The death penalty and Dead Man Walking

Presentation / Essay (Pre-University), 1999

6 Pages

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Few issues in the United States today are as emotionally charged and controversial as the death penalty. More formaliy known as capital punishment, the death penalty has been hotly debated not only as a legal issue, but as a religious, ethical, and political one, historically as weil as in the present day.

The death penalty has been a legalized punishment sincethe time of the Babylonian king Hammurabi between 1760 and 1750 B.C. Interestingly, the crimes for which the death penalty was deemed proper have changed a great deal over the centuries. In ancient Greece one could be condemned to death for what are today considered very minor crimes-stealing a piece of fruit, for examp~, or being lazy. In ancient Rome, one who stole another's crops or who disturbed the peace at night could be executed. In the tirne of Hammurabi (whose code of laws is believed to be the oldest surviving), one could be put to death for murder, robbery, and adultery. And in biblical accounts, acting in God's behalf, Moses proclaimed the death penalty for kidnapping and cursing at one's parents.

By the Middle Ages, England had a large number of crimes for which the death penalty was reserved: murder, treason, petty treason, theft, robbery, burgkry, rape, and arson. As time went on, the list of such crimes, known as capital crimes, grew dramatically. By the 1600s, 200 offenses were punishable by death; by 1780, the list, known in Britain as the Bloody Code, had grown to 350.

While the modern trend ist toward more human methods of execution, such as lethal injection, the ancient rule of thumb seemed to be bloodier and more painfull, the better. For example the old Testament mentions stoning as a preferred way of executing disobedient children. It was also preferred for a bride whos husband dicovers she is not a virgin on their wedding night.

But stoning wasn’t the worst of the early executions. Convicted criminals were burned, drowned and crucfied. Torture was also often used at executions e.g. quartering. Executions in the past were always public, in the belief that witnessing the ultimate punishment would deter others from committing the wrongdoer’s crimes. The public executions had a carnival-like atmosphere, with townspeople arriving early to get a good view. But historians doubt that public executions just were for deter people from crime, it was also the desire for pain and blood.

Since the 18th century there were also opositions to the death penalty and the abolotionist movement banned capital punishment from some states of the USA. Some States like Colorado, Iowa and Kansas experimentd with abolition.

But it seemed when crime numbers where up, or if the economy was in a slump, public sentiment in favor of the death penalty grew.

Although capital punishment still exists the trend to make executions less brutal has been consistent since the late 1800s.

In 1997 thirty-eight states of Amerika allow the death penalty. The twelve remaining states and the District of Columbia do not. Polls indicate that 75 percent of Americans believe that the death penalty is apprpriate in some cases.

However it is also true that many people support death sentencing because they have lost confidence in alternatives such as life sentences.

Abolotionists are as vocal as death penalty advocates. Their objections are varied: The death penalty, thy insist, violates religious beliefs about killing, remains unfair to minorities and therefore unconstitutional, and is inhumane and barbaric. They disagree thzat the death penalty is a deterrent to crime, and worry that innocent people may be executed. The questions both groups raise are valid ones, and worthy of sincere and thoughtful considaration.

Can executions be human?

In history humankind has moved from drawing and quartering prisoners to beheading them, from shooting them by firing squads to hanging them. This changes were motivated by a desire to be more human, more merciful.

In 1890 the electric chair was introducedand hanging became out, because of the possibility that if the drop was to short the victim’s neck would not broken, and if too long, the head would be severed from the body. But the electric chair (also called Old Sparky) isn’t more human.Witnesses told of flesh burning, flames leaping out of the heads and legs of the victims, and eyeballs popping out of their sockets.

But the latest innovation, death by lethal injecton, is no less gruesome than Old Sparky. In one out of four cases, executioners have difficulties finding a vein for the injection. In 1985 there was a case were it took more than fourty minutes for officials to pierce a vein in the victims body.

But some people are of the opinion that excutions don’t need to be human, because the real victims are not the murders and rapists but the families of the victims who suffer. But can the death penalty ease the suffering of victim’s families?

