Study Guide

Dead Man Walking Mortality

By Sister Helen Prejean


"I can't bear the thought that you would die without seeing one loving face. I will be the face of Christ for you. Just look at me." (2.103)

Christ was executed, too, so when Prejean says she'll be the face of Christ for Pat, she's also saying she'll identify with him. Christ can be a loving face for the executed because he was executed himself.

I remember Jesus' words that we do not know the day nor the hour. But Pat knows. And in knowing he dies and then dies again. (4.197)

Death is certain for everyone, but knowing the exact time when you're going to die is, Prejean says, really awful. The anticipation of death is a kind of death in itself. More than that, she thinks it actually inflicts torture on the person who's (knowingly) going to die.

Warden Maggio looks up at the clock and announces the time of death 12:15 A.M. His eyes happen to look into mine. He lowers his eyes. (4.237)

Death is turned into a bureaucratic blip: you pull the switch, you record the time. That makes it an everyday matter, like brushing your teeth or getting to school or doing your homework after dinner. But Prejean suggests that even the Warden knows that that's not really going on. He lowers his eyes because he's embarrassed to be part of the chugging machinery of death.

Who killed this man?


Everybody can argue that he or she was just doing a job… (5.31-33)

Nobody wants to be associated with death or responsible for death. The system is set up so that everybody can pass the buck: "I was just following orders," or "I just gave orders." If something is so yucky that nobody wants to hold it, Prejean is saying, maybe you all ought to put it down.

…my guess is that the faces of these condemned men will appear and fade and appear again before Marsellus for the rest of his life.

"I did these things," he says. "I sat in judgment on these men like that—the guilty and the innocent. But who was I to sit in judgment? It still bothers me. I'm sorry. I'm really sorry." (8.132)

Marsellus is the head of the Pardon Board, and he has been convicted of taking bribes. Obviously, he shouldn't have been sitting in judgment: he was corrupt and awful. But he seems to be saying more—that nobody should sit in judgment, not even people who are not corrupt or not awful. Being corrupt and awful is bad, but even better people don't have the right to decide on life and death for others. Do you think anyone in the world is qualified to decide whether you should live or die? That's what Prejean wants you think about.

Robert will not be torn between life and death, wondering if the ring of the telephone in the death house brings news of a stay of execution. There is only death for Robert now, and waiting for death. (9.4)

Robert has no hope, so maybe—Prejean seems to say—he's better off. As Emily Dickinson wrote, "Hope is the thing with feathers, and feathers really suck when you're about to be executed." Well, that's what she would have written if she were on Death Row, anyway.

I wonder what I would say with the microphone before me, knowing that the words I say would be my last. I wonder if I would even know what I was saying. With Pat, the words had been so ordinary, in a way. What made them extraordinary was knowing they were the last. (9.150)

Dying makes everything super important. There's a book about Pat and Robert because they were executed; you'd probably never have heard of them otherwise. You could say that the sense of importance and horror attached to this moment is a sign that this isn't something the state should be doing in the first place.

He looks at me and winks, and then they strap his chin, lower the mask, and kill him. This time I do not close my eyes. I watch everything. (9.380)

This is probably the bitterest line in the whole book. In general, Prejean has compassion for everyone, or tries to have it. She sympathizes with the executioners as well as with the executed. But here she sounds quietly tormented and angry. "…they strap his chin, lower the mask, and kill him." Prejean doesn't use any euphemisms here. She doesn't say they "pull the switch" or they "execute him"; she says they "kill him." She doesn't even refer to the state here; she refers to the executioners and guards as "they," emphasizing their individuality. They kill him, and she watches.

Killing is camouflaged as a medicinal act. The attendant will even swab the "patient's" arm with alcohol before inserting the needle—to prevent infection. (10.42)

Prejean argues that lethal injection is a way to make killing seem like a medical procedure. You swab the injection site to pretend you're clean. What's the point? The "patient" is just about to die, anyway. Why pretend? Is it for the victim's sake? For the executioner's? For society's? It may look clean, says Prejean, but it's killing, no matter how you cut it.

Few, they say, came to visit them and very few came to the funeral.

"I think everyone was denying that this sort of violent death could hit so close to home," Elizabeth says. "They didn't want to admit it had happened to Faith because then they'd have to admit that it could happen to them, and people don't want to face that." (11.18)

After their daughter was murdered, Elizabeth says, many of their friends drifted away. People are afraid of death. If people are so afraid of death, though, and if they realize it's awful, why are they willing to support the death penalty? Shouldn't they be against the death penalty and for supporting people who have had a child killed? It's easy to point fingers, maybe, but what would you do if a friend suffered a death? It's hard to know how you'd act if death came calling nearby, right?