Helen Prejean’s “Dead Man Walking” and Race

Helen Prejean’s “Dead Man Walking” and Race

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Sean Penn as Matthew Poncelet in “Dead Man Walking”

On the surface, the film Dead Man Walking, which is 20 this year, doesn’t seem to focus much on the racial disparities of the death penalty. Black people are vastly overrepresented on death row; 34% of those executed in the U.S. have been black, 8% Latino, and 56% white, though African-Americans are only about 14% of the population. In Dead Man Walking, though, the death row inmate is played by Sean Penn, whose character, Matthew Poncelet, is not only white, but an outspoken white supremacist.

deadmanwalkingbook-resizeThe 1993 memoir on which the film is based is also about white inmates. Sister Helen Prejean, the author, was a spiritual advisor to two white men executed in New Orleans, Elmo Patrick Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie, the latter of whom was in fact a member of the Aryan Brotherhood. But the book is attentive to the racial bias of the death penalty — a racial bias which, it explains, affects even white death row prisoners.

Prejean explains early in her book that “In Louisiana, it’s unusual for a black man to be executed for killing another black man.” She adds that “Although the majority of victims of homicide in the state are black (90 percent of homicide victims in New Orleans in 1991), 75 percent of death-row inmates are there for killing whites.” When inmates do go to death row for killing black people, the victims generally fit a profile which makes the crime especially heinous, or likely to sway a jury — the victims are children, or security guards, or, less often, women. The death of a black person, in itself, doesn’t warrant an eye for an eye; some other factor must be added.

The dynamic Prejean discusses hasn’t changed. A Think Progress article shows that in 2013, as in 1993, the death penalty is rarely inflicted on those who kill minority victims. “While 32 of the 39 executions [in 2013] involved a white victim, just one white person was executed for killing only a black man,” and that white person deliberately waived his appeals, effectively “volunteering” for execution. In Louisiana — where Prejean’s advisees were executed — the death sentence in 2013 was 97 percent more likely to be handed down for those whose victims were white than for those whose victims were black.

The #BlackLivesMatter movement has mostly focused on police brutality and violence against black people. When African-Americans are killed by police, as in the case of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, our justice system seems to find it impossible to indict, or to hold the police accountable in any way. The death penalty dynamics that Prejean highlighted decades ago, though, suggest that the devaluing of black lives occurs in other parts of the justice system as well. It is not just that the prosecutors and juries are unwilling to punish police. It is that black lives are literally seen as being of less worth, even when those lives are ended by convicted criminals — and even, for that matter, when those lives are ended by convicted black criminals.

One response to this imbalance might be to demand equality. The death penalty, you could argue, needs to be handed down for those who kill black victims just as often as it is handed down for those who kill whites. As anti-police brutality activist Mariame Kaba points out, “…a lot of the conversation around justice, as it relates to police torture and violence and death, is to posit the very same criminal punishment system that already is harming and creating death in so many different ways. So you’re going to indict and then you’re going to convict killer cops, and do the same for any number of actors in the state system who you want to punish.” There’s an impulse to try to fix the problems with the justice system through the existing justice system.

But a more equitably, and more frequently, administered death penalty is not Prejean’s preferred policy solution. On th econtrary, Prejean has spent the past two decades working against the death penalty on every front — from writing the 2004 book The Death of Innocents about wrongly convicted death row inmates to, most recently, speaking out against the reinstitution of firing squads in Utah. Prejean points out the racist disparity in the death penalty not to argue for a more equal death penalty, but to show that the death penalty is part of a system that is fundamentally flawed and unjust. And part of the way that system is fundamentally unjust, she argues, is in the way it treats victims.

Prejean discusses working with victims, and organizing a victims rights group. Even the families of white victims were treated poorly by the authorities. Elizabeth Harvey, whose daughter was murdered by Robert Lee Willie, tells Prejean with some bitterness, “In dealing with the D.A. and the police…you could probably get more information when you get your car stolen than if your child is killed….” Another white family member of a murder victim who tried to apply for victim compensation funds was told by a deputy, “Don’t know nothin’ about these funds. Why don’t y’all write to Ann Landers? She helps people.”

But as callous as law enforcement personnel can be to the families of white victims, they are exponentially more indifferent and vicious to black victims’ families, in Prejean’s experience. She cites the Chattahoochee Report, which looked at the treatment of murder cases in several counties in Georgia, and found that in many such cases the D.A. never visited victims’ families. The report added that for black victims’ families “not only did none of the murders of their relatives lead to a capital trail, but officials often treated them as criminals.” Prejean highlights the case of one man who came home in 1984 and found his wife had been killed. “His only contact with officials,” Prejean says, “occurred when he was briefly jailed on suspicion of her murder.”

Stories of police indifference to victims in sexual assault and rape cases are familiar (here’s one about New Orleans police from last year, for example.) But Prejean’s work with victims indicates that the problem is broader than just one type of crime. The justice system that Prejean describes cares little about those harmed by crime. Convictions are pursued as a political matter, rather than out of concern for justice. The head of the parole board with whom Prejean deals, Howard Marcellus, is later convicted on corruption charges. The board was selling pardons for political favors, and withholding pardons based on the governor’s estimation of the political effects. “‘I did these things,'” Marcellus admits to Prejean. “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.”

Prejean’s argument in Dead Man Walking is that the death penalty devalues life. As Robert Lee Willie says just before he is executed, “Killing people is wrong. That’s why you’re putting me to death. It makes no difference whether it’s citizens, countries, or governments. Killing is wrong.” The deaths that are central to the book are deaths of white people: Sonnier and Willie’s victims, and Sonnier and Willie themselves. But Prejean’s book also point out that these deaths are allowable, or enabled, because of a system of racism, and of classism, which says that certain people’s lives are more important than others, and that, therefore certain deaths are acceptable, or even virtuous.

A system that is built on white supremacy will always care more about enforcing the power of white supremacy than about justice or victims, black or white. Critics of #BlackLivesMatter sometimes complain that the movement ignores the fact that all lives matter. But Dead Man Walking suggests that no lives can matter until black lives do.