Dead Man Walking | Study Guide

Sister Helen Prejean

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Dead Man Walking | Chapter 6 | Summary

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Summary

To fill her in, Farmer tells Prejean about Robert Willie who, with accomplice Joe Vaccaro, went on an eight-day "rampage," murdering young Faith Hathaway and paralyzing her boyfriend. Willie had committed crimes before. After being arrested for Hathaway's death, Willie had pleaded guilty to federal charges of kidnapping and was sentenced to life imprisonment. The state then tried Willie so that it could sentence him to death.

Prejean has heard of Faith's stepfather, Vernon Harvey, who is an outspoken advocate for the death penalty. Prejean "shudders" to contemplate her visit with Harvey and his wife, which she knows she must face.

Prejean writes a letter to Willie offering to be his spiritual adviser. "Sure, come on," Willie writes back. Prejean prepares herself to visit Willie even though Bill Quigley tells her that prison officials feel she gets too "emotionally involved" with inmates and causes "a lot of trouble" at the prison. He warns her that for these reasons her request to be spiritual adviser might be denied. However, prisoners have a constitutional right to a spiritual adviser. There is no law that prevents the prison from denying women that role. Still, Prejean makes an appointment to see the new prison warden.

The warden comes right to the point, saying, "I've been hearing some disturbing things about you." He thinks she had previously fainted only from emotional stress. Prejean sets him straight, explaining that she had fainted that one time because of hunger. Prejean also explains her opposition to the death penalty and describes her work with Patrick Sonnier. After explaining her fainting spell, Prejean gets permission to be spiritual adviser to Robert Willie.

The warden is also a lay minister, but he feels no conflict between his Christian faith and his role in carrying out executions. Perhaps, Prejean thinks, he relies more on the Old Testament God who proclaims "vengeance is mine" than the compassionate teachings of Jesus in the Christian book. Prejean reflects on whether imperfect humans can carry out what they view as divine vengeance. Prejean digresses to discuss the Catholic Church's view on capital punishment. A "Statement on Capital Punishment" condemns the death penalty as "unfair and discriminatory" and as a "continuance of the 'cycle of violence.'" Paradoxically the Church also "uphold[s] the 'right' of the state to kill" prisoners.

The book moves into its second half when in October 1984 Prejean visits Robert Willie for the first time. Willie looks remarkably delicate for a man who has committed such a brutal and violent crime. Willie says he is glad to see her though he "never thought [he'd] be visitin' with no nun." He is friendly and polite but is as "self-possessed" as a "cowboy." Prejean talks about herself and her work. Willie is curious about her being a nun, wondering if she misses "having a man" and "intimacy." Willie admits that it is being with women he misses most in prison. He spends lots of time reading law books. He wants to sue the state to improve conditions for death row inmates.

On October 26 Prejean and a group of about 40 other anti–death penalty activists begin an 80-mile march from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. They will walk for three days to garner support in opposition to the death penalty in Louisiana. Prejean explains to readers that reducing crime depends more on improving education, jobs, and other social factors than it does on capital punishment. Prejean also points out that executing an inmate costs far more money than keeping him in jail for life. She stresses that if murder is wrong for individuals it is also wrong for the state.

On their march the activists encounter both supporters and detractors. On the steps of the capitol in Baton Rouge they meet a victims' rights group supporting the death penalty. Prejean speaks at the rally on the capitol steps. As the group scatters she is warned that a man "wants to talk" to her but may hurt her. That man is Vernon Harvey. Harvey is soft-spoken, not dangerous. He simply explains his view that "mad dog" murderers must be executed so these "scum" do not kill again. He invites Prejean to visit him and his wife at home.

Prejean drives to their house the following week. She meets Elizabeth, Vernon's wife. They tell Prejean about Faith's life and plans before she was killed. Then they describe the horror of her murder four years earlier. Faith's body was found eight days after her parents reported her missing: "She had been stabbed seventeen times." The Harveys convey more gruesome details and express their unbearable anguish. Prejean weeps along with Vernon as Elizabeth tells the terrible story. Both Willie and Vaccaro confessed but blamed each other for the actual murder. Vernon is incensed that Vaccaro got life imprisonment and that only Willie will be executed. Vernon feels that execution of both men is the victim's family's "right," their hope for "justice."

Prejean tells the Harveys that she will be Willie's spiritual adviser. Vernon thinks spiritual advice is wasted on an "animal" like Willie. Vernon describes the times he had the opportunity to kill Willie himself but in the end chose not to. He cannot wait to see Willie "fry." Prejean and the Harveys agree to disagree on the death penalty. Their parting is amicable, but this feeling will ultimately not last.

