Dead Man Walking: The Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty that Sparked a National Debate

By Helen Prejean, Desmond Tutu, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins

7,169 ratings - 4.11* vote

In 1982, Sister Helen Prejean became the spiritual advisor to Patrick Sonnier, the convicted killer of two teenagers who was sentenced to die in the electric chair of Louisiana's Angola State Prison. In the months before Sonnier's death, the Roman Catholic nun came to know a man who was as terrified as he had once been terrifying. At the same time, she came to know the fam In 1982, Sister Helen Prejean became the spiritual advisor to Patrick Sonnier, the convicted killer of two

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Book details

Audible Audio, 0 pages
May 21st 2019 by Random House Audio

(first published 1993)

Original Title
Dead Man Walking
ISBN
0679751319 (ISBN13: 9780679751311)
Edition Language
English

Community Reviews

Meredith Holley

This is the story of a serial killer who enslaves people, usually black men, and tortures them by telling them the date the killer plans to execute them and then by keeping them locked in chains until that date, always reminding them of the date’s imminence. Sometimes, the killer tells them that if they are lucky, if the killer likes them enough, they might escape death, but that just seems to increase the torture because the killer doesn’t really plan to let them go. The killer in this book also has a kind of Dexter complex, where the killer chooses victims morally corrupt enough that few people even notice their deaths. Of course, the killer in this book is state government.

This is actually one of the saddest books I’ve ever read. It’s hard to feel very sympathetic towards the prisoners that Sister Helen advocates for, and I have to be honest that I don’t share her confidence that a true life sentence will always be a true life sentence, or even that a true life sentence is more humane than the death penalty. On the other hand, I am completely convinced of the arbitrariness of state executions. Also, it was deeply tragic to read about the families of the executed men, and their devastation seems to deserve respect, just as does the devastation of the families of the executed men’s victims.

This year, I sat in the courtroom and watched parts of the trial of Angela McAnulty, who tortured her daughter to death over the course of about seven years. At the point that her daughter, Jeanette Maples, died, the coroner couldn’t name a cause of death because there were so many possible causes. She had numerous infected wounds, brain hemorrhaging, water in her lungs, and was severely emaciated. Angela had forced (forced? convinced?) her husband to install locks, to which only Angela had the keys, on most of the doors in the house, including the bathroom. Her daughter was only allowed to use the bathroom supervised because she would try to drink out of the toilet if she was unsupervised. There were other things, worse things. There were other kids who weren’t tortured, but who Angela involved in torturing Jeanette. The jury gave her the death penalty, and I have to say I would have done the same. In her police interrogation tape, she said that instead of torturing her daughter, she probably should have taken up smoking.

So, I feel pretty conflicted about the issue of the death penalty. I think Sister Helen Prejean is a lovely woman, and I think her compassion is truly noble. I’m not wholly convinced that the death penalty is the worst of American institutions, though. Buuuuuut, at the same time, the corruption that the death penalty seems to practically breed is truly disturbing. The fact that it is only used against the poor is equally troubling.

Although Angela McAnulty confessed to her crimes, and so no trial occurred as to her guilt (the only issue was sentencing), it was still a problem to me that her defense attorneys put on almost no case. Their closing argument was something like, “Yep, this is pretty much the worst thing ever. You’re a smart jury, and we’re reconciled to whatever you decide.” I’m not satisfied that that is actually a defense. I know the burden is on the state to prove a crime, but that doesn’t mean that no defense is necessary. According to Sister Helen, failure of the defense to actually provide a defense is a rampant problem.

I keep coming back to thinking about this issue in relation to the recent Supreme Court case Connick v. Thompson . That case is fascinating. Like, I want to investigate it and write a book about all of the people involved in it. It is, like, EVERYTHING interesting about the law. But, the thing about it is that I feel with great certainty that Justice Thomas’ opinion is correct (Slate does not agree). I think Justice Ginsburg’s dissent would have created really troubling law. So the reason it relates to Dead Man Walking is that they are both about the death penalty in Louisiana and how corrupt the prosecution of criminals who end up on death row is. They are both about how legal procedure is basically what decides who wins and loses. Since I totally love legal procedure for some insane reason, I kind of love that fact, but not when people unjustly die because of it.

One awesome thing about the Thompson case is that Harry Connick, Jr.’s dad, Harry Connick, Sr., who was the lead D.A. in New Orleans for a helluva long time (Wikipedia says 1973-2003), is the “Connick” in the title of the case.

