Though Dead Man Walking is often considered a work of literary nonfiction, its implications are perfectly suited for discussion in the social studies classroom. Many students will be familiar with the concept of executions from television and movies, but primary sources can illuminate the legal processes involved in the commission of a death sentence, as well as its effects on others.
In both Dead Man Walking and in a number of her personal papers, Sr. Helen makes emotional appeals against the death penalty. In Dead Man Walking and in her statement before the Louisiana Board of Pardons (11/19/84), Sr. Helen recalls consoling Pat Sonnier’s weeping family. She noted the “shaken, drawn faces of the victims’ fathers,” and claimed that the execution had a “dehumanizing effect…on the guards and all involved.” Later, Sr. Helen discusses at length her relationship with Vernon and Elizabeth Harvey, and realizes that advocating for the families of victims is as important as advocating for prisoners. In a letter to the Harveys, Sr. Helen thanked them in a letter for “inspir[ing] me…to understand the sufferings and struggles of murder victims’ families” and to begin advocacy work on their behalf.
These types of sources can complicate students’ traditional understandings of the death penalty debate by highlighting the centrality of personal experience and emotion. They also show Sr. Helen’s own growth as an advocate, as she realizes the pain her work can cause, and the need to expand her ministry into the realm of victim’s rights. Such a transformation forces students to widen their field of view beyond a simple binary debate by considering who is affected by the death penalty.
Supplementing Dead Man Walking
State of Louisiana Department of Corrections Regulation No. 10-25 lays out the regulations governing execution, while Sr. Helen’s thirteen pages of handwritten notes detail the execution of Robert Lee Willie in 1984, and an honorary membership to the “Lifer’s Association,” given to Sr. Helen by death row inmates in honor of her custody of Pat’s body, states: “each time there is an execution, a part of us also dies.” Review these three documents alongside chapters 5 and 9 of Dead Man Walking and have students consider the following:
- How have your previous beliefs or ideas about execution been challenged? Is the process of execution different than you thought?
- Do you think the regulations surrounding executions are reasonable? Why or why not?
- What effect does an execution have on those left alive? How does this affect your feeling on the death penalty?
- To what degree was Helen able to preserve some dignity for Pat Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie and their families? How do these efforts relate to her campaign against the death penalty?
- What role do anecdotal, personal, and emotional arguments play in civil debate?
- How can we expand our understanding of stakeholders in the death penalty debate? How does capital punishment affect the family members of the condemned? Relatives of the victim? Outreach workers like Helen? Prison guards? Society at large?
- What other issues are connected to the debate over capital punishment? Why are these connections difficult to disentangle? How do they complicate our efforts to resolve this issue?