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Dead Man Walking | Study Guide

Sister Helen Prejean

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Dead Man Walking | Chapter 9 | Summary



An interview with the Harveys reveals they are angry with Prejean. They feel she "used them" to support her argument before the Pardon Board. Prejean wants to make amends, but she will not abandon her opposition to the death penalty.

Willie's execution is set for December 28. Prejean visits him every week. She also visits his family, whose neighbors shun them because of Willie. Willie in jail seems as "jaunty" as ever. He is "matter-of-fact" about his looming execution. Yet it bothers Willie that the warden liked Tim Baldwin but not him. Prejean reflects on Willie's lack of a father when he was growing up. Yet Prejean notes that he is still a "neat and fastidious" person. His upbringing instilled in him a desire to be clean and orderly. Prejean mentions his mother, and Willie admits "she's [my] biggest worry" because she gets so emotional.

Prejean describes Faith's mother's torment. She encourages Willie to "own up" to his part in Faith's murder. Willie responds by saying he hopes his death "gives the Harveys some peace," but he does not admit his culpability for the murder. As she did with Patrick Sonnier, Prejean tells Willie that his last words can be either of hate or love. It is up to him.

Before she leaves Kendall Coody, the death row supervisor, asks to see her. Prejean thinks he looks "troubled." He admits that because of the executions he has overseen he "can't eat ... can't sleep." He speaks to each death row inmate almost daily. As he gets to know them their fate troubles him. They are "just little boys inside big men's bodies." It is his job to walk the prisoners to the death chamber, and he fears he may be getting too emotionally involved. As she leaves, Prejean says she has great respect for his honesty.

Robert Willie tells Prejean he is not afraid to die. He has "had a pretty fulfilled life." He is also started giving media interviews. He told one newspaper he admires Adolf Hitler because as a "leader" he "got things done." Willie does admit Hitler may have gone "a little overboard" in his policies. Willie says he supports Hitler's Aryan (supposedly white race) supremacist beliefs. He says he would like to bomb U.S. government buildings in protest against government "corruption." He brags that he is an "outlaw."

On December 24 Robert is moved to the death house. Prejean spends Christmas with her family. She spends all of December 26 with Willie. Prejean fears for Willie and his date with "Gruesome Gertie," the Angola electric chair. She speaks with Willie through a mesh screen in a metal door. Willie says that he feels "free" and "innocent." He asks Prejean if even now she can arrange a lie detector test (polygraph) to show his mother he is innocent. Prejean will do what she can.

Prejean questions Willie about his Hitler statements and bombing federal buildings. Willie defends his positions and describes being a member of the Aryan Brotherhood during a previous stint in the federal penitentiary in Marion. He and Prejean discuss violence as a strategy for protest. Willie recounts some wild incidents from his time in Marion prison. Willie is calm and eats his lunch "with gusto." After lunch Prejean finds out that a polygraph can be administered the next day—Willie's day of execution. It is likely that his stress level will be too high for an accurate reading.

Willie is happy about the scheduled polygraph, but he regrets his remarks about Hitler and bombing buildings. "It was stupid," he says. Just before she must leave, Prejean prays with Willie. Her parting words tell Willie he can choose dying either "with love or hate."

On her way home Prejean thinks of what the Bible and Jesus teach about punishment for murder. She counters the biblical calls for the death of murderers with Christ's teachings of mercy and morality, as in "let him without sin cast the first stone." Prejean reviews the evolution of Christian belief and doctrine on punishment, as well as the Church's close relationship to the state. She summarizes the views of Mahatma Gandhi and Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. on the subjects of violence, nonviolence, and government executions. Prejean states that only when a majority of Americans oppose it will the death penalty be abolished.

Prejean arrives at the death house on the afternoon of December 27. Willie will be executed midnight on the 28th, so this is her last day with him. Willie's family—his mother and three brothers—are already there for their last visit. She stays with them, as Willie requested. The family talks and laughs about everyday things, "appreciating each other." The family visit is cut short, and Willie gives them two pillowcases containing his belongings. Willie and his family are not allowed to hug. Willie says he will call them that night.