Anyway, the issue in Connick v. Thompson was that Mr. Thompson was convicted of a crime and sentenced to the death penalty because the New Orleans prosecutors withheld evidence of a lab test that exonerated him. So, the lab tests get discovered, new trial, Mr. Thompson gets not only gets no death penalty in the new trial, he also gets completely acquitted of the crime. The withholding of evidence is a violation of the case Brady v. Maryland, which says prosecutors can’t withhold exonerating evidence.

Then, this is the interesting part (to me). You probably all know this, but I didn’t before law school. The statute 42 U.S.C. § 1983 is the civil rights statute that says that we can sue people who “under color of” state law deprive us of our rights. So, the Supreme Court says that “people” can mean a lot of things. One of the things it can mean is municipal authorities in their personal capacities. (Like, as themselves, not as their office. So, when Sarah Palin was governor of Alaska, I would sue her as Sarah Palin, not as governor.) It can also mean municipalities themselves, but if you sue a municipality, you have to show that there is some procedure or custom, instituted by the municipality, that supported the deprivation of your rights. Some rule to change. This is the same with suing someone in their official capacity, like suing Mr. Connick as D.A. of New Orleans, or suing Governor Sarah Palin.

In Thompson, Mr. Connick, Sr., came out and said basically, “Yes, yes, unfortunately I misread Brady when I was the lead prosecutor.” *this is me going ballistic* So, he misread Brady to mean that he was supposed to withhold evidence? No. I am not willing to believe that happened. But, the genius thing about this is that then the attorneys bringing Thompson’s case sued the municipality, or Mr. Connick in his official capacity, not the prosecutors in their personal capacities. They argued that Mr. Thompson’s case alone, one instance of withholding evidence, combined with Mr. Connick’s statement that it was a mistake on his part, showed a custom of the municipality. And Justice Thomas was like, “No, one instance doesn’t show a custom or a procedure or a rule that we can attribute to the municipality.”

People tend not to sue officials in their personal capacity because individuals have less money, less insurance, than municipalities. The interesting thing if you take the Thompson case with Dead Man Walking is that Prejean is pretty clear that she thinks that this kind of thing went on all the time in the New Orleans Parish. Even the Slate article above notes that Louisiana courts have overturned, for Brady violations, many convictions coming out of Connick’s office. Correct me if I’m wrong (and I honestly haven’t read the opinion very closely because I have to actually do my schoolwork at some point), but it’s my understanding that the Supreme Court only considered the violations in relation to Thompson (and it would seem that way, too, because Thompson is the only plaintiff here). So interesting that, at least as it appears from reading the facts in the opinion, the attorneys didn’t bring suit using the other cases as well, even as evidence. All of the courts, even the lower courts that awarded judgment to Mr. Thompson, agreed that it was not custom or procedure to withhold evidence.

Anyway, that’s me geeking out on federal courts. I’m sure I haven’t explained the whole situation that well. And it does make sense to gamble by suing Connick in his official capacity, hoping for a judgment on which Mr. Thompson could actually collect, than to sue in his personal capacity. I just wonder about the lack of evidence. I wonder about the statements that Sister Helen makes in this book, which pretty blatantly imply that Mr. Connick’s office has been consistently guilty of § 1983 violations.

Okay, none of this is actually related to the paper I have to write on judicial review and the death penalty, so I need to go work on that now. It’s all just been rattling around in my head, so I felt like I needed to put it to paper. If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! Do you want to write my federal courts paper for me, too?

Shaun

...if we believe that murder is wrong and not admissible in our society, then it has to be wrong for everyone, not just individuals but governments as well.


This is the crux of Sister Helen Prejean's argument against capital punishment. She also asserts that the death penalty is not a deterrent to violent crime, costs taxpayers substantially more than life in prison in the long run,and is not fairly meted out on the merits of a case, but instead influenced heavily by race, poverty, and geography. She also claims that the individuals involved with the actual execution are generally uncomfortable with the process and if the public were forced to face the reality of the killing, existing support would wane.

I won't bother summarizing the plot/story. All I will say is that she offers a compelling argument against the death penalty, providing both personal accounts and statistics to back up her stance. At times I was brought to tears, which I think speaks to her ability to humanize the bad guys.

Early in the book, I was bothered by the fact that she didn't spend as much time humanizing the victims. It's much easier to feel for the man sitting on death row when you are allowed to forget what he's done. However, I think she rectifies this somewhat in the second half of the book where the victims are finally given a face, albeit a somewhat hazy one.

At this point in my life, I tend to agree with the sister, though I can't imagine how my resolve might be tested if it had been my child that was tortured, raped, or brutally murdered.

Still, I think Prejean's recounting and thoughtful commentary raises a number of valid points not only about the death penalty but also the US criminal justice system in general.

