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  • Writer's pictureBryce Chismire

Dead Man Walking - Novel

Updated: Mar 9, 2021

Let’s face it. Every time we hear of anything, either in fiction or real-life - especially if it’s from the news - we always dread hearing stories about criminals committing the most heinous crimes, don’t we? Not only could they easily have crawled under our skins, but we’re left feeling like they deserved the most severe punishment we can ever muster unto them for their misdeeds.

I thought so, too, for a while, but after I just recently read Sister Helen Prejean’s autobiographical report of her experiences with two such criminals in Dead Man Walking, I honestly started to look at it a little differently ever since.

In case you haven’t heard of it before, here’s the story. In 1982, Helen Prejean, a New Orleans nun and one of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Medaille, decided to volunteer and be a spiritual adviser to a convicted criminal sentenced to die on the electric chair named Patrick Sonnier. Along with his brother Eddie, he was convicted of assaulting and killing a teenage couple named David LeBlanc and Loretta Bourque with a knife and a pistol, on top of raping Loretta. As she battened down the hatches and prepared herself to meet a criminal who was clearly 100% guilty of his crimes, Helen ventured into the Angola Prison (now called the Louisiana State Penitentiary) with a firm, innermost objection to the death penalty and hoped to at least try to reason with the criminal. At least, Helen wished to do so with him until she allowed him to go out with inner peace. And boy, did she, and we, too, witness it unfold before our eyes! As she visited Patrick more and more, she started to see a man who was as afraid of what’s in store for him as we were afraid of him for his actions. As Helen observed firsthand, we all started to see that Patrick Sonnier had a troubled life in his earlier years, and he even admitted to feeling remorseful about his crimes. As time, and his limited time, went on, he and Helen became more comfortable in each other’s company until the fateful day when Patrick got set to sit in the electric chair as sentenced. After Helen survived this event (in a sense), she decided to give it another go, this time with another killer named Robert Lee Willie. Much like Patrick, he was also guilty of assaulting, raping, and shooting a young teenage woman named Faith Hathaway. Helen ventured into Willie’s personal space on rocky grounds before these two got to know each other more, as she had with Patrick before. Except, this time around, Willie seemed to be a little more socially unworldly, being quite literate in the Bible, was actually part of an Aryan brotherhood once upon a time, and showed even less remorse for his murder spree; as a criminal, he could’ve been interpreted as being wilder and more reckless compared to Patrick. As Helen got to know both of these convicted criminals, though, she started to see more sides to the story concerning them than met the eye, and this steadily added fuel to her budding, and now ongoing, war against capital punishment.

This might be a little tricky for me to talk about because usually, I’ve talked a lot about works of fiction, and now, I’m looking at a non-fiction book. As of this writing, the last time I ever talked about one, it may have been Iris Grace almost three and a half years ago. So, what are my thoughts on Dead Man Walking?

Well, let me start by saying that Sister Helen Prejean might be one of the bravest people to ever live. I admired her inner strength to do what she felt was right, as well as her perseverance in getting through to some of the most notorious criminals ever to have walked the face of the Earth. Through her keen observations and reasoning with these people, I experienced more sides exposed of the criminals than even I would have dared to imagine, feeling more than once sympathetic to their plights despite knowing full well about their criminal records. With Patrick, just reading him confess about his past, his desires, and sometimes his relationship with his brother, they all exposed bits and pieces of Patrick’s personality and the lifestyles he decided to leave behind with his crimes. Two, with Robert, even though he may not have expressed as much remorse for his crimes, Robert did admit at one point how he had his moral code concerning what he saw was right or wrong. In his case, he admitted that he would have declared it inhumane if someone harmed children. As Helen got to know these two criminals more, so did I, to a point where I started to question the ideas of capital punishment at its most utilized, too.

I also liked how Helen ventured into this sobering affair with an iron will but also with a delicate sense of humanity to her. With those two balanced out, her arguments against capital punishment felt laid out and may get through to you like a blade; they got through to me with her observations on Patrick and Robert in all their humanities and even their executions. The arguments she made with several other people about it, starting with Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards, then through other such people, gradually became more and more eye-opening, taking a distinct look at all reachable sides of the story. By the time ABC asked her to share her thoughts on capital punishment on live TV with Peter Jennings, what she had observed from this experience, I think, can easily be applied to today’s society. She remembered hearing a comment from political commentator George Will about the necessity of capital punishment, and she took it in with a sense of bewilderment over the pure oxymoron this claim was to her. We can easily say that about all the messy, chaotic situations going on today, and chances are, we might react to them with the same amount of cautious, eagle-eyed thought processing as Helen had over capital punishment, especially during that TV interview. This also called me back to a super exciting revelation made first by Robert Willie, and then, ironically, by Vernon Harvey, Faith Hathaway’s stepfather, who both believed that for her arguments against capital punishment to be made clear, the executions that put convicted criminals to death should have aired on national TV for the whole public world to see. This is interesting to think about, especially as we make our way through the early 2020s, with social media being all over the place. This analogy prompted me to wonder how much of an impact that kind of broadcast would have had on people in general and whether or not it would have been able to change people’s minds about public capital punishment at this rate.

