Dead Man Walking | Study Guide

Sister Helen Prejean

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Dead Man Walking | Context

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A Short Overview of the Death Penalty in the United States

The death penalty was an accepted punishment for murder through much of early American history. In the Wild West frontier justice often imposed the death penalty after few formal judicial procedures. Most executions were public hangings. As the rule of law was adopted by states, legal procedures were put in place before the death penalty could be imposed.

Prejean's abolitionist principles are not new. By the early 19th century an abolitionist, or anti–death penalty, movement arose in the Northeast. By midcentury many states had built penitentiaries where those convicted of crimes could be held during the years of their sentence. Imprisonment replaced execution for many crimes. Penitentiaries also became sites of nonpublic executions. The abolition movement waxed and waned as times changed. Abolition against the death penalty waned during the Civil War (1861–65) but regained support during the Progressive Era of the early 1900s.

The Death Penalty, the Constitution, and the Supreme Court

Prejean cites several landmark Supreme Court cases relevant to the death penalty. The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states, "Excessive bail shall not be required ... nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted" on those convicted of crime (italics added). For decades cases have been brought before the Supreme Court to interpret what is meant by "cruel and unusual punishment." A landmark case brought under the Eighth Amendment was Furman v. Georgia (1972) in which the Court ruled that a punishment "would be 'cruel and unusual' if it was too severe in relation to the crime, if it was arbitrary, if it offended society's sense of justice, or if it was not more effective than a less severe penalty." This tended to reduce application of the death penalty.

Prejean cites another case in which states challenged this ruling almost immediately. The 1976 landmark case Gregg v. Georgia reversed the former decision, declaring that capital punishment was constitutional and not a violation of a citizen's Eighth Amendment rights. Georgia and other states had implemented guidelines for imposition of the death penalty that the Court found compelling. The new process, still used today, divided the jury's role into two parts. First the jury would decide at trial the guilt or innocence of the accused. If it found a defendant guilty, the jury would deliberate on the sentence in a second, separate procedure. Automatic appeals were also part of the instituted reforms.

Prejean also references McCleskey v. Kemp (1987), in which the U.S. Supreme Court stated that although statistical evidence revealed racial bias in capital cases, this was not sufficient grounds to prove that a particular death sentence was unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment.

Methods of Execution

Hanging was the execution method of choice for much of early U.S. history. In 1834 Pennsylvania became the first state to prohibit public executions. Other states soon followed suit. The gas chamber (which kills with cyanide gas) was introduced in 1924. Some states, such as Utah, used firing squads for executions.

The use of the electric chair began in New York in 1888 and was later adopted in many other states. Death by lethal injection began in 1977 as it was thought to be the most humane form of execution. Yet as more was learned about the suffering of the inmate undergoing this type of execution, the drugs used in lethal injections became increasingly difficult for states to get. This difficulty was exacerbated by the growing feeling in the United States and globally that the death penalty was morally wrong. Drug companies no longer wanted to be associated with, or have their products used in, executions. Some death penalty states have turned to untried "cocktails" of substitute drugs in lieu of the original lethal injection drugs. Cases have been successfully argued that these new drugs are unconstitutional because they are untested and may result in an inmate's excessive suffering.

Statistical Updates

Prejean peppers her text with relevant and important data about the injustices and biases in the application of the death penalty. Some updated information follows:

Death Penalty as a Deterrent to Crime (per 100,000 of Population)

  • 2008: Average murder rate in death penalty states: 5.2; Average murder rate in non–death penalty states: 3.3
  • 2015: Average murder rate in death penalty states: 5.1; Average murder rate in non–death penalty states: 4.1
  • Public attitude toward the death penalty as a deterrent in the United States (2014)
    Yes, is a deterrent: 5% No, is not a deterrent: 88% No opinion: 7%
  • Support for alternatives to the death penalty:
    Life without parole plus restitution: 39%
    Life without parole: 13%
    Life with possibility of parole: 9%
    Keep the death penalty: 33%

