Study Guide

Vernon Harvey in Dead Man Walking

By Sister Helen Prejean

Vernon Harvey

Vernon Harvey is his grief.

Vernon's the stepfather of Robert Lee Willie's victim, Faith Hathaway, and her death basically defines the rest of his life. Whenever he speaks of her death—at the Pardon Board hearing, or to Prejean in private—he begins to cry. He becomes a fervent supporter of the death penalty and is overjoyed at Robert Lee Willie's death—but he finds, in the end, that it doesn't really help him. "He just can't get over Faith's death, he says. It happened six years ago but for him it's like yesterday, and I realize that now, with Robert Willie dead, he doesn't have an object for his rage" (11.20).

It's easy to be frustrated with Vernon. The book is, after all, about why the death penalty is wrong, but Vernon supports it. And his inability to get over his grief doesn't fit into narratives about healing that you get from the movies or television. In fictional stories, the victims grieve for a while, then there's supposed to be closure, and the story moves on. But Vernon's story never moves on. There's never a moment where he really seems to have gotten over Faith's death. He doesn't follow the script. That's real life, folks, and that's one of the true costs of violent crime.

Vernon's a problem, an obstruction, for the book and for Prejean herself. But it's important to her that Vernon isn't seen as wrong, or a failure. Yes, he's in the way—but that's because violence is destructive and horrible. Faith's murder isn't something that can just be gotten over, or moved around, in order to denounce the death penalty. Vernon isn't a side issue: he's what the book's all about, since Prejean's issue is that all killing is horrible.

Vernon, more than anybody else in the book, stands witness to the awfulness of violent death. "Only reconciliation, accepting Faith's death—can finally release them to leave the past and join the present, to venture love, to rejoin the ranks of the living," Prejean says of Vernon and his wife Elizabeth (11.21). But there's no way to know whether they'll ever find that reconciliation. Violence creates a rupture, and the rupture can't necessarily be healed. That's at least one reason, Prejean suggests, why violence is evil.