Dead Man Walking
DEAD MAN WALKING, by Sr Helen Prťjean. Published by Harper Collins. 1996. 358 pp.
Reviewed by GŁnther Simmermacher
When Lloyd LeBlanc stood over the body of his murdered son, he recited the Lordís Prayer, meaning every word of it, particularly the words “Öas we forgive those who trespass against us.”
The Christian, and especially Catholic virtues of forgiveness and reconciliation are the central theme in Dead Man Walking, the book on which the acclaimed film of the same name was based. The focus of the book is capital punishment, and it is an indictment of this form of justice.
Sr Helen Prejean, a spiritual adviser to death row inmates, presents a compendium of Christian, moral, legal and practical arguments against the state-sanctioned killing of convicted felons.
About the pending execution of Pat Sonnier, the first condemned man she counselled, she writes: “But even if he were repulsive and unlikeable, even if he were [mass murderer Charles] Manson, I still maintain that the state should not kill him. For me, the unnegotiable bedrock on which society must be built is that killing by anyone, under any conditions, cannot be tolerated. And that includes government.”
Sr Helen is neither a fanatic nor misguided idealist. In her pastoral care for death row inmates and rejection of capital punishment, she is motivated by Christís love for all humanity and a deeply felt sense of justice. Before making a last-minute plea for Sonnierís life, she poignantly kisses the statue of the “Executed Criminal”. And when the Christian prison warden says he sees no contradiction between his faith and the death penalty by invoking Romans (13:1-2), Sr Helen wonders: “How is itÖthat the mandate and example of Jesus, so clearly urging compassion and non-violence, could so quickly become accommodated.”
Sr Helenís account of the run-up to Sonnierís execution on the electric chair is harrowing ó the state not only commits premeditated murder, but torments its victims emotionally before.
Far from making excuses for Sonnier, Sr Helen admits he is a menace to society and should be locked up forever. Executions, however, are inhumane and contrary to all of Christís teachings.
Incidentally, Sr Helen demonstrates that, at least in the United States, it is more expensive to conduct one execution than maintaining a convict in jail for the rest of his life.
Chapter 5 is devoted largely to similar statistics and other factual material which should provide ample ammunition for the anti-capital punishment movement, and refute most arguments the hang-them-high faction would raise.
Yet, Sr Helen is anything but smug. “My magnanimity is gratuitous. No one has shot my loved one in the back of the head.” In essence, this is the problem everybody who has not lost somebody in a violent crime encounters when weighing the merits and failings of capital punishment. Implicitly, Sr Helen suggests that the right to life must be applied consistently, be it an unborn human being or an unrepentant murderer.
And what about the victims and their families and friends? Sr Helen admits failure in neglecting this question until forced to confront it through Vernon Harvey, the stepfather of the young woman raped and murdered by Robert Willie, whom Sr Helen counselled. Harveyís burning ambition, pronounced often and loudly, is to have his revenge and see Willie fry. Yet, after Willieís execution, he still feels bitterness, rage and emptiness. More than that, Willieís death robbed Harvey of an object on which to focus his anger.
Like Harvey, Lloyd LeBlanc watched the execution of the man who murdered his child. Unlike Harvey, LeBlanc forgave the murderer before he even asked for forgiveness. As a consequence, LeBlanc found himself reconciled with God and the world, his great grief notwithstanding.
Dead Man Walking is compelling: as a record of life on death row and the inhumanity of capital punishment, and as a witness of the power of faith. However, the lack of illustrations is lamentable. Photos of the various role players would have pressed home the fact that the book is all about ordinary individuals.