LOUISIANA: A MURDER, A MOVIE AND A WINK
By Christopher Buchanan, Associate Producer
The first thing Elizabeth Harvey said to me when I walked into her home in
Louisiana was, "Of all the people who have come to talk with us about Faith's
you're the first one who has gone down there to see where they stabbed her to
It had been a chilling experience, shrouded in the early February morning
In Louisiana less than a day, it was already quite clear to me this story of
murder and capital
punishment was filled with layers and dimensions, facts and opinions that
need a lot of
untangling: First, the grisly murder 16 years ago, then a number of trials,
an execution, a
book, "Dead Man Walking," and finally a movie of the same name.
The movie, based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean, combined the stories of
the first two
men she counseled on Louisiana's death row: Elmo Patrick Sonnier and Robert
In rather broad strokes, it is fair to say the film captures Sonnier's crime
The actual crimes took place years and miles apart. Sonnier and his younger
killed two teenagers Loretta Bourque and David LeBlanc on November 4 1977
Iberia Parish sugar cane field, in the heart of Louisiana's Cajun country.
as portrayed in
the movie, the girl was raped and both were shot in the back of the head.
May 28, 1980, Willie and a friend, Joe Vaccaro, picked up Faith Hathaway as
walking home alone from a bar in Mandeville, Louisiana, on the north shore of
Ponchartrain. Stoned on a variety of drugs, they took her to a remote wooded
Washington Parish, where they raped and stabbed her repeatedly in the neck.
Robert Lee Willie proved an excellent choice for the actor Sean Penn to use
in creating the
character of Matthew Poncelet. A cocky, self-assured high school dropout,
was well-known to the police in St. Tammany Parish long before he was arrested
for Faith Hathaway's
murder. He had a reputation for being a "knife man," carrying with him
a string of arrests that began at age 14 with a shoplifting charge and
assaulting a police officer, and breaking out of jail. A Sheriff's deputy
me his rap
sheet, still on file in St. Tammany Parish. It covers four, single-spaced
But most of
the mug shots of Willie - a substitute family photo album that would show him
man - have disappeared, probably souvenirs for those who worked on various
one of the area's most notorious criminals.
Across the 23-mile Lake Ponchartrain Causeway from New Orleans, people in St.
and Washington Parishes don't need a movie to remind them of Robert Lee
It is still
a common family name in the area. Willie Road runs right by the cemetery
Willie lies buried next to his father. For Robert, John Willie was a role
of the worst
kind. "If you saw John Willie coming," a prosecutor told me, "most people
other way. He was one mean son of a bitch, who'd just as soon stab you as
at you." A
guard at Angola State Penitentiary, where John Willie spent more than half
manslaughter and other crimes, remembers him as "Snitchin' Willie," a man
to rat on
anyone in order to get a small prison favor.
Jo Anne Smith, who works in the criminal division for the
Washington Parish Clerk of Court, attended almost every hour of
Robert Willie's murder trial in October, 1980. Seeing Sean Penn
in the movie, she said, took her right back to those days in the
small basement courtroom. Sean Penn is physically bigger than
Willie, but otherwise, the similarity was almost frightening.
"Remember in the movie when he makes that motion like he's
slitting his throat?" Smith asked as we looked around the now-empty courtroom.
"That motion came straight from Willie. When he
saw that young man he'd kidnapped and left to die, he looked
right at him and made that slicing motion across his neck. Then
he grinned. It just sent shivers down my back."
That 20 year-old boyfriend, who Willie and Vaccaro had kidnapped
along with Debbie Morris three days after killing Faith Hathaway,
did not testify at any of the trials. His throat had been cut so
deeply that five months later he still could not speak. Now, 16
years later, he has recovered enough physically to hold a steady
Arriving in Louisiana as the movie was opening in the suburban
theaters outside of New Orleans, interest in the real story was
suddenly re-emerging. Mike Varnado, the Deputy Sheriff who
investigated the murder, and Bill Alford, the prosecutor, were
considering an angry letter to the editor of a local newspaper
attacking Helen Prejean for "propagating the lies of two
murderers." Another local paper ran a multi-part series on Faith
Hathaway's murder, a crime 16 years earlier that convinced people
of Washington Parish to start locking their doors at night.
The day I went looking for Debbie Morris just happened to be the
same day she first met Sister Helen. In the years since her
abduction and rape, Debbie had kept a low profile. Because she
was a minor, she was never publicly identified in court or in
newspaper articles. Some of her closest friends knew of her
ordeal, but most didn't. That led to some awkward moments when
people around her started talking about Willie and whether or not
they thought he should be executed. "I usually just kept my mouth
shut," she said.