Analysis

Retribution, the desire for revenge as a means of attaining justice, is a key theme in this chapter. Vernon Harvey, the stepfather of the murdered young woman Faith Hathaway, is the primary expositor of this point of view.

When Prejean becomes spiritual adviser to Robert Willie she knows she will have to face Vernon Harvey, whose stepdaughter, Faith Hathaway, was murdered by Willie. Prejean wonders how she will react to Harvey's fierce rage, his desire to see Willie "fry" until the "smoke [flies] off his body." Vernon Harvey is the character who most clearly and fiercely demands retribution for the murder of his child. His desire to see Willie suffer is boundless, and he feels it will "ease [the parents'] pain and their loss. At last, they will have justice."

Vernon Harvey is so consumed with rage and the desire for vengeance he twice almost murders Robert Willie himself. In both cases he resisted, but his desire for retribution has not cooled.

When speaking with the new warden for the first time Prejean considers the Christian stance on retribution. She says that "for the most part [in Christianity], the blessing of God on retaliatory punishment has been unquestioned." Yet she reflects on how fit fallible humans can possibly be in interpreting and carrying out God's "divine vengeance." She also cannot accept that "God has fits of rage and goes about trucking in retaliation." Yet for Vernon Harvey the death penalty is a matter of justice and closure. "What about our rights?" he asks. Prejean feels deep compassion for Vernon Harvey, and she wonders, "What does he do with all this rage he feels?" Generally, he channels it into the desire for revenge. That Vernon takes on the role of a vengeful God is implied when he says, "Frying in the electric chair is the least of the frying [Willie's] about to do when God sends him to hell where he belongs."

The other major theme in this chapter is that of the humanity of the condemned murderer. Millard Farmer tells Prejean that Robert Willie "takes pride" in appearing tough but "there's a child sitting inside the tough, macho dude." The description humanizes Willie and makes him less fearsome for Prejean, despite his horrific crime. In her discussion with the warden Prejean reminds him that Sonnier "was a human being and deserved to be treated with dignity." She speaks about the execution process that "shields [prison officials] from natural, human emotions ... that you're killing a fellow human being." The warden is sympathetic to Prejean's argument but, like other corrections officials, he falls back on the fact he is just upholding "the law."

Vernon Harvey consistently refuses to refer to Robert Willie as a person. Instead he calls him "scum" and a "mad dog." He says, "[Willie is] an animal. No, I take that back. Animals don't rape and kill their own kind." Harvey defines and views Robert Willie as totally beyond the pale, almost as a nonliving organism or monster. For Vernon Harvey, Willie is not human, but he is not "animal" either. To Harvey even nonhuman animals have a greater moral sense than Robert Willie.

Prejean again refers to Albert Camus's argument against capital punishment. Camus recognized that for religious people who believe in life after death capital punishment "is more easily rationalized, since death is a mere 'temporary punishment.'" Yet Camus asserts that the "one, firm, unbreachable solidarity that human beings have [is] solidarity against death and suffering. On this common ground ... all human beings—religious or atheist—must unite." Not uniting with other people on these grounds denies these people their humanity. It might be argued as well that to a certain extent those who deny others their common humanity lose some of their own humanness because they have denied basic human morality.

Even the U.S. Catholic Bishops' "Statement on Capital Punishment" opposes the death penalty because of its "fundamental disregard for the 'unique worth and dignity of each person.'" No one—not even government—should violate that worth and dignity by killing a human being. After visiting with Robert Willie, Prejean reflects on her commitment to "affirming his dignity as a human being" while at the same time "never for one moment forget[ting] what he did." When Vernon Harvey calls Robert Willie "God's mistake" he is stripping Willie of his humanity.

The morality of murder by the state is made explicit. Prejean presents her fundamental argument of the immorality of the death penalty when she writes that "if we believe that murder is wrong and not admissible in our society, then it has to be wrong for everyone, not just individuals but governments as well." Therefore if citizens allow their government to commit murder through execution, then the citizens are complicit in the immorality of taking a human life.

The issue of family in terms of capital crime is made painfully clear in this chapter. Prejean presents in heartrending detail the horrific nature of Faith's murder and the almost unimaginable suffering her parents have endured. By allowing Faith's parents to relate in their own words the gruesome details of the murder and the torment they have suffered since, their experience becomes vivid and credibly real. The reader cannot help but understand the unendurable suffering this murder has caused Faith's family. The focus on the Harvey family serves as a counterweight to the former attention devoted to the plight of the condemned inmates. Yet Prejean is careful to reveal the humanity of those on both sides of the terrible crime.

Although it is not mentioned by name, this chapter implies the appropriate use of the symbol of the Marlboro Man in reference to Robert Willie. Willie tries to act tough "like a cowboy," and this persona will make him somewhat like a would-be Marlboro Man in Prejean's eyes in later chapters.

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