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Dead Man Walking | Study Guide

Sister Helen Prejean

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Dead Man Walking | Chapter 8 | Summary



Millard Farmer has recruited the lawyer John Craft to represent Robert Willie at his Pardon Board hearing. Prejean is at a strategy meeting, and she is nervous. The prosecutor and the Harveys will be at the hearing to argue for the death penalty. Prejean realizes this is the same Board that denied Patrick Sonnier's appeal. The fact that the members of the Board are political appointees named by the governor is also worrisome. The governor can use the Board as cover to condone death sentences, thus making him unaccountable for the executions. In Willie's case the governor needs an execution in order to be seen as tough on crime in his upcoming bid for reelection.

Prejean drives to Angola and meets Willie. He has written a "presentation" for the Pardon Board hearing, and he reads it aloud. His statement is understated and polite. He asserts that "he did not kill Faith Hathaway" and will not "beg" for his life. He goes on to contend that the whole case was "politically motivated." Willie sees himself as "a stepping stone" for their political careers. He also alleges extortion: his confession in exchange for a lenient sentence for his mother (who drove Willie and Vaccaro in her car). Willie explains why his attorney was "ineffective." Had he had "proper defense" counsel he would not be facing the electric chair. Willie ends by acknowledging that the Harveys suffered "a lot of pain" because of their daughter's death, and he regrets "everything that has happened." He states that his death will not "bring Miss Hathaway back."

Prejean suggests that the Pardon Board is not the place to bring up politics, and he agrees to edit that part out. Prejean says they both know he "doesn't have a chance with the Pardon Board." Prejean urges him to invite his mother to the hearing.

The Pardon Board meeting is held in a large conference room at the prison. Prejean has prepared her statement. Willie's mother, Elizabeth, is there. She is tearful and nervous about what she will say. The Harveys are there, too. Robert Willie is brought in wearing handcuffs. He is smiling. The cuffs are removed when he is seated at the defense table. There are two television cameras recording the proceedings.

The defense is up first. Craft explains the "serious issues ... which cast doubt upon the constitutionality and fairness of the proceedings" that led to Willie's death sentence. Craft enumerates each issue, from inept legal counsel to prejudicial media coverage. Then Robert's mother testifies. She blurts out a few words before she begins to sob. Prejean escorts her from the room. Willie calmly reads his statement. It is finally Prejean's turn to address the board. She speaks about Patrick Sonnier, the suffering of the Harveys, and says she "in no way ... condone[s] or excuse[s] the violence that has been done to Faith Hathaway and her parents." She states that Willie should pay for his crime but that the death penalty is wrong. When she is finished Howard Marsellus, the Board chair, reminds her that the Board does not make or enforce the law, it only makes recommendations.

The prosecution's presentation is short and effective, claiming that Willie shows no remorse and should be put to death. The horrendous details of the crime are enumerated. The prosecutor asks the board to "give Robert [Willie] the same consideration that he gave Faith Hathaway when he and Vaccaro ... let her bleed to death and rot in the woods." Finally, both Elizabeth and Vernon Harvey give statements. Elizabeth says to not "let [Willie] live to take another life." The Board departs to make its decision. Twenty minutes later the board returns with a recommendation that Willie's "sentence stand."

A Conversation with Howard Marsellus

Several years later Prejean speaks on the phone to Howard Marsellus about his role on the Board. Marsellus is a year out of prison after being convicted of accepting bribes. Prejean reminds the reader that under Marsellus not one request for clemency was granted.

Marsellus tells Prejean he is glad not to be on the Board anymore. He speaks about "how good it is to sleep at night with a clean conscience." He is tired of all the politics and corruption that plague the Board. Marsellus describes witnessing the execution of a man, Tim Baldwin, who was probably innocent but who was denied clemency by the Pardon Board. Marsellus says that the D.A. undermined Baldwin's alibi, adding that "you wouldn't believe ... the games some of these D.A.s play." But the Board refused clemency for Baldwin out of "loyalty" to the prosecution and law enforcement. Marsellus actually weeps because of his certainty that Baldwin was innocent. When Marsellus called the governor he was told simply to "handle it," to be a "team player." Marsellus was threatened with removal if he couldn't "hack it" and refuse clemency. He admits that the Board acted as political cover for the governor.

Marsellus explains the "bribes-for-pardons scheme" common during his tenure on the board. Files marked "Expedite" meant that bribes were offered (to Marsellus and other officials) in exchange for a prearranged Board recommendation. Wealthy families offered bribes to legislators and other officials to get their accused family member exonerated or pardoned. Everyone involved got a cut. Before a Board hearing Marsellus would get a message that "the governor wants this one or that one" on a particular case, and the Board would comply.