There are some religious undertones that I found annoying. Obviously, she felt her faith was a driving force behind her quest to have the death penalty abolished. Yet she works really hard to get there, a little too hard (after all Christianity is based on a human sacrifice...Christ's life in exchange for our souls...we are redeemed by Christ's blood and suffering...etc, etc, etc). Plus, my personal experience is that those who claim to be of a religious persuasion tend to be more supportive of the death penalty than those who are not.

Bottom line: it's a great discussion about the value of life, and whether the collective "we" has the right to take it. Does government condoned violence really deter violence or help us to heal from violence or does it only perpetuate the same attitude of violence that we're supposedly trying to discourage/punish?

Elle

In light of the eleventh-hour federal executions the Trump administration has rushed through at the tail end of his presidency, I’m doing a buddy read of this book by anti-capital punishment activist, Sister Helen Prejean, with my friend Carmen over at @tomesandtextiles!

Graham

Wow. "Work of the eyes is done, now go do the heart work" (p309, from Rainer Maria Rilke)
Sister Helen Prejean must be one of the bravest people in the world. Not only does she support men convicted of murder on death row, and be with them in hyper final hours, and be with them in the death chamber itself, but she makes time for the victims, attends and raises money for victim support groups and does all this in the name of Jesus, bringing hope and comfort, steel and velvet, challenge and compassion.
I'm in awe.
I thought the book was going to be challenging, but not like this: people, dates, times, corruption of legal process, withholding evidence, common brutality to the families of both those convicted and those victimised. And well researched, humane and thoughtful too. She does not shirk from hard questions, nor does she go for pro hominem arguments.
She tells of one family who, after the man who murdered their daughter is executed, lose their focus: p188 'with Robert Willie dead, he doesn't have an object for his rage'. Isn't that the saddest sentence in the whole book?
Compare with p312-3: " Lloyd...went to the execution....not for revenge, but hoping for an apology. Patrick....had not disappointed him...'....I want to ask for you forgiveness...' and Lloyd had nodded his head, signalling a forgiveness he had already given.... But he acknowledges that it's a struggle...as he remembers David's birthday year by year and loses him all over again... Forgiveness is never going to be easy. Each day it must be prayed for and struggled for and won."

Questions of justice, revenge, 'paying for crime', punishment, acknowledgement, restitution, acceptance, restoration all come up here. Whilst society perhaps still needs to come up with a way of adequately dealing with people who commit terrible crimes it is clear that the death penalty is not that way.

Wallace

So, this one has a seriously funny story attached to it, but it also had a huge impact on me at that time in my life. I went out on a first date with a really cute guy, and we went to the movie. I was so troubled by the film (although I loved it), that I cried so much he had to take me home. I couldn't even talk! He surprised me by asking me out again, though. He must have thought I was a lunatic.

The book is very good, and it lives up to the notion that the book is always better than the movie. It won't make you cry as much, though, as it's written exclusively from the Sister PreJean's perspective, and it's more about her work in the case. Her perspective and guidance for those she meets is so compassionate and honest. Very enjoyable book.

Kathrina

Sister Prejean is speaking on our campus on April 9th. I'm very much looking forward to speaking with her, and I'll be assigning this book (as well as attendance at her lecture) to my undergrad students. There may only be one or two books you read in college that really make an impact on the person you become. This might be one of them.

Licha

Had to abandon this book at Chapter 3, page 43. I've never abandoned this many books in a short span of two months so I'm a little worried that I may be giving up too soon on them.

Really wanted to like this and was so excited to read this since I had loved the movie with Sean Penn. The book is so dry though and reads like the reports they had us do back in high school, so in that sense it also made the book seemed outdated for me. The author jumps around a lot so there's not a linear storyline that made me focus on the story. I kept feeling like she missed chunks of story before she would jump onto another part of the story. For example, Sister Helen's recounting of her first encounter with Pat was so brief I felt like she didn't want to tell me everything that had happened. It made me start to lose interest every time she jumped around storylines.

Highly disappointed that I did not like this more. A little part of me does not want to give up on this as I find a story about a nun befriending a man on death row so fascinating. I may have to come back to this book at some other time.

Katherine Addison

Sr. Helen Prejean, C.S.J., is a polemicist.

I don't say this as a condemnation, just as something I was never able to forget while reading Dead Man Walking. This is a woman making an argument; her goal is to persuade. As a reader, I was always able to feel her persuading me as I read, and even though I agree with her--the death penalty as practiced in the American criminal justice system is an abomination and a farce--I had to keep reminding myself not to dig in my heels just because I don't like being persuaded of things.

