Dead Man Walking Summary

Helen Prejean

Dead Man Walking

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Dead Man Walking Summary

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Dead Man Walking is a 1993 nonfiction book written by Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun from New Orleans. The book is a memoir of Prejean’s experiences as the spiritual advisor to two condemned death row inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in the 1980s. Sister Prejean tries unsuccessfully to get both men’s sentences commuted to life in prison. In 1995, the book was adapted into an Academy Award-nominated motion picture starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn.

In June 1981, Sister Helen Prejean is working at the St. Thomas housing project in New Orleans when a friend from the Prison Coalition asks her if she’s interested in becoming pen pals with Elmo Patrick Sonnier, a death row prisoner. Helen agrees and sends Patrick a letter along with three pictures of herself. Patrick writes back to her, and the two begin corresponding with each other regularly. Helen reads some newspaper clippings about the crime that Patrick and his brother Eddie committed together.

The brothers were convicted of murdering a teenaged couple, David LeBlanc and Loretta Bourque, and of raping Loretta. They both admitted to the crime during their trial, but each accused the other of pulling the trigger. At the end of the trial, Eddie was sentenced to life in prison while Patrick was sentenced to death. Although Eddie eventually confessed that he was the one who shot the couple, Patrick received the death penalty again after a new trial. Helen talks about the history of capital punishment, revealing that she is against it but feels a little guilty about befriending a murderer.

Nevertheless, Helen applies to be Patrick’s spiritual advisor and is approved. She goes to visit him in prison and is warned by the prison chaplain that the men who live on death row are the “scum of the earth.” During their visit, Patrick tells Helen about his life before his crime. Patrick and Eddie grew up poor in rural Louisiana. Their father died of cancer when Patrick was eleven, and he dropped out of school after the eighth grade to work as a truck driver. Helen also visits Eddie in jail. He tells her that he killed David and Loretta in a fit of rage because his pregnant girlfriend refused to marry him and left him for a man named David.

Patrick manages to get a stay of execution so that he can appeal his sentence. Helen contacts Millard Farmer, an attorney in Atlanta, to take Patrick’s case. Farmer tries to appeal Patrick’s death sentence on the grounds of ineffective counsel since his lawyer made several mistakes during the trial. Despite Farmer’s efforts, both the federal Fifth Circuit Court and Supreme Court deny the appeal. With only a few days left to go before Patrick’s execution, Helen tries to obtain a pardon from the Louisiana governor. Meanwhile, Patrick eats his last meal and prepares for death. When Helen joins him for a prayer, Patrick tells her that the only love he has ever experienced in his life was from her.

The governor declines to pardon Patrick, and he is executed by electric chair. Helen witnesses the execution, along with the victims’ families. Before Patrick dies, he leaves Helen all his belongings in his will and writes some lines in a Bible for her. The day after his execution, he is buried in the nuns’ cemetery next to Sister Isabel, a friend of Helen. About thirty people, including Helen and Eddie, attend the funeral.Helen, greatly affected by Patrick’s death, creates a training program for people who wish to become spiritual advisors for death row inmates.

Farmer tells Helen about another death row prisoner, Robert Lee Willie, who was sentenced to death after a violent eight-day rampage in which he murdered a teenager named Faith Hathaway, raped another young woman, and shot and paralyzed a young man. Helen agrees to be Robert’s spiritual advisor. She attends a march protesting the death penalty, but is met with counter-protesters, including Vernon Harvey, Faith’s stepfather. Helen meets with Vernon and his wife, who tell her that Faith was about to join the military when she was kidnapped, raped, and murdered by Robert. Helen feels a lot of sympathy for Faith’s family.

Robert turns out to be much less sympathetic than Patrick. He tells interviewers that he admires Hitler, believes in Aryan superiority, and wishes he could spend his life bombing buildings.He refuses to take responsibility for Faith’s murder and blames it on his accomplice, Vaccaro. After Robert’s appeal and pardon request are both denied, however, he becomes more anxious and remorseful as his execution date approaches. He asks to take a lie detector test to prove that he did not kill Faith. He is given the polygraph, but the results are inconclusive due to his stress. He eats his last meal with Helen, and they talk about his racial prejudice. Helen watches his execution. At Robert’s funeral, his mother faints after looking into the open casket.

The main themes of the book are compassion, spirituality, redemption, justice, retribution, cruelty, and death. Helen exposes the moral ambiguity of the death penalty by showing that the inmates who are put to death are human beings with families, emotions, and a past. Although she also expresses sympathy for the victims of violent crimes and their loved ones, she conveys the idea that the death penalty does not really provide peace or resolution. She also describes the execution process in great detail in order to show its barbarity and dispel the myth that it is noble or humane.