Dead Man Walking | Study Guide

Sister Helen Prejean

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Dead Man Walking | Quotes


[Parents] sentenced ... [to] dreams of the terror that ripped their children from them.

Sister Helen Prejean, Chapter 1

Prejean reflects on the lifelong torment and mental and emotional suffering of the parents of murdered children.


I can't bear ... that you would die without seeing one loving face.

Sister Helen Prejean, Chapter 2

Prejean says this to Patrick Sonnier when she visits and explains to him why she, as his spiritual adviser, wants to be a witness to his execution.


Millard says, summing it all up, race, poverty, and geography determine who gets the death penalty.

Sister Helen Prejean, Chapter 3

Millard Farmer succinctly lists the factors that increase a person's chance of being arrested, tried, and convicted of a death penalty crime. Statistics shows the truth of what he says: that race, poverty, and other factors make it more likely that a person will get the death penalty.


What he did was evil. I don't condone it ... I just don't see much sense in doing the same to him.

Sister Helen Prejean, Chapter 4

Prejean explains her moral argument against the death penalty in speaking with a prison official. Her argument is plain: killing is evil so there is no sense in the state killing the convict.


Resist, do not collaborate in any way with a deed which you believe is evil.

Sister Helen Prejean, Chapter 4

Here, Prejean is quoting Camus's "Reflections on the Guillotine," in which he implores people who oppose the death penalty to resist it at all times and in all ways.


[I] wonder if state executions—which legitimize killing—incite violence rather than deter it.

Sister Helen Prejean, Chapter 5

This quotation occurs in the context of allowing the public to view executions. Because state executions make killing "legitimate," Prejean wonders if viewing this deadly violence might actually make certain members of the public more violent.


If we believe that murder is wrong ... then [it's] wrong for everyone, not just individuals but governments as well.

Sister Helen Prejean, Chapter 6

Prejean here sets out her moral argument against the death penalty. If, as the state insists, murder is wrong, then it is as wrong for the state to murder an inmate as it is for that prisoner to have murdered his victim. What is wrong for one is wrong for all.


Their lives have been violated ... They want to see [Willie] made accountable for his actions.

Sister Helen Prejean, Chapter 7

Prejean reveals her understanding of how the Harveys feel and why they seek violent retribution for Robert Willie. Prejean agrees with their desire to make Willie accountable for his crime; to get him to own up to what he did and the suffering he has caused.


I wonder whether [Willie's] death sentence makes his own repentance even more difficult.

Sister Helen Prejean, Chapter 7

Here Prejean recognizes Willie's awareness that the state wants to murder him might make him less inclined to repent or ask forgiveness for the murder he committed. He might be aware that the state is doing to him what he did to Faith Hathaway. This may harden him because the state will not admit its accountability or repent for murdering him.


I call on them to take personal responsibility for [their] role ... in the killing of this man.

Sister Helen Prejean, Chapter 8

Prejean is speaking to the Pardon Board on behalf of Robert Willie. She demands that the members of the board take responsibility for the death of Willie if they vote not to commute his sentence. They should be as personally accountable for their action as Willie is for his.


I sat in judgment on these men ... But who was I to sit in judgment?

Howard Marsellus, Chapter 8

Marsellus is speaking to Prejean on the phone. He is just out of prison (for bribery) and expresses his horror at the miscarriages of justice he presided over on the politically influenced board. Here he recognizes that he had no right to sit in judgment over someone's life, even though that is what he did when on the Pardon Board. He is filled with remorse at his role on the Board.


If executions were made public ... we would be shamed into abolishing executions.

Sister Helen Prejean, Chapter 9

Prejean is discussing the violence and torment that would be visible and obvious to everyone who watched if executions were made public, such as on television. The public torment and killing would, she thinks, make Americans so ashamed they would decide to abolish the death penalty.


I have no doubt that we will one day abolish the death penalty in America [if people] know the truth about executions.

Sister Helen Prejean, Chapter 9

Here Prejean fervently expresses her belief that if Americans knew the truth about what the death penalty is like and how immoral and dehumanizing it is then they would surely come to oppose it. This is the central tenet of Prejean's anti–death penalty activism.


I know that he could watch Robert killed a thousand times and it could never assuage his grief.

Sister Helen Prejean, Chapter 11

Prejean is visiting with the Harveys. When she tells Vernon that Willie hoped his death would ease their suffering, Vernon starts to cry. Prejean realizes that their suffering is so deep and intense that it has produced a desire for revenge that can never be satisfied. No matter how much Willie was made to suffer it would not relieve Vernon's bottomless grief.


They think that compassion toward the murderer means betrayal of the victim.

Sister Helen Prejean, Chapter 11

Prejean visits a support group for victims' families. She recognizes that they are angry and grief stricken. So deep is their pain they view her ministering to the murderer as an act of betrayal against their murdered children. It is as if being compassionate to the inmate means you cannot have compassion for the victim.

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