But now she felt ready to talk. In our first meeting with Debbie,
while her son played with his grandparents in another room, she
began talking, tentatively at first, about the 30 hours she
was held captive by Willie and Vaccaro. Gradually small details
came back. "These guys were not rocket scientists," she
remembered, recalling the moment when she became fed up with the loud
acid rock tape they kept playing. "I had a
splitting headache and finally just couldn't take hearing that
song any more. So I reached over and pushed the button that
turned off the tape player. This was when push buttons were
pretty new in cars, and they couldn't figure out how to turn it
It was Debbie's close attention to detail that made her such a
compelling witness in the trials that followed. And although at
the time Willie kidnapped Debbie he called her his "girlfriend"
and later told his jailer he decided not to kill her because "she
was too damn pretty," once Willie was on death row, he changed
his tune. He is reported to have told fellow inmates at Angola,
"If I ever get out of here, I'm gonna cut that bitch up into so
many pieces even her mother won't recognize her." Debbie's relief
at Willie's execution is, therefore, not at all surprising.
What is surprising to some is that Willie's partner, Joe Vaccaro
did not also receive a death sentence. In trying to find out why
two men, involved in the same crime, each accusing the other of
doing the stabbing, would get different sentences, we heard two
Although aggravated homicide is a capital offense in Louisiana,
the death penalty is not mandatory. Some believe Vaccaro received
a life sentence because Willie, not Vaccaro, took the lead.
Contrary to what Helen Prejean writes in her book based on her
death row conversations with Willie, Debbie Morris testified that
Willie was clearly in charge. "Joe was so brain dead from drugs,
he couldn't figure anything out," Debbie told us. "There's no
question in my mind that Willie was in charge."
The second theory centers around jury selection. Willie and
Vaccaro were tried at the same time in the same court house. The
jurors in both trials came from the same jury pool. While
selecting the jury for Willie's case, each potential juror was
asked whether he or she could vote for the death penalty if the
defendant was found guilty. One woman said she could not and was
excused. A short time later, in the larger, upstairs courtroom
where Vaccaro's case was being tried, the same juror was asked
the same question. She apparently changed her answer enough to be
seated on the jury. Four days later when the guilty verdicts were
returned in both cases, the jurors were polled. In the Willie
trial, all 12 jurors and two alternates responded "yes," when
asked if they wanted the death penalty. In Vaccaro's case, both
alternates and 11 of the 12 jurors went for the death penalty.
But the juror who was excused from the Willie jury and then
seated on Vaccaro's was the lone hold out. Because a death
sentence requires a unanimous jury, Joe Vaccaro is alive today
and serving multiple life sentences in a federal penitentiary.
Willie would most likely still be in a federal penitentiary as
well had it not been for the intervention of Ronald Reagan. In
addition to the murder trial, for which he received the death
penalty, Willie also had to stand trial for the kidnapping and
rape charges. In November 1980, in a state court in Baton Rouge,
the prosecution presented its case against the pair, forcing
Debbie, then a high school junior, to testify once again about
her horrible experience. Then, surprising even their own court appointed
Willie and Vaccaro admitted their guilt,
saying, "Yea, we're guilty. We just wanted to put y'all through
this." They were each sentenced to four consecutive life
But that wasn't all. Because they took Mark and Debbie across
state lines, through Mississippi and Alabama, Willie and Vaccaro
faced federal kidnapping conspiracy charges as well. To those
charges, Willie and Vaccaro simply pled guilty, and received
additional life sentences. Although he may not have known how to
turn on a tape deck, Willie was smart enough in the ways of the
law to know that federal time is served before state time. Facing
a life sentence at the maximum security federal penitentiary in
Marion, Illinois, Willie figured he was protected from
Louisiana's electric chair.
He guessed wrong.
Elizabeth and Vern Harvey were intent on seeing that the death
sentence was carried out. One day they decided to contact their
congressman, Louisiana Republican Bob Livingston. According to
Elizabeth Harvey, Livingston's office put in a call to the White
House, and not long after, President Ronald Reagan signed papers
releasing Willie from the federal prison. He was free to go ...
back to Louisiana and death row. It was like drawing a "get out
of jail free" card and a "go directly to jail" card in the same
turn in Monopoly.
On November 7, 1983, Mike Varnado's father, also a deputy
sheriff, drove Willie back to Louisiana. Less than fourteen
months later, he was executed as Helen Prejean, Elizabeth and
Vern Harvey and Mike Varnado looked on. Another witness, a news
reporter, said later that after the executioners placed the black
hood over Willie's head, he asked that it be raised up one last
time. That's when he winked at Helen Prejean.
Was it a wink that transcended the reality of his execution, as
Helen Prejean would like to think, suggesting his last thoughts
on earth were ones of love and being at peace? Or was it a wink
of defiance and contempt, the view held by the Harveys and Mike
Varnado, convinced to the end that Robert Lee Willie had no
remorse for what he had done?
No one will ever know.
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