question: Might public executions persuade more people to oppose the death penalty?

Phelps seems to agree. He feels the death penalty is not "morally right." Prejean tries to convince him that "some rights [are] fundamental to human beings—such as the right not to be tortured and killed" even by the government. She argues that these rights are "fundamental" and "nonnegotiable" for humans everywhere. Yet Phelps, like other well-meaning officials, is conflicted about the moral complexities of the death penalty. In a sense he avoids struggling with the morality of killing a human being and instead focuses on carrying out the law, even if it may arguably be "morally wrong."

The dehumanizing attitude of pro–death penalty officials is summed up in a statement by an assistant district attorney: "If [the death penalty doesn't deter crime], all we've lost is the life of a convicted criminal." The D.A. clearly does not see the convict as a human being. Nor does he admit that the previously discussed biases and shortcomings in the legal system might impose death on a human being who does not deserve it. His indifference to the humanity of the inmate is chilling, "as if some among us—[those who are] not-as-human-as-you-and-I—are disposable."

Retribution is a key factor in arguments for the death penalty. In his conversation with Prejean, Phelps admits it is often the desire for revenge—or retribution—that motivates those who favor the death penalty. This is true not only for the families of the victims but also often for a majority of citizens. "People these days want revenge," he says, "and that's what revenge is—'eye for an eye,' pain for pain, torture for torture." This is the purest form of retribution. Even the U.S. Supreme Court has bent to this upsurge in the desire for retribution. Prejean explains that a 1976 Court ruling reaffirmed that "retribution—even in its most extreme form, killing, is not 'inconsistent with our respect for the dignity of men.'"

The injustice of the legal system is generally acknowledged. Even Phelps agrees that the death penalty is usually meted out unfairly. He says, "The cost of [a] trial would have been fantastic, so the D.A. offer[s] a plea bargain and the defendant [is] willing to accept two life sentences. But some people are not given a chance to choose, especially if they kill somebody important. If you kill an LSU professor or a priest or any other highly respectable citizen, you'll probably go to trial and they'll push for the death penalty, but not if the person you kill is a nobody. By its nature the criminal justice system will always be somewhat arbitrary." This is an expression of institutional injustice. Not only is the inmate treated as less human if he kills a less "respectable" victim, the nonprominent victim is also viewed as being worth less as a human than his or her well-heeled fellow citizens. This discriminatory injustice is not unique to the United States. Prejean shows that worldwide "without exception, the penalty of death is disproportionately meted out to 'the poor, the powerless, the marginalized or those whom repressive governments deem it expedient to eliminate.'" The United States clearly does not have a monopoly on injustice for the poor and "disposable."

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