The book "Dead man walking" is a true story and it is written by Helen Prejean. Most of the story takes place in a prison in Louisiana. It discribes how Sister Helen Prejean helps death row inmates to prepare their way to their execution and how she fights against the death row penalty. Her pen pals are the death row inmates Elmo Patrick Sonnier and later Robert Lee Willie.
Sister Helen Prejean
Sister Helen Prejean is born April 21, 1939, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and lives and works in Louisiana. She joins the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille in 1957 and lives in an apartment with five nuns. She has to teach junior and senior high students and helps poor inner city residents in the St. Thomas Housing Project in New Orleans. In 1982 she becomes a spiritual adviser and helps death row inmates to find their way to Jesus and tries to give them a few happy moments before they are executed.
Elmo Patrick Sonnier
Pat and his younger brother Eddie are two death row inmates. They murdered a couple in a sugar cane field in New Iberia on the 4th of November 1977. They raped the 18 year old girl Loretta Bourque and then they forced her and her 16 year old boyfriend David LeBlanc to lay face down on the ground and shot them in the head. Pat and Eddie were both sentenced to death first, but later Eddie told that Pat killed the teenagers and his sentence changes to life in prison. Helen wants to become his spiritual adviser, because then she is allowed to stay longer with him and to witness the execution.
For Helen he doesn`t seem like a murderer. He is well-groomed and talks a lot.
Pat has a bad family-relationship. With eight years he started to do criminal things like stealing and disturbance. With twelve years he got drunk with his father and he changed school eight times and got kicked out after the 8th grade.
Robert Lee Willie
Robert and his friend Joseph Vaccaro raped Faith Hathaway and stabbed her afterwards. Several days later they kidnapped another couple (Mark Brewster and his girlfriend). Brewster got away alive, but now he is paralyzed below the waist. He said, that after that he stayed drunk and on drugs because he couldn't believe what they have done. They soon got arrested in Arkansas. The jury believed Vaccaro's version and sentenced Robert to death and Joe was sentenced to life.
His father was in prison 27 years and he got raised by his mother and stepfather. He spent a lot of time with his relatives. With thirteen he was in reform school for stealing horses and at age 16 he quit school, a ninth-grade dropout. Then he just took drugs, drank and worked a bit. He did a lot of criminal things, he even was involved in two other murders before Faith. Between 1972 and 1979 he was arrested for 30 times. He thinks that death penalty is okay for people with "really bad" things like child abuse.
In 1988, Chava Colon from the Prison Coalition asked Sister Helen Prejean to become a pen-pal to Elmo Patrick Sonnier, a death-row-inmate.
In 1977, Patrick and his Brother Eddie had abducted a teenage couple, Loretta Bourque and David Le Blanc, from a lovers' lane, raped the girl, forced them to lie face down and shot them in the head. It had taken a month to capture the killers. Pat was sentenced to death and his younger brother Eddie got a life sentence.
In her first letter Sister Helen Prejean tells him a little bit about herself, where she works and that she keeps on writing to him, even if he doesn`t answer. But only a week later, she receives a letter from Pat, saying that he would enjoy exchanging letters with her. She couldn't believe it, even Chava Colon said that Pat is a lone wolf and wouldn't maybe write back. But Patrick writes that he tries to go alone, figuring that he is going to die anyway, so why try to be close to anyone? But it is just too hard and her letters would be most welcome. So they soon become steady correspondents.
Pat never talks in the letters about the dead the state plannes for him. He says he is glad that he has someone to communicate, because he is so lonely.
On the 15th of September 1982 they have their first meeting and Pat puts her on his visiting list as a spiritual adviser so she could stay longer than relatives or friends and she even is allowed to witness the execution. After their meeting they continue writing and she visits him every month. She also starts to visiting Eddie.
In July 1983 Pat calls Sister Helen and tells her that a guard handed him a paper called "Warrant of Execution in capital case" out and in that paper he found the date of execution: 19th of August 1983. That was the second date and he moved into the death-watch-cell. Sister Helen is allowed to visit him for four hours.
Then she visits Eddie and he tells her that he and not Pat killed the two teenagers. He says, that it was Patrick`s and his plan that each one wuld say, that he killed the couple! Nobody would know who is right and they both would have a live sentence. But he was just too excited.
Then the fifth Circuit Court in New Orleans denies Patrick's appeal and Helen calls an attorney in Atlanta named Millard Farmer, who defends death-row-inmates. Millard calls a week later and tells her that he would help them. He says, that he reviewed Pat's transcriptions and prepared petitions for the fifth Circuit Court, for the US Supreme Court and for the governor. But the courts, the governor and also the pardon board find that clemency should be denied to Patrick Sonnier.
Helen promises Patrick, that she would be there at Patrick`s execution. Patrick means that she could probably not stay the execution. Howerver, at least she diecides to be with him in the death-house.
At that time Pat knows for sure that he is going to be killed by the state.
At his execution he asks the LeBlancs for forgiveness for what Eddie and he did.
Lloyd, the victims father, nodds and by that time he really forgave him. Later he tells Helen that the only reason why he witnessed the execution was that he wanted Pat to ask for forgiveness.
After Patrick`s dead Sister Helen Prejean organizes Pat's funeral and a lot of projects, discussions and protest marches against the death-penalty.
Some days later Millard Farmer asks her if she would like to become another spiritual adviser for another death-row-inmate, she answers that she would do it, although she first thought she couldn't do that another time.
Robert Lee Willie, the death-row-inmate, and his friend Joseph Vaccaro raped in 1980 brutally the 18 year old girl, Faith Hathaway, stabbed her and left her to die in the woods. Shortly after the killing of Faith Hathaway, they kidnapped a teenage couple and raped the girl. They shot her boyfriend, so that he was paralyzed from the chest down. Willie was also involved into other violent crimes.
Willie is sentenced to death and Joseph is given a life-sentence.
Helen writes her first letter to Willie and six month after Pat's execution they have their first meeting.
Sister Prejean starts also to visit Faith' parents, but all that her parents want is the death of her child's murderer. They hope that, when Willie's death would come, it would ease their pain. Helen and Faith's parents have different point of views, but they respect each other and their opinions.
Willies petitions have all been denied and at that time Helen remembers the words the guards used to say, when a death-row-inmate was let out of his cell and was brought to his execution: "Dead Man walking", and she knew that Willie would also be executed by the state.
After the pardon board denied his petition, Millard Farmer tells Helen that there wouldn't be another stay of execution for him. Willies date for the execution is settled for December 28th.
She visits him every day when he moves to the death-house on Christmas eve and he seems to accept his fate. But he wants to make a polygraph-test to show his mother that he isn't guilty, that he didn't kill Faith. Willie didn't fail the test, but his responses registered stress, but who wouldn't show stress in this situation.
Before his execution he calls his mother one last time and there he cries. He usually thought crying is a sign of weakness, but this time he finds out that it is manhood.
Later in the death-house he says his last words to Faith' parents that he hopes that they got some relief from his dead. He also says that killing is never right, not from him and not by the state. Then the state executed Willie in the electric chair like Pat before.
Sister Helen Prejean decides to become a spiritual adviser for other death-row-inmates and she would also give lectures, workshops and organize public demonstrations for the abolition of the death-penalty.