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Dead Man Walking | Study Guide

Sister Helen Prejean

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Dead Man Walking | Chapter 7 | Summary



On her way home Prejean thinks about Faith Hathaway's murder and her parents' anguish. "Great as the sea is thy sorrow," she thinks. Prejean then quotes Susan Jacoby about the function of law being to "restrain [personal] retribution" but also to mete out measured retribution for crime. Prejean believes that "nonnegotiable" long-term imprisonment, such as life sentences for first-degree murder, is the best punishment for first-degree murderers. Such sentences may also assuage the victim's family's desire for revenge. Prejean hopes that Willie's owning up to the terrible crime he committed will bring the Harveys some peace.

Prejean discusses the flaws in the legal system that sometimes allow those guilty of murder to serve only short sentences or to get no punishment at all. She approves of "statutory minimum" sentences for serious violent crimes. Prejean points out that if the public is assured that a murderer will be put away for life the support for the death penalty may drop significantly.

Her meeting with the Harveys is "one of the most painful" of Prejean's life. She thinks, "Never have I met such unrequited grief." She thinks of all the victims who died at the hands of the Sonniers and Robert Willie. She is horrified at Willie's crime and believes that he must recognize the terrible pain he has caused. He must show remorse and beg forgiveness from the family. Yet she doubts he will because of his macho attitude.

A few days later Prejean visits Robert Willie for the second time. She immediately confronts him with the horror of Faith's murder. Willie admits that he is "real, real sorry that girl got killed" but insists he didn't "kill that girl." It was Vaccaro who committed the murder, he says. He was too scared of Vaccaro to try to prevent it. Prejean wonders where the truth lies. She confronts Willie with his taunting of Vernon Harvey in the courtroom. Willie says he was justified because Harvey kept saying he wanted him "to fry." Willie relates some details about his impoverished and troubled childhood. He tells Prejean about the drugs he was using when the murder took place. When Prejean says drugs are no excuse, Willie admits he was wrong to just "go along" with Vaccaro. Then he tells Prejean about a time he and a friend murdered a drug dealer who had cheated them out of some money.

Prejean asks Willie if he ever apologized to the Harveys. Willie says, "That's hard to do because ... [Vernon keeps] mouthin' off about how he can't wait to see me fry. ... He just needs to let it go, man." Prejean tries to explain why he is "the last person ... with the right to say that," but Willie responds that "it's hard ... to be having much sympathy for them when ... they're trying to kill me." Willie admits that if someone murdered his child he would want to kill the murderer.

Willie tells her that he had once been shot at when he was caught having sex with a man's wife. The husband tried to kill him. The incident sends Willie off on pleasant memories of the affair with the married woman. He laughs about this true love "adventure." When he finishes his story, Prejean reminds him that she is there to encourage him to "own up" to his guilt for his crime.

Willie tells Prejean she is the only person he trusts. Then he speaks about why he "can't stand" African Americans (not the word he uses) and other people of color because they act like "victims" who think they are owed something. Prejean feels that this is not the time to discuss his racism with Willie, and she soon leaves.

A few days later Prejean gets a large envelope with Willie's legal transcripts and news clippings about him and his case. Among the papers is Willie's petition to get better conditions for death row inmates. There is also a large file of Willie's juvenile justice record, detailing his incarceration in juvenile detention for several crimes. Since his early teens Willie has been "in and out of jail," arrested 30 times between 1972 and 1979. He met Vaccaro in jail. Prejean also reads Willie's petitions for appeal of his current case. His appellate lawyer made some good points, including prejudicial pretrial press coverage, untrue reports that Willie confessed to the murder, ineffective counsel including poor jury selection by his lawyer, and jury bias, among others. In contrast Vaccaro's attorney did a far better job defending him, which may be why Vaccaro was not sentenced to death. The appellate court refused Willie's petition for a retrial. The only avenue left open to Willie is a hearing before the Pardon Board.


Retribution is a significant issue in this chapter. In thinking about the horrific way Faith Hathaway died, Prejean understands Vernon Harvey's rage and desire for revenge. She thinks that "maybe they feel that not to demand death ... would be a betrayal of their daughter's memory." Prejean recognizes the Harveys' "desire for retribution" and their need to see Willie accept responsibility for what he has done.

