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Dead Man Walking | Study Guide

Sister Helen Prejean

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Dead Man Walking | Summary

See Plot Diagram


Patrick Sonnier

Sister Helen Prejean is a nun living in New Orleans, Louisiana, where she works teaching children from a low-income housing project. She is committed to social justice for the poor. Chava Colon, who works with the Prison Coalition, asks her to be a pen pal with Elmo Patrick Sonnier, a death row inmate at Angola prison. After exchanging letters, Prejean visits Sonnier, and eventually she agrees to be his spiritual adviser. The prisoner, Patrick Sonner, accepts her offer, and Prejean visits him in prison where she tries to get him to take responsibility for what he has done and ask forgiveness for it. The text describes how unjust the legal system is for poor people and how she, Millard Farmer, and other lawyers are committed to helping death row inmates file petitions to have their death sentences commuted to life in prison. They present their case to the Pardon Board, but the Board decides not to commute Sonnier's death sentence.

Prejean visits Patrick Sonnier (and his brother and accomplice, Eddie) more frequently and tries to get him to talk about his crime. He says he is sorry for the suffering he has caused the murder victims and their families. She succeeds in getting Sonnier to die without "any hatred in [his] heart." He apologizes to a victim's family as he is strapped into the electric chair. Prejean is devastated after having witnessed Sonnier's execution. She promises herself that she will never be a spiritual adviser to a death row inmate again. She will not keep this promise.

The Legal System

Throughout the book Prejean describes the inequities of the criminal justice system and the injustices that arise from them. She includes her conversations with prison wardens, prosecutors, and other officials regarding their feelings about the death penalty, which she strongly opposes. She is firm in her belief that the government has no right, or is too imperfect, to kill a person to demonstrate that killing is wrong. Many of the officials she speaks with admit to feeling uneasy about executing inmates, but none of them has the courage or willingness to actively oppose government executions.

In her discussions with death row lawyers who help with the appeals for Sonnier and, later, with death row inmate Robert Willie (who will also have Prejean as spiritual adviser), Prejean further explains, in detail, the shortcomings and injustices of the criminal justice system as it is applied to poor people. She notes, and supports with data, the fact that it is in the great majority of cases that only poor people end up on death row and are executed. The rich normally find the best lawyers who can prevent a death sentence for their client.

Prejean becomes an abolitionist (anti–death penalty) activist who marches with like-minded people to the Louisiana statehouse to convince lawmakers to overturn the state's death penalty. Although abolition gains support, the state has not overturned the death penalty in capital crimes.

Robert Willie

Robert Willie is the second death row inmate Prejean visits as his spiritual adviser. Willie is a tough, macho young man who resists owning up to his crime and the pain it has caused both to the victim (Faith Hathaway) and to her parents. Willie has few avenues left open to him for appealing his death sentence, and the ones he and his legal team (Millard Farmer, Bill Quigley, and others) pursue do not get his death sentence commuted.

Robert Willie maintains his tough-man exterior right up to the time of his execution. Just before his death Willie offers a type of apology to the Harveys, parents of his victim. He says he hopes his death will bring them some relief and some peace.

Victims' Families

The last chapter in the book is devoted to Prejean's work with the families of murder victims. Some of these families have accused her of indifference to their suffering and openly criticized her anti–death penalty viewpoint. As Prejean meets with the Harveys, who are filled with anger and the desire for retribution for the murderer of their daughter, Prejean blames herself for not having spent more time with victims' families to understand and perhaps help them deal with their grief. However, there is tension between the vengeful, pro–death penalty Harveys (and other victims' families) and Prejean's commitment to seeing the death penalty abolished.

Vernon Harvey invites Prejean to a meeting of victims' families. The pain she sees and hears in the stories these white, middle-class families tell is almost unbearable. Prejean helps start a support group for the families of murder victims in New Orleans. The group, Survive, is made up mostly of poor, black women—the mothers, aunts, sisters, and other relations—of murdered family members. Their stories, too, are filled with pain and grief. Prejean will continue to work to help victims' families as she also works against injustice and the death penalty.

The book ends in 1991 with Prejean meeting Lloyd LeBlanc, whose son was murdered by Patrick Sonnier. She and LeBlanc attend an early-morning prayer vigil together. LeBlanc tells her he has never really supported the death penalty. He recounts how he forgave his son's murderer even as he first viewed his son's dead body. The book ends by describing the healing power of forgiveness through prayer.

Dead Man Walking Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675


1 Prejean becomes Patrick Sonnier's spiritual adviser.

Rising Action

2 Patrick Sonnier's appeal is denied, and he is executed.

3 Prejean then becomes Robert Willie's spiritual adviser.

4 Robert Willie's appeal is denied, and he is executed.


5 Prejean becomes an anti–death penalty activist.

Falling Action

6 Prejean works to support victims' families.


7 Prejean becomes an abolitionist spokesperson.

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