Prejean returns to talk to Willie through the mesh screen. Willie asks for the polygraph results. They are not in yet, but later he will learn the results were "inconclusive." He is upset as he had wanted his mother to know he is innocent. Willie is amazed that the test showed "stress" because he is certain he didn't feel any. Prejean says he would have to be a "robot" not to feel stress on the day of his execution.

Prejean brings up Willie's stereotypical prejudice against African Americans. He vehemently objects to "people that make themselves out to be victims." Yet Willie admires Dr. King for "put[ting] up a fight" against injustice. As they talk Willie's last meal—a fish feast—is served, and he eats with relish. He talks as he eats, saying "I know I'm going to a better place" when he dies. He reminisces about his family, his rebellious early years, and some of the jobs he has had. Finally he asks Prejean to describe the execution procedure, which she does. Then Prejean again brings up the issue of his last words. He says he will speak against the death penalty.

A while later he is allowed to phone his family, and he tearfully tells them he loves them. Preparations are underway for the execution. Willie and Prejean pray together. Willie is taken away to have his head shaved. He phones his family one last time. Execution witnesses are arriving at the death house. Prejean is at Willie's side, reading the Bible, as the guards escort him to the death chamber. Willie is strapped to the chair. His last words include an apology to the Harveys who "[he hopes] get some relief from my death." He says "killing people is wrong" no matter who does it. Willie winks at Prejean to acknowledge her being there just before he is electrocuted.


The chapter opens with a reference to retribution. The Harveys feel betrayed by Prejean because of her adamant stance against the death penalty. They tell an interviewer that she "betrayed them" and "used" them to try to convince the Pardon Board to commute Willie's death sentence. Their anger is fueled by their demand for retribution, and the only type of retribution they will accept is the execution of Robert Willie. Forgiveness is beyond them, and it is not helped by Willie's refusal to ask for their forgiveness for his actions.

The Harveys' call for the ultimate form of retribution does not elicit any remorse or acceptance of responsibility from Willie. He tells Prejean, "I hope my death gives the Harveys some peace ... [and] will help them get some relief," but he is not repentant. Because he does not accept responsibility for his part in Faith's murder, he expresses no remorse for what he has done. Prejean tries to get Willie to be accountable for his actions. She says, "I just can't see you going to your death and not owning up to the part you played in Faith's death." But Willie cannot or will not be accountable. The day before his execution Willie even uses the Bible to avoid responsibility and remorse: "Funny, but I've told the truth about what happened and, like the Book said, the truth sets you free ... I feel free now, kind of innocent even." He twists the words of the Bible to bolster his self-image as an innocent man.

The polygraph Willie asks for may be viewed as an objective means of supporting his claim of innocence. It would then, of course, be a way for Willie to avoid coming to terms with what he did—with his responsibility for Faith's murder. By asking for a lie detector test, Willie reveals he is still not ready or able to be accountable for his actions. He hopes to use the test to free himself from this responsibility and to ensure that he need not feel remorse. The polygraph's inconclusive results upset Willie because they make it impossible for him to show his mother he is innocent. The results also make him emotionally vulnerable to admitting his guilt and to feeling remorse.

The newspaper interviewer "struggled" with his article about Willie because Willie was so "'macho' and unrepentant." Later Prejean prays with Willie and asks God to give him "mercy, courage, [and] remorse for the pain he has caused." After the prayer Willie says that "I'm sure gonna try" to feel remorse and be accountable. But he never really does.

Kendall Coody, the death row supervisor, is one person who grapples with his accountability for state executions. He is tortured by his role in carrying out the death penalty. He can't "square it [his job as part of the execution] with [his] conscience, putting them to death like that." Prejean recognizes that he is one prison official who will not say he is "just doing his job." As he gets to know the death house inmates, Coody comes to see them as "little boys inside big men's bodies" who have never grown up. Coody gets too emotionally involved with them to be able to live with himself after their execution. His openness allows him to feel responsible, but he is tormented by it all the same. Soon after his conversation with Prejean, Coody quits his job on death row. He works in another part of the prison system but soon applies for early retirement. Soon after that Prejean is distressed to learn that Coody has died of a heart attack. Prejean wishes he had lived long enough to debate the death penalty with officials who have never experienced its application but are vocal death penalty advocates. She feels the abolition movement lost a potentially strong and supportive voice in Coody.

