Walking - Dead Man Walking

 Dead Man Walking


1)    Author: Helen Prejean

Helen Prejean is a writer, lecturer and community organiser who was born in Baton Rouge and has lived and worked in Louisiana all her life. She has campaigned extensively on the subject of capital punishment and has featured on "ABC Prime Time", "Oprah", "The Today Show", "60 Minutes", "the BBC's Everyman programme" and an NBC special series on the death penalty. Her articles have appeared in sources of publications in the US and Europe. A member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille, she is currently writing a book about women and equality in the Catholic Church.


2)    Introduction:

Helen Prejean wrote the book "Dead man walking" in 1993. The book was that successful that it was made into a film in 1995. Susan Sarandon played the part of Sister Helen Prejean and got an Oscar for the best actress. The film as well as the book excellently shows the life of someone who was sentenced to death being accompanied by a nun.

Since the first publication of this book in 1993 the states of Kansas (1994) and New York (1995) have reinstated the death penalty and Congress has enacted the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (1994), which expands federal crimes punishable by death to about 60 offences.


3)    Impact:

Helen Prejean, a nun, volunteers to write a letter to a prisoner on Death Row. After some time Helen gets a letter from a young man, called Pat Sonnier. He tells her about his life in prison and about his family. At the moment he is living in a small prison cell where he is spending about 23 hours a day. Nevertheless the imprisons on Death Row are much better treated than an ordinary criminal: The meals are much better and they don't have to work. Pat already has a daughter who is 11 years old. Helen finds him rather nice and wants to visit him.

Before she can firstly see Patrick she has a conversation with the priest who isn't very happy with her idea of visiting Pat. He is afraid that Helen's contact to the criminal could become too close. When Helen later sits in front of Pat she firstly feels nothing. Both talk about their families, about Prejean's will to become a nun and finally about the crime he has committed:

One day he and his brother went into the woods and saw a couple in his car. They forced them to leave the car, abused the girl sexually and killed them with a rifle. Although he has always claimed that he just observed his brother killing the couple court didn't believe Pat. Pat was sentenced to death by a lethal injection and his brother Eddie just had to go to prison.

In some way Helen believes Patrick and proposes to get him an attorney to object to the sentence. Meanwhile she visits Pat's mother who tells her that she and her family suffer a lot from journalists and people who threat them because of their relation to a murderer.

In a break of the court procedure Helen Prejean firstly meets the relatives of Pat's victims, who find it scandalous that a nun supports a murderer. The procedure is not successful. Feeling guilty in the conversation with the two dead teenager's parents, she visits both couples. Mr. Delacroy, the girl's father, understands her situation and tells Helen that his wife just left him. Mr. And Mrs. Poncy don't believe Helen that she wants to support both parts.

Eventually Pat himself bans his last chance to survive. In an interview on TV Pat admits having prejudice against Blacks and regarding Hitler as a kind of role model. Although Pat lost the process, he wants Helen to provide him emotional support until he dies.

From that moment Helen nearly spends the whole day with Pat and becomes more and more involved into this case. She has nightmares and desperately wants to help Patrick although it's too late anyway and she doesn't really like him. Her main job is it to make him admit what he actually did.

Only a few hours before he gets the lethal injection Patrick admits that he has raped the girl but that his brother killed the couple.


4)    Characteristics:

Pat Sonnier:

He always claims to be a strong man. He isn't afraid of anything and even death penalty won't harm him. Only in the end of the book Pat is really friendly to Helen. Especially at the beginning he regards her as a weak and inexperienced woman, who will soon stop helping him. He has huge prejudice against Blacks and other minorities. He is of the opinion that these people are dirty and violent. Especially in his childhood he mostly experienced that.

When he hears about the little chance to save his life he wants Helen to help him and says that actually he doesn't care whether he dies or not. But that's not right. He is terribly disappointed after he hears the judge and he firstly admits being afraid of death. In her time as an emotional supporter Helen has to talk a lot about death with him to calm him down. In the end of the book he seems to regret what he has done.


Helen Prejean:

She is an ordinary nun normally caring for children. She has never been involved in such a case and originally just wants to write a letter to Patrick. One of the key-sentences in this book is "Helen, will you come back", after Helen has visited Pat for the first time. She actually didn't want to come back because she hated the ambience in the prison but she didn't want to disappoint him. But soon she gets into conflict with her mind: On the one hand she can understand the parents of the killed teenagers, who want to see the murderer dead. But on the other hand Patrick always mentions his possible innocence and she doesn't accept death-penalty as a punishment. So, should she support a criminal who has killed 2 young people or should she leave him alone? She obviously decides to support the criminal. Although many people condemn her behaviour and although she gets nightmares she wants to fulfil her task to accompany Pat his last days of being alive. Helen Prejean is a woman with a big personality and only a very small percentage of all people would have been able to stand such a situation.





Death penalty - is it the right way of punishing?

Obviously it's hard to answer this question because so far there was no-one who returned from "heaven" and told us about death. We don't know, what would be the worse penalty? Death penalty should be the hardest penalty that a human-being can get. But maybe a fast death is more comfortable than staying in prison for a lifetime. Having to do dirty, senseless work for only a little money, having to stay in a small cell until death - a monotonous nine-to-five-lifestyle.

People who support death penalty claim that not death is the thing that should be punishing for the criminal. It's the long time to wait for your end. For example Carla Faye Tucker, a woman who killed two men with a pickaxe, was on Death-Row for 15 years until she was executed by a lethal injection a year ago. In "Dead man walking" the rather serious and cool behaving Pat is very depressed and actually only cries in his last week of life. Most people are deterred by death penalty. Nevertheless in the USA, where death penalty exists, the murder rate is higher than in other countries. Maybe criminals, who really want to kill someone, either don't want to live anymore, or don't think about death penalty. Besides death penalty has the positive effect that the world gets rid of a criminal.

