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Dead Man Walking | Study Guide

Sister Helen Prejean

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Dead Man Walking | Themes


Responsibility and Remorse

With each death row inmate Sister Helen Prejean counsels, she stresses that unless each takes full responsibility for his actions, his soul will not be at peace when he is executed. Prejean uses her conversations with the inmates she counsels to urge them to accept full responsibility for the crime they have committed and, through this heartfelt admission, to allow themselves to feel remorse for the murder—to repent their crime.

For Prejean, unless an inmate comes to understand the pain and suffering he has caused—both to his murder victim and his or her family (as well as to his own family)—he cannot die at peace with himself or with God. Only after a death row inmate admits that he has committed a terrible crime and caused incalculable suffering can he find any sort of absolution for his horrific actions. Throughout the book Prejean tries to lead the death row inmates she counsels toward spiritual salvation by owning up to their actions and sincerely repenting for them.

Retribution and Forgiveness

Most of the families of the murder victims are consumed by overwhelming grief and rage. With these intolerable feelings comes the desire for revenge, or retribution. Most of the victims' family members support the death penalty as a just punishment for the loss of their loved one (often a child).

Prejean shows great compassion for the suffering of the victims' families, yet she cannot agree with them on the death penalty. However, her gently persuasive and compassionate explication of her morality and feelings, as well as her deep connection with their grief and anger, allows her to try to elicit some degree of forgiveness in the victims' family members. Many cannot forgive the murderer of their child, but some find a way to work through their grief and desire for retribution to find a place of peace and calmness where they can forgive the murderer on death row.

Injustice and Accountability

As Prejean learns more about the legal system that has condemned the death row inmates she counsels, the more outraged she becomes by its injustice. Prejean describes the litany of deficiencies of the legal system from the accused's arrest and trial to his execution. She also uses statistics from Louisiana and the nation as a whole to reveal how unequally and unfairly the justice system treats different members of society. She shows why only poor people languish on death row because of the way the legal system abuses them. For the poor the justice system is the perpetrator of injustice.

Prejean believes that everyone involved in the justice system be accountable for their decisions and actions (or inactions). Prejean is unapologetic in her insistence that those officials who keep the unjust justice system operating take responsibility for the injustices it metes out, through them, to prisoners (especially those on death row). She voices the demand that officials at every level of the legal system—from local prosecutors to prison wardens and state governors—admit their complicity in perpetuating the injustices of the system. In her conversations with officials at all levels of the system, Prejean tries to get each of them to admit their accountability for the things they do that keep the unjust system working. Only if they are accountable for their actions in upholding the unjust legal system is there any hope that it will ever be amended and become just.

Prejean is careful to reveal that accountability is a complex issue. It involves not only admitting the effects of one's actions on prisoners and on the legal system but also the corruption attendant on political and professional ambition. Inmates—some of them innocent of any capital crime—are sometimes executed because it is politically or professionally expedient. She demands that officials at all levels of the system be accountable for this corruption.

Humanity and the Morality of Murder

Prejean quotes the Bible and the writings of the French philosopher and novelist Albert Camus to express eloquently the immorality of the death penalty. She frequently, with passion but without rancor, makes the argument that it is indefensible for the government to commit murder (execute a prisoner) to show that murder is immoral.

Many of Prejean's arguments are based on religion. She cites the words of Jesus to show that He taught compassion and forgiveness for one's "enemies" or those who have caused one harm. She counters the harsher citations from the Old Testament and some Christian theologians with Jesus's words of love and forgiveness. Through religious and philosophical teachings, Prejean makes a strong and compelling argument against government-sanctioned killing as a moral way to respond to a killing committed by an individual.

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