Robert Willie is also concerned with accountability—but not his own. He blames the government for refusing to be accountable for its actions, particularly executions. He describes the government as always acting with impunity and never having to be accountable for anything it does, no matter how heinous or violent.

The humanity of the accused is an important part of this chapter. Willie's family is shunned and mistreated by their neighbors who think of Willie not as a human but as a "monster" who deserves the death penalty. Willie's public embrace of Hitler and Aryan supremacy does nothing to humanize him in the public's view. Most people view Hitler as a genocidal monster. Comments like Willie's only make it easier for people to dehumanize and welcome his execution. (Eventually Willie recognizes praising Hitler was "stupid.") Prejean reflects on her belief that "if executions were made public, the torture and violence would be unmasked, and we would be shamed into abolishing executions." Public executions would reveal the humanity of the convict and make supporting executions far more uncomfortable for the public. Prejean tries to instill in Willie a deep sense of his own humanity as when, on the walk to the death chamber, she says, "You have a dignity, Robert, that no one can take from you."

The morality of institutional murder (execution) is a significant issue dealt with at some length. Prejean recognizes how hard it is to change a person's moral attitude when "you get your paycheck from these people" (the government/prison). Later, in reviewing the biblical basis for punishment, Prejean quotes "Jesus' admonition 'Let him without sin cast the first stone.'" Christ reveals that since no person (or institution created by persons) is without sin, no one should punish wrongdoing with vengeful violence. The teaching calls for empathy, mercy, and compassion—for a moral understanding that all humans are fallible, so humans should treat each other with compassion.

Prejean explains the powerful moral arguments against violence propounded by Mahatma Gandhi and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Quoting Susan Jacoby, Prejean writes, "King and Gandhi did not succeed because they changed the hearts and minds of southern sheriffs and British colonial administrators ... but because they made the price of maintaining control too high for their opponents." Prejean makes the case that once the American people are shown the moral cost of government-sanctioned killing they will come to oppose the death penalty as morally unacceptable. The death penalty, she writes, "compromises the deepest moral values upon which this country was conceived: the inviolable dignity of human persons."

The motif of family occurs throughout this chapter. Willie's family visits and spends time with him. They talk and laugh with him as if they were together at a normal family gathering. Just before he dies Willie will phone them to say his final good-byes. The reader learns that Willie's father was in prison for most of Willie's childhood, which may account for some of his wildness. However, Willie insists "he had a 'good family' ... that is 'not to blame for nothin'" that Willie did. Willie's memories of his family life seem to depict a loving family, albeit one in which the father was absent. Notably Willie is angry that a father figure in the prison, Warden Blackburn, likes other inmates but does not like him. Willie craves the approval of a good man and father figure like Blackburn. He feels diminished by not getting it.

Willie's other family was the Aryan Brotherhood, which he joined while in the federal penitentiary in Marion in Illinois. Being part of the Brotherhood made Willie feel protected and cared for. He "belonged" to a surrogate family that accepted him. The Brotherhood was like "a fraternity" where each member looked out for each other member. The Brotherhood clearly gave Willie a sense of belonging and support, but he seems oblivious to the effects on others of the hateful, racist ideas that they (and he) stood for.

Robert Willie's Marlboro Man toughness and macho, unemotional persona are on full display in this chapter. The motif of the Marlboro Man aptly describes Willie's seeming indifference to or detachment from the fate that awaits him. He is cool and detached, saying "the electric chair don't worry me, man ... I'll hold my head up. I've got pride. I don't run from nothin'." It is hard to believe that the prospect of being electrocuted can leave a man so indifferent and fearless. It therefore seems astonishing that in such an extreme situation Willie can maintain the Marlboro Man persona of toughness. Willie claims not to have felt any stress during the polygraph. "Electric chair don't scare me, man," he says boldly. Willie says he knows he's going to "a better place," and perhaps that helps him maintain his tough exterior. His walk to the death chamber is as "jaunty" as ever. When he is strapped into the electric chair he actually winks at Prejean. Though the wink may be construed as another example of Willie's machismo, it is also an indication of his acceptance, even love, for Prejean and her guidance. Prejean sees him wink because she does not close her eyes at the critical, most horrific moment of his death. She is there with him in the spirit of love. Their shared visual connection is a sharing of their humanity.

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