Marsellus had been deeply troubled by Baldwin's execution. He wondered, "How have I let myself get involved in all this horror?" It all came down to "loyalty" and being "a team player" or face losing his position on the Board. Marsellus is crying as he tells Prejean about this corruption. "I did these things," he says, but "it still bothers me ... I'm really sorry."


Injustice, and the corruption that underlies it, dominates this chapter. The obvious racial injustice of the legal system is revealed first by Vernon Harvey when he notes that "there are three black members of the board and two whites." He says. "They outnumber us, but maybe we'll still win." Vernon turns the actual racial injustice of the legal system on its head, but he still recognizes race as a key factor in the system's injustice.

In his presentation, lawyer John Craft explains the many "serious" factors that made the case against Robert Willie unfair and unconstitutional. He reveals the incompetence of Willie's public defender and the things he should have done but never did during Willie's trial and appeal. Craft points out that transferring the federal case to the state just so the death penalty can be imposed is unprecedented. He demonstrates how prejudicial the press coverage was against Willie. Prejean then explains how social injustice, especially poverty, leads to legal injustice. She asserts "that in our courts there are two systems of justice—one for the rich, who can afford expert counsel, and one for people like Robert Willie—and that is why only poor people will ever appear before this board."

The themes of retribution and remorse arise during the Pardon Board hearing. Willie tells Prejean that he has "got [his] pride ... I'm not grovelin' in front of these people. I don't grovel to nobody." He insists he will not "beg" for his life. His presentation acknowledges the pain the Harvey family has been through, but Willie states that his "death is not going to bring Miss Hathaway back to this earth." This statement is remorseless and cold. It shows that Willie does not seek forgiveness for his crime. In contrast the Harveys are quite emotional when they speak at the hearing. Elizabeth Harvey has no compunction about asking directly for Willie to be put to death to guarantee "he will never kill again." The Harveys' demand for the severest retribution is undiminished. The prosecutor, too, demands the ultimate punishment, referring to Willie as an "arrogant" man without remorse who "always blames his accomplice or his lawyers" for what happened—never accepting responsibility himself.

The motif of family is poignantly present here. Prejean tries to convince Willie to allow his mother to attend the Board hearing and speak on his behalf. Although she will likely just weep, Willie should understand that "it may be bad for her if she didn't have the chance to speak for you. Maybe she will always wonder if she had been there for you, maybe it would have made a difference." Willie sees her point and agrees to let his mother speak at the hearing.

The symbol of the road sign, "Do not despair" appears again as Prejean drives to see Willie prior to the Board hearing. Mentioned here, the sign is likely ironic, as Prejean admits that "[Willie] doesn't have a chance with the Pardon Board, I know that, and I think he must know it, too." Despite the sign's supposed message of hope, Prejean realizes that there is little hope that things will turn out well.

A Conversation with Howard Marsellus

In this section of the chapter, the corruption that underlies injustice and maintains Louisiana's "injustice" system is laid bare in all its sordid illegality. Marsellus had been jailed for bribery, but he is now glad to be finished with the Pardon Board.

Marsellus describes in sickening detail how injustice is maintained by a corrupt system. Pardon Board members are appointed by the governor and are expected to show "loyalty" and "team spirit" in doing the bidding of the governor and other officials. If a wealthy family offers a monetary bribe to have a family member exonerated Marsellus and the Board must recommend clemency for the accused. If the governor needs an execution to burnish his reputation as a tough-on-crime politician, then the Board must refuse clemency—even to prisoners who are almost certainly innocent.

Marsellus is tormented by the intervention of the governor in the case of an inmate who was on death row, Tim Baldwin. Marsellus was convinced Baldwin was not guilty. The governor personally intervened to finagle a guilty verdict by interfering with witness testimony, or suborning perjury. Prejean had spoken to the governor about the Baldwin case, and she had been convinced that the governor thought Baldwin guilty. "No way," Marsellus says. "Edwards knew ... the real score ... he was the one who worked out the deal with [the witness]. These deals were going on all the time."

The rampant bribes-for-pardons scheme proves the injustice at the heart of the Louisiana justice system. Marsellus got word "from the governor's office about which deals would go down when the Board met." Underhanded and illegal political and financial deals represent injustice at its worst and most blatant. That is why Marsellus went to prison—he took his share of a bribe as a member of the Pardon Board.

Marsellus is mortified that he was part of this "horror" and injustice. For him, it was "a terrible ordeal to know all the wheeling and dealing going on and yet sit there, time after time, and look into the faces of people about to die and then turn down their request for clemency." Marsellus admits it was "morally wrong ... The whole administration was corrupt from the top down, but I chose loyalty above integrity ... I did these things ... But who was I to sit in judgment?"

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