Study Guide

Robert Lee Willie in Dead Man Walking

By Sister Helen Prejean

Robert Lee Willie

If Pat is the sympathetic Death Row inmate in Dead Man Walking, Robert Lee Willie is the pretty much unsympathetic, good-grief-is-he-horrible Death Row inmate. Prejean sets us with Pat: in his case, the death penalty seems particularly problematic. But that's almost too easy. Now that we've got sympathy for one model inmate, Prejean steps it up: can we also have sympathy for a guy who's actually just pretty bad?

Let's lay it out a bit. Robert Lee Willie says he's a fan of Hitler, and he's a member of the Aryan Brotherhood, a white supremacist group. He seems unremorseful about his crime and even taunts his victim's family. He tells Vernon Harvey, the father of the girl he killed, that "he'd never go to the chair" (6.135). Millard Farmer says of Robert that "…there's a child sitting inside this tough, macho dude" (6.11), but if that's so, that child looks like kind of a horrible person, too. Robert Lee Willie is not someone you'd want to meet in a dark alley, or really anywhere. He seems mean and dangerous and awful.

But does that mean that his life has no value, or that he should be put to death? Obviously, there's a case for that. Elizabeth Harvey makes it before the Parole Board when she says, "There is really only one way we can be absolutely sure that he will never kill again" (8.86). And she's right, to the extent that, if Robert were released from prison, you could easily see him getting back on drugs and hurting someone. He isn't trustworthy or safe.

But Prejean also shows that even Robert has some dignity and worth and love inside him. He clearly cares for his stepbrothers; killing him also—and cruelly—punishes them. He even manages, with his last words, to hope that the Harveys "get some relief from my death" (9.419). He cries when he talks to his mother for the last time. He works to improve conditions on Death Row, even though he won't be around to see those conditions get better himself. He's not what you'd call a good man, but he seems capable of growth and love.

Killing Robert Willie is killing a human being, even if a flawed one. Moreover, it's killing a human being who is growing into a better human being. After he's executed, he won't get the chance to improve any further; we'll never know what might have become of him over time. That's one of the scary things about the death penalty, according to Prejean: it's absolutely final, and it places a power over life and death into the hands of an abstract legal system—and all-too-human executioners—that is beyond what any of us can fully comprehend.