Death Row and Race

  • Death row inmates by race (2016)
    White: 42% Black: 42% Hispanic: 13% Other: 3%
  • Race of defendants executed (2017)
    White: 55.7% Black: 34.5% Hispanic: 8.2% Other: 1.6%
  • Race of victims in death penalty cases
    White: 76% Black: 15% Hispanic: 7% Other: 2%
  • Executions for interracial murders (since 1976)
    White defendant/black victim: 20 executions; Black defendant/white victim: 288 executions

State by State

  • Number of states with the death penalty (2017): 31
  • Number of states without the death penalty: 19 + District of Columbia
  • Number of states with gubernatorial moratoria or delay by a governor: 4

Influences on Sister Helen Prejean

In addition to the data cited, Prejean discusses those individuals whose life and work influenced her own dedication to the sanctity of human life and her opposition to the death penalty.

Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi (1869–1948)

Mohandas Gandhi was both a spiritual and social leader in India before and during its struggle for independence from British rule. Gandhi's thought was steeped in the concept of satyagraha, which means "holding on to truth." In action it is a form of noncooperation with unjust rulers and laws and nonviolent resistance to injustice. He lived simply and dedicated his life to the poor and to rectifying the injustices they suffered under British rule. His unshakable morality, courage, and nonviolence earned him the title "mahatma," which means "great soul." Gandhi honored the dignity and worth of each person and taught universal love for all people and all beings. In a quote often attributed to the leader, "An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind."

Dorothy Day (1897–1980)

Dorothy Day was born in Brooklyn and lived an ordinary middle-class life with her family. When she was 18 Day got a job as a journalist for the socialist paper the New York Call. She engaged in protests for social justice and was jailed for her activism. She did not become a devout Catholic until after she gave birth to her daughter, Tamar Teresa, whom she had baptized in the Catholic Church. Her commitment to social justice grew when she covered a march against hunger in Washington, D.C., in 1932. With Peter Maurin, Day started the Catholic Worker Movement, which was committed to social justice and aid for the poor. In 1933 the group published the first edition of the paper the Catholic Worker. In coming years Day and the Catholic Worker Movement established a retreat center and a cooperative farm in upstate New York. As an outgrowth of the Catholic Worker Movement, Day established soup kitchens and shelters for the poor in New York. This model of assistance to the poor was replicated in more than a dozen cities around the United States. Dorothy Day's energy and commitment to social justice made Day an inspiration and model for Sister Helen Prejean in her ceaseless abolition work.

Albert Camus (1913–60)

Albert Camus was born in Algiers, Algeria, when it was still a French colony. Camus wrote and published his first collection of essays in 1937. It was at university in Algiers that Camus developed his philosophy of the absurd, or the view that life is essentially without meaning. Social conformity, bureaucracy, religion, and other societal norms that bind the individual who thinks for himself and recognizes the absurdity of life became a central focus of Camus's work. He was a socialist and an atheist who was also a deeply committed humanitarian, and these values are evident in his writings as a journalist, playwright, philosophical essayist, and novelist. His novels deal with the alienation of modern life and its effect on the lives of individuals and societies. As a humanitarian Camus forcefully opposed the death penalty everywhere and in all forms.

Camus became the literary giant of his time, as well as a powerful spokesman for individual dignity and social justice. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957 when he was only 44 years old. Three years later Camus's life was cut short in a fatal car accident.

In "Reflections on the Guillotine" (1957) he wrote:

Capital punishment is the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal's deed, however calculated, can be compared. For there to be an equivalency, the death penalty would have to punish a criminal who had warned his victim of the date on which he would inflict a horrible death on him and who, from that moment onward, had confined him at his mercy for months. Such a monster is not to be encountered in private life.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–68)

Martin Luther King Jr. was one of America's greatest civil rights leaders. He dedicated his life to nonviolent resistance in the struggle to gain equal rights, especially civil rights and voting rights for African Americans. He organized boycotts as well as marches on Washington, D.C., to call for equal rights for all and to the end the injustices that blacks—as well as poor people in general—suffered in the United States. He spoke against war and for peace and harmony. His energy, courage, and commitment to equality and nonviolence made him a role model for Sister Helen Prejean. In his words:

I do not think that God approves the death penalty for any crime, rape and murder included. Capital punishment is against the better judgment of modern criminology, and, above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of God.
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