The lie Americans tell themselves is that the death penalty is noble — a sort of medicinal, humane way to enact justice against those who wrong society and have forfeited their right to live among other individuals (even in jail).
If Sister Helen Prejean’s 1993 book (I have the reissued 20th anniversary edition from 2013), Dead Man Walking: The Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty That Sparked a National Debate doesn’t disabuse you of that attempt to put a noble gloss upon the barbarism of the death penalty, then nothing will.
Of course, I say that as someone who is already predisposed to Sister Prejean’s viewpoint, as a staunch anti-death penalty advocate, but I like to think someone open-minded reading this book could come to understand the wrongness of the death penalty. Worse yet, even in the nearly 10 years since this book, we’ve learned that the latest iteration of the death penalty — lethal injection — aimed at being more humane than electrocution, which was aimed at being more humane than hanging (and on and on), has become as barbaric and inhumane as everything before it. In fact, in some instances, even here in Ohio only a year after the anniversary edition, there was death row inmate who took 25 minutes to be executed, longer than the four or so minutes it took to kill one of Sister Prejean’s death row inmates in the book.
So, after years of wanting to read this book because of my aforementioned belief and advocacy against the death penalty, two things surprised me about the book now that I’ve finally read it.
First, that the character Sean Penn plays in the film adaptation in 1995 is essentially influenced by the two gentleman in the book, not a literal portrayal; I didn’t realize that.
Secondly, and far more importantly, I didn’t realize a good chunk of the book deals with Sister Prejean’s reckoning with the awkwardness, tension and grief of the families of the murdered victims. In particular, she has a relationship with Elizabeth and Vernon, the parents to Faith Hathaway, who was kidnapped, and then brutally raped and stabbed to death by Robert Willie and Joseph Vaccaro. Elizabeth and Vernon support killing Robert Willie for what he did.
I thought those scenes were powerful and necessary, first to show Sister Prejean as human rather than someone stone-faced nun because she was self-admittedly cowardly to avoid talking to the victims’ families, and secondly, to show the complexity of the death penalty. Advocates of abolishing the death penalty must reckon with the grief-riddled vengeance of the victims’ families, and the fact that, at least as of the writing of the book (laws have since changed in a number of states) many victims’ families were left out in the cold by the police and prosecutors, and sometimes on basic things, such as seeing the autopsy report or knowing what’s going on with the court case.
To Sister Prejean’s immense credit, she obviously goes on to have those difficult conversations with the families while steadfastly maintaining her advocacy, and she also takes the additional step to the latter issue by helping to form a group with the other nuns to consider the plight of the victims’ families.
If anything, the best place to start with trying to repeal the death penalty for good in the United States is with those most likely to favor the death penalty: the victims’ families. That said, that’s obviously a delicate balance between trying to be there for the victims’ families and spouting advocacy at them.
Robert Willie, who is as unlikable as a character can be because of his Aryan Brotherhood roots, affinity for Adolph Hitler, racism and the fact of his violent crime, is the one facing the electric chair, not Vaccaro.
On the other hand, Sister Prejean’s first death row inmate, who she is the spiritual adviser for at Angola prison in Louisiana, is more likable (as far as that goes), Patrick Sonnier, who along with his brother, Eddie, went on a raping and kidnapping spree, which included the rape and murders of David LeBlanc and Loretta Bourque. As with the Robert situation, Patrick is the one who gets the chair while Eddie does not.
I don’t think Patrick’s case reads as him being innocent, but it seems certain that he (and Robert, honestly) didn’t get proper representation and that the politics around the death penalty are grotesque (the governor having the power of God; and the governor appointing a Parole Board of political appointees who literally do his bidding on the question of “justice”). In addition, Patrick, unlike Robert, genuinely seems remorseful for what he did and receptive to Sister Prejean’s godly guidance.
The other two parts of the book, interspersed with the spiritual advising for Patrick and Robert, as well as the relationships with their victims’ parents, involve Sister Prejean lobbing her arguments against the death penalty (and showing her real-world advocacy and how exhaustive it was!), as well as the Biblical arguments in particular against it and how that seemed to manifest in religious hypocrisy.
I don’t want to spend much time on the former, as again, I’m already converted to the cause and I don’t want to spend this book review repeating the usual arguments, so let’s address the latter.
Of course, Sister Prejean has heard the arguments from Leviticus and Exodus and so on that proponents of the death penalty interpret as justifying the death penalty. I was surprised, and maybe it’s because it’s different in Catholicism, that Sister Prejean didn’t point out that the sacrifice of Jesus and the New Testament essentially wiped the slate clean on what goes on in the Old Testament. At least, I’ve always interpreted Christianity in that lens, and with that lens, as Sister Prejean points out, I can’t imagine Jesus (and a loving God) pulling the switch on an execution.
An example of religious hypocrisy, is that the Louisiana governor and virtually anyone of authority presiding over the death penalty proclaims to be a Christian and even to have qualms with the death penalty. And yet. In addition, in the 1980s, when Sister Prejean was spiritually advising these gentleman, Christians were among those most likely to support the death penalty.
In fact, C. Paul Phelps, the head of the Department of Corrections in Louisiana quite literally designed the process by which an execution would be carried out in the prison. He seemed to think by putting enough legalese around it and enough red tape between him and “it,” that he could square it away in his head. That he was merely “following the law.” But that’s a moral cop-out. The worst part is that he told Sister Prejean he never witnessed an execution. That’s moral cowardice to the highest degree: Be a witness to what you created.
That’s the thing, as Sister Prejean points out, it’s not a surprise that the death penalty is largely kept hidden from the public. If the public could truly see what an execution looks like, I can’t imagine public support would maintain.
And if the public could experience what Sister Prejean does through the eyes of Patrick and Robert — where both get death dates, so they know when they’re going to die (or in Patrick’s case, multiple death dates) — it’s absolutely cruel and unusual punishment, no matter what the Supreme Court of the United States has ruled.
One of the best lines in the whole book Sister Prejean offers to cut against the abject bureaucracy sheen that these folks try to cover the premeditated execution of a fellow human being with is that there are concerns about witnesses to the execution being “polite.” They must be polite.
To that, she states: “I say that I disagree that the right of the man being killed are protected because the witnesses to his death are expected to be polite.”
I also enjoyed the quasi-memoir aspect of the book, learning more about Sister Prejean and the sexism she faced as a woman going onto Death Row (ugly rumors spread that she had an “emotional” affair with Patrick), or that women are too “emotional.”
I admire Sister Prejean greatly for how she pushed back against these efforts to silence her on account of her being a woman and on account of her advocacy as a nun.
The most valuable insight into this book isn’t the death penalty arguments or the religious arguments or any of that; it’s what the subtitle promises: An eyewitness account of the death penalty. That’s what is so valuable about Sister Prejean’s work here and continues to be relevant nearly 30 years after its publication.
You don’t have to like Patrick. Or Robert. That’s not the point, and you’re missing the point if you think eliminating the death penalty revolves around “likable characters.” It’s about human dignity, and it’s about what utilizing the death penalty reflects about us as a supposedly civilized society.
Sister Prejean brings us into the Death House unlike any book before it. You see the cruel and unusual punishment of this act manifest. You see the way it tries the souls of men and women. You see the way as a society, we somehow try to justify its placement within it — unsuccessfully, I would say.
No matter what you think about the death penalty, if you think she’s going to be preaching to the choir, absolutely wrong about everything, or a bit of both, the insight is in being an unflinching witness to something our government does in our name. And we can’t look away.
Sister Prejean didn’t and we can’t either.
We must not look away. If anything, for those who support executions, it is incumbent upon them the most to not look away.