Which is also not to say that she is not extremely persuasive. Sister Helen is an excellent storyteller, and she is always careful to keep the other side of her story in mind: the Bourques and the LeBlancs as well as Pat Sonnier, the Harveys as well as Robert Lee Willie. She's perfectly open about her own rhetorical purpose, and she's willing to show the people who don't agree with her as being good and morally upright people who are able to turn their daughter's horrible death into purpose that is not simply about supporting the death penalty, but about advocating for the rights of the families of murder victims. She's sometimes a little disingenuous, but I never felt she was dishonest.

The movie conflates Pat Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie, which I think does a disservice to the moral complexity of the book. Sonnier, who expresses remorse and accepts responsibility for his terrible crime, who loves his brother fiercely enough to forgive him and (in a sense) to die for him, who is open to and accepting of Sister Helen's message. Who is enough of a man (unlike Willie, the narrative suggests) to drop his machismo and admit his emotions. Sonnier, who thanks Sister Helen for loving him, is just about the perfect poster child for her purpose.

Willie is not. He is not remorseful; he shifts responsibility to the other guy. (Willie & Sonnier are interesting mirrors of each other; both had a partner in crime, and both received the death penalty while their partner got life. Sonnier, in something that was either a clusterfuck or a very shrewd manipulation on Eddie Sonnier's part, confessed; Willie says consistently that it was all Vaccaro's fault, that Vaccaro did it. The closest he gets to admitting culpability is saying that he shouldn't have followed Vaccaro's lead.) He clearly likes Sister Helen, but he's resistant to being molded and he maintains his exaggerated machismo to the end. No confessions, no mention of love (except of course for his mother), no sign that there's anything in him that could be salvaged or rehabilitated or that is even capable of recognizing the idea.

There's a really weird moment where Sister Helen tells him, while they're waiting for his execution, that when she first met him she thought he was a sociopath. And I said (I think even out loud), "You mean you think he's not?" She fails in her project there with me, in the sense that her project is to persuade readers that even the most hardened criminals are still, as her abolitionist lawyer friend says of Willie, "a child sitting inside [a] tough, macho dude" (119). I don't believe that about Willie--Willie makes my skin crawl, first to last--and in any case, that's not why I believe the death penalty is wrong.

I believe the death penalty is wrong for many of the same reasons Sister Helen does. E.g.:

(1) Our government, corrupt, inefficient, and even incompetent as it so often is, should not have the power of life or death over its citizens.

(2) The imposition of the death penalty in America is grossly skewed toward African-Americans, the lower classes, (reprehensibly) the mentally disabled, and towards criminals who murder whites. If we're going to claim it's justice, then it has to be administered justly.

(3) It is absolutely cruel and unusual punishment, despite the fancy footwork the Supreme Court tried to hide behind in Gregg vs. Georgia. Towards the end of the book, the father of one of Willie's victims says, "Know what they should've done with Willie? [...] They should've strapped him in that chair, counted to ten, then at the count of nine taken him out of the chair and let him sit in his cell for a day or two and then strapped him in the chair again. It was too easy for him. He went too quick" (235). What Vernon Harvey doesn't recognize, and what the narrative doesn't point out, is that that's what the torturous system of appeals and retrials and more appeals already does. Stays of execution, temporary reprieves, courts considering appeals only to reject them, the awful, awful cruelty of the power the governor has to commute the prisoner's sentence up until the literal moment the switch is thrown . . . these are torture just as much as the strappado or the rack. It shows more clearly, actually, with Sonnier, because we see more of the process and because Sister Helen (Helen-Prejean-the-author painting Sister-Helen-the-character as the raw naive newbie) doesn't truly believe Sonnier's going to die, that nothing she can do can save him, until 8:40 on the night of his execution (Sonnier officially died at fifteen minutes past midnight). This tug o'war with hope as the prize is dreadful, excruciating for the victim's family and excruciating for the man waiting to die. It's not justice.

There are any number of ethical questions that neither this book nor this review have touched, infinite delicate delineations of gray between Sister Helen and Vernon Harvey (shades of black between Pat Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie), and I do in fact applaud this book for not shutting any of those down.

James Carter

Dead Man Walking pretends to take a look at both sides of capital punishment but does not tell the full story of what actually happened to the victims.

Having absolutely no clue what the heck she is involved with, Sister Helen Prejean is idealistic and naïve simply because she wasn't there or didn't see the evil in the men she was supposed to act as their "spirital adviser." If one day she is raped or violently dealt with or has lost her loved one, somebody that she actually has years of emotional connection with, in a similar manner, let's see if she changes her tune. If the traumatic event doesn't convince her enough, I guess she should get the sainthood after all, and it will be just another example of how silly religion is.