When I went into this book, besides anticipating Helen’s conversations with the criminals, I was beyond curious to see how well she fared with the families of both the criminals and even of the victims. Her conversations with the criminals’ families were part of why her reports were such eye-openers. The way they had to wrap their heads around how their offspring committed a severe crime, and the way they knew they didn’t have much longer to live because of it, they hit home how so alike they can be to us. Only the criminality that occurred within them would’ve put them in a negative light. Her conversations with the families of the victims, however? Well, it wasn’t very easy, to say the least. At first, she felt uncomfortable about reaching out to either the LeBlancs or the Bourques out of hesitation to exert her convictions over their suffering instead of giving them comfort and guidance. And when they approached her, she discovered that they wanted her guidance to help them through their grief; this was a missed opportunity. She had better luck with the Hathaways and reached out to them more, but her encounters with them were super interesting. Helen first saw the Hathaways when she and her friends staged an anti-capital punishment walk from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. In contrast, the Hathaways joined protests asking about the welfare of the victimized and of the families whose loved ones were taken away from them by criminals like Patrick and Robert. After that, however, she got more acquainted with the Hathaways and gave them the guidance they needed. She was even content with them as they expressed their opinions on the brutality of Robert’s crimes and how much they thought Robert deserved to suffer for them, even as Vernon so passionately did, as much as she disagreed with them. Their relationship felt rocky and complicated but was nonetheless fascinating to ponder over. Ultimately, this inspired her to establish a victim organization in New Orleans named Survive, in which the Hathaways also partook, so I guess you can interpret it as taking baby steps.

How she felt about her relationships with Patrick and Robert also treaded on complicated waters. With Patrick, she steadily respected him a lot as she knew his inner, more tender side. So much so that by the time she tried to protest against capital punishment, she mostly had the idea of delaying or even canceling Patrick’s execution in mind, even if it was to no avail. This put her in hot water, though, as other people wondered what she was doing, sympathizing with a convicted assassin. In retrospect, even she thought she was a little too naive to let her feelings for Patrick cloud her collective judgment on her beliefs and his crime rate. Whereas with Robert, she was a little more confident in attempting to reason with him over his crimes or views on life. Those showed a level of growth with her and her arguments. Even if her pursuits were no walk in the park, the way she was willing to go through so many conflicting thoughts and opinions over such a sensitive topic was just something to be admired.

As I continued to peruse through the book and dwelt on it afterward, I always wondered what Helen would’ve thought about the idea of criminals showing absolutely no remorse for their crimes. And I’m talking about the kind of criminal who would not only have felt proud of what he or she had done but also were heinous enough to be more deserving of their death sentences, arguably. What would she have thought about such people as those? At the same time, however, I remembered back to Helen’s thoughts on Patrick’s and Robert’s crimes, and not once did she condone them. After hearing about his criminal activity before meeting him, she even thought that Robert would’ve been the kind of criminal I was curious to listen to her thoughts on. At the end of the day, though, she still believed that the death penalty was wrong and too extreme. So, there’s the answer to my question.

I will admit, as I sat here reflecting on my thoughts on this book, I can’t help but reflect on a quote by Anton Ego about dishing out our opinions on another person’s creations or commitments:

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment.

While it may seem weird for me, at least, to offer critiques on another person’s past personal experiences, I still wanted to bring this up because what Sister Helen Prejean preached about and discovered from her quests were nothing short of fascinating. Anyone interested in the social justice debacles or who feel like they need to know about criminal prosecutions need to step into Helen’s shoes and reflect on what they would have witnessed from her point of view. Chances are, this will make you think long and hard about the moral validity of capital punishment and whether or not this is really the way to go in terms of criminal justice on a social or national level.

Who knows? Maybe with enough time, dedication, and proper awareness, this historical account should leave some practice methods to die and let others be born anew soon.

My Rating: A

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