Dead Man Walking

Dead Man Walking

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Sister Helen asks Phelps his opinions on some questions that have been bothering her. "Aren't there, I argue, some rights fundamental to human beings-- such as the right not to be tortured or killed-- that everyone, including governments, must respect? Doesn't the moral foundation of a society erode if its government is allowed to treat these fundamental, nonnegotiable rights as some sort of privilege, which they take on themselves to dispense for good behavior or withdraw for bad behavior?" [p. 103]

Sister Helen describes the legal system as "a system of gates that shut like one-way turnstiles, and you can't go back once you've come out" [p. 45]. The long appeals process would seem to ensure a fair trial for all, but in actuality the prisoner's success within it depends upon how good a lawyer he can afford to hire.

Sister Helen asks Phelps his opinions on some questions that have been bothering her. "Aren't there, I argue, some rights fundamental to human beings-- such as the right not to be tortured or killed-- that everyone, including governments, must respect? Doesn't the moral foundation of a society erode if its government is allowed to treat these fundamental, nonnegotiable rights as some sort of privilege, which they take on themselves to dispense for good behavior or withdraw for bad behavior?" [p. 103]

Sister Helen often speaks of "government" as though it were entirely separate and dissociated from the people themselves.

Sister Helen quotes Albert Camus on the death penalty: "To assert...that a man must be absolutely cut off from society because he is absolutely evil amounts to saying that society is absolutely good, and no one in his right mind will believe this today" [p. 22].

Sister Helen accuses Edwin Edwards of condoning the death penalty so as not to risk his political career. Do you believe that Edwards is doing his job as governor by carrying out the will of the people, or should he act upon his own convictions? Robert says, "This whole death penalty ain't nothing but politics" [p. 162].

Sister Helen believes that a nun, as a servant of God, should serve the poor, and she sees her political activism as a way of serving the poor.

Sister Helen Prejean looks back on the life and career of her father-- a good man who helped the black people in his segregated community-- and reflects that "systems inflict pain and hardship in people's lives and.

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..being kind in an unjust system is not enough" [p. 7].

For in the end she reaffirms the conviction with which she began: the death penalty serves no purpose other than raw retribution, and there is no ethical or scriptural justification for killing, by the government or the individual. It is her experiences with the men on death row and the victims' families that convince both her and the reader that capital punishment serves no legitimate end, and it is here that being drawn so completely into her perspective as she visits inmates and families is sometimes effective. ( (Dead Man Walking. - book reviews
Commonweal, Nov 19, 1993 by Hilary Hochman)

The letters she exchanged with Pat Sonnier led to visits, and the visits revealed to her the criminal-justice system's inability to cope with the human needs of victims and victimizers.

"I cannot believe in a God who metes out hurt for hurt, pain for pain, torture for torture. Nor do I believe that God invests human representatives with such power to torture and kill."

The book does a great job of showing the disparity in how the death penalty is applied. It goes through the studies on its lack of effectiveness, and how for the most part, it is the poor and the African-American who are on death row. (

Spark Notes (
The role of the Government (Early in her narrative, Prejean argues that governments are not responsible enough to be trusted with capital punishment. The state, like the individuals who comprise it, is an imperfect, flawed entity. It is given to widespread abuse, as demonstrated by history and the absence of social justice in much of the country. Therefore, it cannot claim the moral and practical grounds necessary to justify the killing of its citizens. Government's primary responsibility is to protect its citizens and their rights, Prejean believes, and yet the capital punishment system is so arbitrary and biased that it often violates its citizens' rights. Prejean repeatedly asks how the state can be trusted to determine who should live and who should die given the mistakes it makes when performing its most basic functions.

For the families of both murderers and murder victims, killing, whether it is done by an individual or by the state, causes an indescribable amount of grief and leaves a wreck of shattered lives in its wake.
Prejean condemns the Court's decisions not only to uphold capital punishment, but also to extend it to teenagers, the mentally retarded, and the insane. She also points out that the Court's tolerant interpretation of capital punishment stands in direct opposition to the majority of the industrialized world, which believes that the death penalty is torture.
At the heart of Prejean's argument against capital punishment is her belief that the moral cost of state-sanctioned killing is too damaging to tolerate. In addition to the obvious and quantifiable cost of executions, society pays a greater, more abstract moral cost every time it condones the killing of an individual. The death penalty violates society's most fundamental belief: that human life is worthy of respect. By violating that trust, society violates its own values. Justice is transformed into vengeance, and the very crime that outrages the state—murder—becomes its means of punishment. The moral cost of executions, unlike the fiscal cost, cannot be assessed with a calculator but is instead determined by every individual in a society.
For Robert Willie and Patrick Sonnier, taking responsibility for their crimes is the first step to atonement. The state officials Prejean encounters must understand that they bear some of the responsibility for the executions they carry out. Prejean believes that most of these officials are decent men and women, but she also believes that their participation in an unjust system cannot go unnoticed. Only when each individual claims responsibility for his or her role in the state's death penalty policies can change happen.
Prejean presents love as the one force that has the power to alter and redeem a human life, as well as restore dignity. Patrick's relationship with Prejean becomes his source of strength and courage in the last hours of his life. The love between Patrick and Prejean allows Patrick to atone for his sins at the end of his life.
"I see a column of inmates, most of them black, marching out to soybean and vegetable fields, their hoes over their shoulders. Behind and in front of the marching men, guards on horseback with rifles watch their charge. In antebellum days three cotton plantations occupied these 18,000 acres, worked by slaves from Angola in Africa . . . Since its beginnings in 1901, abuse, corruption, rage, and reform have studded its history". (In Chapter 2, Prejean describes seeing Angola for the first time. Her description suggests that the modern day prison bears a strong resemblance to the slave plantation Angola once was. Long before Angola became a prison, its history was filled with abuse, corruption, and rage. Its reincarnation as a prison has done little to mitigate that legacy. Prejean notes that since the prison was opened in 1901, abuses have continued. The penal system and slavery are drastically different institutions that are connected by a shared history of human rights abuses, racial discrimination, and violence. )

"That, I believe, is what it's going to take to abolish the death penalty in this country: we must persuade the American people that government killings are too costly for us, not only financially, but—more important—morally".
(After discussing Gandhi's and Martin Luther King's perspectives on nonviolent aggression as a form of social change in Chapter 9, Prejean states her belief that capital punishment will be abolished only when the American people turn against it. In order for that radical shift in perspective to occur, the American people, who are collectively responsible for the actions of their government, must take an honest and informed look at the death penalty. Prejean believes that widespread misconceptions about justice must be corrected, and a moral examination of capital punishment must be undertaken. There is a practical argument against capital punishment, based on the financial cost of each execution, but also a more substantial moral argument: killing, whether done by an individual or government, is essentially wrong. Prejean's arguments against the death penalty take both arguments into consideration, but it is always the moral cost that lies at the heart of her assessment.)
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