For a change, how about coming into contact with death-row inmates who can barely speak English or put together a comprehensible string of words, have soulless eyes, and like to throw feces at people? Is she going to rationalize their behavior as something simplistic like "misunderstood children trapped in men's bodies?" The fact is that these people had thousands of chances all their lives to change for better and had consistently turned them down. Yes, low IQ and/or poor environment play a role but shouldn't be used as an excuse because there are millions of examples of people overcoming either or both to be decent citizens.

There are flaws with Prejean's logic whenever she tries to make an argument using scriptures from the bible or quoting crime statistics. By rationalizing her stand from the biblical viewpoint, she makes the classic mistake in terms of how words from the book must not be taken so literally because society has evolved over time. That's exactly the point why religion is nothing but a man-made, money making enterprise because the Bible is meant to be the true word of God, yet there are so many mistakes, contradictions, logical problems, inconsistencies, etc., within the book that the only question left to be asked: how can an all-knowing God be so stupid? Hence, the whole religion thing falls apart right in its face and must be therefore discarded.

Moving on to quoting crime statistics, Prejean points out some cases when an innocent person (I don't mean the ones who got off on technical grounds such as improper trial proceedings or had their sentences commuted to life) is put to death, but what percent is that of all death-row cases: 1% or what? That means justice in 99% of the cases was correctly administered. As a result, she fudged the presentation by withholding that important statistic. No system is ever going to be perfect, and there will be mistakes; the most important thing to do is learn from them and not to repeat them. It's the government's responsibility to make the necessary corrections and refine the system more, hence the countless of appeals in state and federal courts to ensure due process.

As far as captial punishment goes, it's the just thing to do. What bothers me is that the process takes too long to get moving. To fix it is to create a separate court system that exclusively deals with death-row appeals and just speed them all up to be completed within several, not 20 to 30, years. Yes, all people, regardless of their race and income, should feel the brunt of it. State- and federal-sponsored execution for crimes committed should be the truth of how real it is and needs to be promptly administered. People who kill may will kill again if they are allowed to live. To put them down prevents any further murders, even if they occur in prisons. Otherwise, capital punishment will have lost all of its meaning. Victims may feel relief from the final resolution, but nothing will erase their loss or pain; at any rate, it's ultimately disappointing that life has dealt them a harsh blow like this.

Sister Helen Prejean should learn to refrain from filling in words of what other people might be thinking. That's just a big no-no, especially in something serious that deals with victims of death-row cases. As for the facts of the case, when you read her account of what happened, the words won't really hit you; it's just impactless retelling of the case. When you read Detective Michael Varnado's book Victims of Dead Man Walking, you will truly feel the words as if you were there and understand why the death penalty was sought. The pictures of deceased Faith Hathaway tell an overpowering tale of how brutally raped and murdered she was. Elsewhere, Sister Helen Prejean failed to mention that the vote was 11 to 1 in favor of death for the other accomplice which is why he got life instead. Ever the classic liberal, she is merely interested in using political rhetoric, away from the brutality of crimes so to present her side through a narrow viewpoint, to make a case against capital punishment because they are, after all, human beings who made mistakes.

Note: I just finished reading Dead Family Walking. There are shocking revelations from that book which weren't mentioned anywhere else. Sister Helen Prejean was planning to ditch her faith and marry Elmo Sonnier who later admitted that he was using her to escape the death penalty. Also, she went behind her Mother Superior's back by forcing the church to open up a plot for him and having all the necessary papers signed; when this was found out, it became too late to reverse the process. During Sonnier's execution, Millard Farmer provoked Mr. Borque to get him angry by claiming that he didn't want Sonnier dead, which wasn't true in the first place, in the hopes of rendering the ongoing execution null and void on technical grounds. Sister Helen Prejean was making so much noise during the proceeding that she was ordered by the warden to immediately leave the premises afterwards. As for the last night, when Sonnier was claimed to have said something like "the whole thing stinks bad," Sister Helen Prejean's account of how it went down in her book never happened, and she made it all up; she was actually at the governor's office in Baton Rouge with Farmer, not Angola with Sonnier.

All in all, before or after you read Dead Man Walking, be sure to read Victims of Dead Man Walking and Dead Family Walking and judge for yourself who is really telling the full, truthful story of what really happened.

Tova

Actually 2.5/5 This was okay. I do really appreciate the message, but due to my mental health state at the moment this book made me super uncomfortable and made me feel kind of shitty. That ending was really good, and I almost started crying. Mini RTC

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