The death penalty is often seen as a way of giving the victims and their families a feeling of satisfaction. In sixteen states the victims families are allowed to view executions. Often the families see revange in the death penalty. The execution may help the victims families to heal the wounds but is this the right way to do this?

Mahatma Gandhi said : ‘‘ An eye for an eye makes the wohle world blind.‘‘

Feelings of vengeance that con only be quenched by seeing the murderer die in the electric chair or by lethal injection cannot bring about closure.

For example Sandra Miller spent sixteen years hating William Bonin, woh have tortured and murdered her fifteen-year-old son as well as thierteen other boys.

Before Bonin was executed in February 1996, Sandra Miller was certain that the execution would erase the feelings of deep hate, but it did not.

What helped Miller was not Bonins death , she says, but getting to know more about Bonin himself, after his execution.

In fact when executions occure, there are new victims and a new familie suffering, what is the cycle of killing.

An other suspect what must be mentioned in the discussion of the death penalty is the Question if The death penalty does deter murder?

In 1975 Isaac Ehrlich from the Universty of Chicago published a study which said that for every execution that occured in the United States in the period of 1933-1967, between seven and eight potential murders were avoided.

The general opinion is if anything can keep one citizen from commiting murder, it is the fear that he, too, will die.

It is true, of course, that most murders are not commited by rational, clear thinking people.

Most murders happen in the passion of the moment, and nobody wirh any sense is suggesting that these murderers are going to stop and weigh the consequences of what they are doing. On the other hand , serial killers, burglars, gang members, and others who plan their crime in advance can do think of the possibilities.

Another aspect is that the death penalty is very costly. In north Carolina each execution runns $2.6 million, each one in Texas $2.3 million. Florida leads them all with a single execution costing taxpayers $3.2 million.

Surley the money could be better spent. A university Study estimates that fifty six executions that occured in 1995 cos Americans $121 million, enough to hire three thousands police officers at $40,000 each.

But improving its efficiency will not make the death penalty a deterrent. Advocates of the deterrence claim that the threat of being put to death for committing murder can strike fear int a potential murderer’s heart. But it’s not the severity of the punishment that deters. If it were, wouldn’t we still boiling people in oil, or lopping off the hands of thieves? And wouldn’t we expect to see real results?

The only thing why the death penalty is so often believed to deter murderes is because people think the death penalty would deter themselves. But murders are not like most people when they kill.

The correlation between executions and the murder rate are very controversial. There are on the other hand scientists, woh found that in the months after an execution there was an average increase of two or three murders. This phenomenon is known today as the ‘‘brutalization theory‘‘. And others say there are no effects on the murder rate.

The last question isIs the death penalty applied unfairly?

A viewpoint often mentioned is that the death penalty unfairly targets minorities. The decision to sentence a black mand for killing a white man is no question and in earlier times there was a great difference if a white man killed a black man or a black man a white. Those who murdered whites were found more likley to be sentenced to death than those who murdered blacks.

Today things didn’t change much what you can see on simple facts: Nowdays blacks make 12 percent of Americans populution but account for 42 percent of the inmates on death row The race has a great influence on the sentencing and a lot of studies show that. Another reason why the death penalty is applied unfairly is because innocent people have been executed.

The case of Walter McMillian is an example for this argument. Three witnesses testifyed that McMillan was on the scene when the murder happened. Later all three witnesses recanted their testemony; one stated that he had been pressured by the prosecutors to say that McMillian had been at the scene. In the end Walter McMillian survived, although he was robbed of six years of his life, his honor and good name, his time with his grandchildren and his work. But this case isn’t the a single one and innocent people had been killed. If society kills an innocent person there is no way the wrong can be righted.

A study showed that between 1900 and 1985 349 people incorrectly convicted of capital crimes were later found innocent. Of these, 23 were actually executed. ‘‘The fact that mistakes are made,‘‘ says Sister Helen Prejean, the author of Dead Man Walking,‘‘will not surprise anyone with the knowledge oft the criminal justice system. It has been a sorbing discovery for me how flawed and at times chaotic the system of justice is.‘‘


The Book ‘‘Dead Man Walking‘‘, written by Helen Prejean is a perfect example for how many aspects and feelings are conected to the death penalty.

