Dead Man Walking

Imagine yourself convicted for a crime and sentenced to death. Imagine the hate in the society towards you. What kind of a soul would you have? How would you feel about the thought knowing when you are going to die and in what way? How will you react? Who will help you out? In the novel Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen Prejean, was asked to correspond with Pat Sonnier, a man sentenced to die by electric chair for the murder of two teen-agers, which he did not commit. Dead Man Walking, gives a moving account of her spiritual journey as she became knowledgeable about our system of capital punishment through her involvement in the lives and deaths of several convicted murderers, their families, the families of their victims and the people whose job it is to carry out executions. Sister Helen brings a profound compassion to all the people she meets, reflecting on her experiences from an engaged Christian perspective. She helps the two death row inmates by loving them even though society despises them. The soul of a man is reached and articulated through the assumption of those who love without judgment.
Sister Helen’s novel is a classic example of the practice of attentive love, and of its consequences. Throughout the novel, Sister Helen quotes Albert Camus extensively on resistance to the death penalty. The soul comes into articulation not through the discipline of punishment, but through the practice of love, a process that the death penalty may initiate. When a human being is being subjugated to the power of the state, he may enter into a religious functionary willing to be attentive to his needs for companionship. In that exchange lies the possibility of construction—maybe the reconstruction—of the soul. Her description of the relationship that developed between herself, Patrick Sonnier, and Robert Willie, whom she is able to touch and love, is clear testimony to the expression that is given thereby to the souls. “I have never known real love,” Patrick Sonnier tells Sister Helen: “ ‘It’s a shame a man has to come to prison to find love.’ He looks up at [her] and says, ‘Thanks for loving me’” (Prejean 82). By loving Patrick Sonnier, Sister Helen brings him into awareness of himself as a soul, of his worth as a human being. That awareness entitles a process of correction, including the assumption of blame for the wrong he has done. Sister Helen’s work, with the help of psychologist Sharon Lamb’s new book, The Trouble with Blame, construes people as
“vehicles and representatives of moral values,” and argues that a “right to be punished”… coincides with the right to be “regarded as a responsibility agent”: … “to be punished … because we gave deserved it … is to be treated as human person made in God’s image.”
Perpetrators not only deserve blame but are worthy of it, in the fullest, most human sense of the word (Lamb 185-186).
The experience of death includes a moment of shocked self-recognition in which the self, the soul, views the damage to its own body as if it were an other, the Other, separate. Sister Helen challenges the current taste for public executions, which seems rooted in the desire to participate personally in the act of vengeance. (Consider, for instance, the hundreds of volunteers who responded to Gary Gilmore’s request for execution by firing squad.) Sister Helen believes that the most convincing means of demonstrating to the citizens of this country that capital punishment is wrong are visual. She argues that we are able to tolerate such killings only because we do not see them:
There is an elaboration ruse going on here, a pitiful disguise. Killing is a camouflaged… [W]hen executions were public, it was not a pretty sight… It was awful to see, and fascinating. And visible. It was truthful… It was cruel. It was unusual. And it was obviously punishment. It was death. Forcible, violent, premeditated death (Prejean 218).
The condemned man himself observed this dreadful process in horrified fascination. For Sister Helen to illustrate the dangers of working on push barges, Robert Willie tells her that once he had witnessed with his own eyes a cable snap and whip around and cut a man in half. “Right at