Prejean cites Susan Jacoby's book Wild Justice, in which Jacoby wrote that "restrain[ing] ... the ineradicable impulse to retaliate ... [is] one of the essential tasks of civilization." She insists that "stripped of moralizing, law exists not only to restrain retribution but to mete it out." Prejean agrees that terrible violent crimes must be punished—that retribution must be carried out by the state. Prejean favors "mandatory minimum" sentences also as a means of keeping the state from committing murder by executing those convicted of capital crimes. This is the certain but "measured" retribution both Prejean and Jacoby advocate for. It is "a vast middle ground between ... the death penalty and acceptance of a system that allows too many killers to 'pay' with only a few years of their own lives—or to escape retribution altogether through legal ... loopholes."

Willie tells Prejean that he would "never show my inner feelin's ... in the courtroom, in public like that." Yet press reports of the trial reveal that he showed unconscionable contempt for the Harveys and others during his trial. When he is found guilty he "smirks" at the jury. He runs his hand across this neck (in a gesture symbolizing cutting someone's throat) when a prosecution witness—Mark Brewster, a young man paralyzed during Willie's attack on him and Faith—takes the stand to testify against Willie. He blows a kiss at one of his former rape victims. How can the Harveys not feel rage and the desire for revenge when they view behavior like this from the man who murdered their daughter?

On the other hand the media coverage of the crime and the trial sensationalized the violence. Inaccurate reporting made Willie appear to be an "animal" or monster of depraved violence. The media reported, falsely, that Willie had confessed to the murder. By exaggerating Willie's depravity and making him appear less than human the media likely fed the Harveys' burning need for revenge. Media coverage certainly was not "measured" and supportive of a just but moderate form of state retribution.

Remorse and taking responsibility for one's actions are the counterpoint to retribution and are equally important to this chapter. Prejean tries to get Robert Willie to delve deep inside himself (beneath the macho persona) and feel genuine remorse for his part in the murder. Prejean has been so shaken by the Harveys' grief she thinks that Willie "should fall on his knees, weeping, begging forgiveness from these parents." But Prejean wonders if Willie has "enough self-forgetfulness to feel the pain of [the Harveys]." She understands, too, that facing the death penalty focuses his attention on his own survival, not on the suffering of others.

Robert Willie admits that following Joe Vaccaro (his accomplice) was wrong. Willie tells Prejean that he "was a damn fool" to follow Vaccaro. Yet his involvement with Vaccaro makes it easier for Willie to deny his role in the murder. He insists it was Vaccaro who did the killing. He blames his fear of Vaccaro, the drugs he was taking, and other factors in an effort to exonerate himself (at least somewhat) for the murder. He blames Vernon Harvey's public demand that he "fry" as a reason he cannot bring himself to apologize or feel remorse. Although Willie says he would kill anyone who murdered a child of his, he shows unbelievable indifference to Vernon Harvey's desire to avenge his daughter's murder. "He just needs to let it go," Willie says, as if Faith's murder is a minor irritant. This offhand, even contemptuous, attitude makes it that much harder for Willie to take responsibility for his actions.

Prejean tells Willie that she wants "to help [him] to die with integrity, and you can't do that ... if you don't squarely own up to the part you played in Faith's death." Willie says nothing to that. Prejean wonders if it is possible for her to get him "to be truthful. To accept responsibility" for what he has done.

The issue of Willie's humanity is also referred to in several places in this chapter. The press refers to him as an "animal" during his trial as if he were subhuman. When Prejean talks to Bill Quigley about Willie's petition to get better conditions on death row, Quigley explains that the petition is unlikely to bring about changes. He says, "The prison officials consider these guys dead meat, anyway, know what I mean?" The legal system itself treats death row inmates as less than human and undeserving of the consideration any human deserves.

In contrast Robert Willie's humanity is revealed in his (rather sordid) tale of his affair with a married woman. Although his behavior is certainly not laudable, he tells Prejean that "I never experienced love with anyone like I did with her." His love for this woman seems genuine and reveals something of his humanity.

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