Dead man walking is an eyewitness account of the death penalty in the United states. Helen Prejean, a nun, is invited to write a letter to a prisoner on Death Row who brutaly killed two teenagers. When she beginns to contact that man, Patrick Sonnier, she doesn’t know anything about him and his life and nothing about how it is to wait for death on death row and the facts about the death penalty.

Pat Sonnier answers the letters from Helen Prejean and after a time she gets more to know about him and she also reads about his victims and his brother Eddie who was also involved and found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to death, in the police files. But later Eddie was hold not as culpable by the Supreme Court.

Helen Prejean beginns to read a lot about the death penalty, the methods and its history. He also begin to think about how the familie of the victims the LeBlancs must feel and she tries to understand, why they feel so much hate for Patrick Sonnier.

After some letters Patrick put Helen on his visitor list as spiritual advisor and she is now allowed to visit him on reath row.

When they first meet, in the prison of Angola, they talk about very personal things. Pat tells Helen about his childhood, that his parents used to fight a lot and he had to try to survive with his younger brother Eddie.

Helen sees Pat more and more as a human and she can’t compare that person with the brutal murders.

Sometime in July 1983 Pat calls her and tells her that he has got his second date. The date of his execution day. After the call Helen visits him every week and sees how he changes. He lost 30 pounds weight, has dark circles under his eyes and can’t eat anymore. thirty-six hours before the execution Helen hears over redio that Patrick Sonnier will not die that he has been granted a stay pending a review of his petition by Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. From that point Helen Prejean doesn’t want just to visit Pat and also his Brother in prison she also wants to serve Pat from the execution. She contacts a very good solicitor, Millard Farmer, who defendes death-row inmates. He tells her to help her and reads the transcripts. Millard and his team tries to do everything possible for Pat Sonnier. But the Supreme Court denies Pat’s petition for a hearing.

Helen Prejean also visits the governor and speakes for Pat but she only see that the goernors job is to carry out the law and nothing else. The last step Helen and Millard can do is the hearing of the Pardon Board. At the Pardon Board both sides are going to be heard. Millard Farmer speaks for Sonnier and tells the Board that the state of Louisiana does not need to kill him to protect its citizens, that this man could work hard for the rest of his life in the prison of Angola.

Also the father of one of the victims, Lloyd LeBlanc speaks. He says that Sonnier has put himself into this situation and he asks the Board to uphold death sentence.

When the Board leaves to make a decision, Helen Prejean meets the LeBlancs. She says that she is sorry about their son and Lloyd asks her how she can present Sonnier’s side without ever hear their side. Lloyd tells her how they feeled when their son was dead and Helen is shocked.

The Board decides the death for Elmo Patrick Sonnier. After the decison Helen calls the LeBlancs and says eventhough she is against the death penalty for Patrick Sonnier she wants to help if she can. Then she calls a Sister for a burial suit.

When the death of Pat comes near Prejean wants to be with him every minute she can. She also wishes to witness the execution. A few hours before the execution Helen and Pat get the message ‘‘Sonnier, the U.S. Supreme Court turned you down.‘‘ Pat has his last meal. His last words when he is sat in the electric chair goes to LeBlanc. He asks him for forgiveness and Lloyd nods. Pat doesn’t say a word to the father of the other victim because he had heared that Mr.Bourque said that he wishes to push the switch by himself. Pats last words to Helen are ‘‘I love you‘‘. ‘‘I love you too‘‘ she says and closes her eys. Than they hear three clanks. Ninteen hundred volts, five hundred and ninteen hundred volts.

After Pat Sonnier’s execution Helen Prejean decides to work for abolition for the death penalty. Six months later Millard Farmer meets her and asks her if she want to be the spirtual advisor of Robert Lee Willie who had killed a eighteen-year old girl in 1980. She say yes and writes Robert. When they meet he is very direct and asks Helen first if she doesn’t want to have a man and how he misses the women in the prison. On a death penalty abolotion march in oktober Helen meets Vernon Harvey who is the father of the victim from Robert Willie and supports the death penalty.