On the other hand death penalty has many disadvantages: The high costs for the convicts are just a small part of them. Is it right to kill someone because he killed someone? Then we are also criminals. And death penalty is not only a punishment for the convict. It's also a punishment for his family. Mothers have to clarify to their children that their dad will never come home again and women often don't have anything to continue life.

Another terrible aspect of death penalty is, that many people, often relatives of people on Death Row start feeling aggressions against law and the government. They know that the convict doesn't have to die. He is healthy and could probably continue life for another 60 years, but just because of a crime he has to die.



by Christopher Davis

            an American author who lives in Manhattan at the moment.

            novels:            'Valley of the shadow'

                                    'Joseph and the old man'

                                    'The boys in the bars'

                                    'Philadelphia':           written in 1992

                                                                        made into a film in 1993 by Ron

                                                                        Nyswaner with Tom Hanks and

                                                                        Denzel Washington


Andrew Beckett is a young and successful lawyer in a big law-office in Philadelphia. Everybody likes him but Andrew has a secret which nobody knows in the office: he has AIDS. One day the four senior partners promote him to the fifth senior partner of the firm. Andy is very surprised and happy. After his promotion he has to write a document for an important case which contains a lot of money. He saves it on his computer.

The following days Andy works at home because he has some lesions on his face which are typical symptoms of AIDS. He tells Shelby, his secretary, to print the document and send it to the responsible court because the document has to be there within the following six hours. But Shelby can't find the file on the computer. It has disappeared. Andy knows that he has already printed one and so he tells Shelby to search for it in his office. Meanwhile the other senior partners get the bad information. But after some hours Shelby finds the document and she can send it to the court in time. But the incident seems very strange to Andy because Shelby found the document at the record-office of the firm. One day later Andrew is fired. The partners tell him that he has been too incompetent in the last weeks and that the firm can not co-operate with him any longer. But Andy knows that he has been doing a good job in the last two years and that the partners only fired him because of his disease. Andrew decides to sue them for social discrimination.

The following week is very hard for Andy because he gets an infusion at the hospital every day and he has to undergo blood tests. Then he looks for a lawyer who can plead for him at the court. He visits nine lawyers but no one of them wants to help him when Andy tells them the facts. But Andy doesn't give up. He visits a young black lawyer. His name is Joe Miller. Andy knows Miller because one week before he was fired, the 'fight' against each other at the court, so Andy hopes that Joe Miller can help him, but Joe doesn't want to help Andrew because he is afraid of AIDS and he hates homosexuals. So Andrew decides to work alone for the trial but he grows weaker.

One week later Joe Miller has to read something for a case in the library. There he notices Andy near a table. He looks pale and weak. So Joe decides to help Andy. First Andrew tells him the whole story. Then they search in some books and writings for needful clues. Andy finds out that Walter Kenton, one of the senior partners, worked for a law-office in Washington D.C. a few years ago, before he went to Philadelphia. There works a young secretary who is also infected with AIDS but she told everybody in the firm about her disease. So Mr. Kenton knows about the typical lesions and could have pushed the other partners to fire Andrew. Andrew and Joe work very hard but they don't have much time because Andy's condition is getting worse.

Seven months later the trial starts. The first witness is Mrs. Benedict, the AIDS-infected secretary from Washingtion D.C. She tells the judge that Mr. Kenton always behaved in a very strange way when he met her. He had always an 'Oh God, the AIDS-infected person!' look on his face. She also says that she described him the lesions. Shelby, Andrew's secretary, is the next witness. She tells the judge about the strange disappearance of the document. Then the trial makes a break for one week.

After the break Walter Kenton is the next witness. Joe found out that Kenton hates homosexuals so he asks him about his time in the Marine Corps because there he and other seamen beat up two homosexuals. And then, Kenton really tells the court the whole story about his past. After him Charles Wheeler talks about Andrew. He tells the court that Andy was a very good and talented lawyer at the beginning of his career but he got more and more incompetent in the last months. And so he nearly damaged the firm when he mislaid the document. After Mr. Wheeler the trial is adjourned for a second time. Andy is getting very weak.

The last witness is Andy himself. He tells the court that he always admired Mr. Wheeler for his coolness and cleverness and that he can't believe why Charles can be so cruel. Then Mrs. Conine asks him a lot of unpleasant and embarrassing questions about his sex-life. Andy answers honestly but suddenly he collapses.

Later the jury discuss the case. One member of the jury thinks that it is a little bit strange to let an incompetent person work out an important document and that the senior partners have prejudices against homosexuals.

After a while the jury pronounce the sentence: Wyant, Wheeler, Hellerman, Tetlow & Brown has to pay over four million dollars for mental suffering, lost salaries and commissions.

Two days later Andrew dies in the hospital. His family and his friends are very sad but they know that Andy was a kind and honest person who fought for justice.

Personal Comment:

The book shows that people, who know that they will soon die, in this case Andrew Beckett, try to be successful in life though they don't have any perspectives. Andy fights against his former senior partners, he invests a lot of time and energy in it although he is already very weak. He only does so because he wants justice versus his ex-co-operators.

Andrew knows that he will not be able to work as a lawyer again and that he has no future but he wants to show, that someone who has AIDS is also able to combat unfair decisions.

For me Andrew Beckett's engagement and his determined behaviour is remarkable.

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