Helen Prejean don’t want to make the same mistake agein not to talk to the vitims familiy and follwos the inviting from Vernon. He tells Helen the whole story of the gruesome death from his stepdaughter. Vernon says that Robert Willie is an animal and that he can’t wait to see him fry.

Helen feels the pain Vernon has and understand that he is so angry but even they have diffrent point of views they respect each other.

Helen is very shocked about the story of the Harveys and she also thinks back to the victims and their families of Pat and Eddie Sonnier. She asks herself what she would do if somebody of her family would be killed and she asks herself if she could do anything to ease the pain of the Harveys.

Helen speaks with Robert about the murders and asks him if he told the Harveys that he is sorry. He says he didn’t because Vernon tells the press he want him see fry. Helen Prejean also wants to change the conditions in the prison. She wants the death row inmates more time to telephone for example and mentions some other inhuman conditions in the prison, but nobody realy cares about this people.

In August 1984, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals denied the petition and a request for hearing, and on November 12, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case. All that stands between Robert LeWillie and the electric chair is the Pardon Board and the governor. At the Pardon Board first speaks John, one from Millard Farmers team, then the mother of Rober and last Sister Helen. At this time also Robert, the murder, is allowed to speak. He crtisises the U.S. law and says that his dead will not bring Miss Hathaway [the stepdougther of Vernon] back to this earth.

Also Elizabeth and Vernon Harvey speak.

After twenty minuntes the decision of the Board is announced. The sentence still stands. Shortly after that the day of execution is set.

Robert fears that his mother will break down befor the execution and he will too, if she cries. Hellen tells himt that real man cry. He also says how sorry he is about Faith. But to the reporters he speaks in very diffrent words. He says that he is a fan of Adolf Hitler and Fidel Castro and that he has no fear of the executioner. And he tells that he want to come back as a terrorist.

Helen tries to change his attitude and tells him that violence is such a simlistic solution. ‘‘Like these people try killing you now.‘‘ In the end he sees that the things he said were stupid. On the day of the execution Robert meets his mother and his stepbrothers the last time. His mother cries and says that she loves him. When they leave Helen stays with him for the last meal and the last hours. The Harvey sit in the first row at the execution. Roberts last words are ‘‘I would just like to say, Mr. and Mrs. Harvey, that I hope you get some relief from my death. Killing people is wrong. That’ts why you’ve put me to death. It makes no difference whether it’s citizens, countries, or goverments. Killing is wrong.‘‘ Then Helen watch him die. After the execution the Harveys are interviewed and tell the reporters that they are glad that Willie is dead, they also interview Helen Prejean, who repeats Roberts last words. She see a lot of people with signs, who support the death penalty jumping up and down. Helen Prejean goes on with beeing spirtual advisor for death-row inmates and supports death penalty abolotion. The Harveys don’t miss one execution.

Later they meet agan and discuss their viepoints and their feelings. Helen also gets a note from LeBlanc, who tells her he always prayed for the victims of Sonnier but now he also prays for the Sonniers.

But the guards go on to use to yell when a death row inmate was let out of his cell: ‘‘Dead man walking.‘‘ I have read the book with much interrest. Helen Prejean does mention a lot of facts about the death penalty but also express a lot of feelings from the victims families, from the murders and their families and also from herself.

Helen Prejean argues in thei Book against the injustice and ineffiencies of the criminal justice system.

Though Dead Man Walking has been critcized for treating the criminals too lightly and for not exploring the horrible details of the crimes committed, this book is clearly not written as an apology for the criminals or as an argument about their guilt or innocence. She addresses how the U.S. criminal justice system is dehumanizing for all involved partys.

6 of 6 pages


The death penalty and Dead Man Walking
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Dead, Walking, Matura
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Martin Miesler (Author), 1999, The death penalty and Dead Man Walking, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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