Angel on Death Row

film/book header
photo of Sister Helen Prejean with Robert Willie DEAD MAN WALKING

by Sister Helen Prejean (Vintage Books, copyright1993)
Reprinted by permission of the author and the Watkins/Loomis Agency


Millard fills me in on Robert Willie's crime. On May 28, 1980, he and Joseph Vaccaro killed eighteen-year-old Faith Hathaway. The young victim's mother and stepfather live nearby in Covington. The stepfather is named Vernon Harvey.

My heart sinks. I have heard of Vernon Harvey. Many people in the New Orleans area know of him. In recent months he has given interviews to the press, saying that he can't wait to see Robert Willie "fry," that he can't wait to see the "smoke fly off his body." He has said that he and his family and friends will go to the gates of the prison on the night of the execution to show support for capital punishment. Not visiting the Bourques and the LeBlancs had been a grave mistake, one I am determined not to make again, and I know I must reach out to victims' families even if they reject my offer, and that included Vernon Harvey. I shudder. It's frightening to picture how Harvey might respond to someone who opposes Willie's execution. Who knows if such an encounter might push him over an emotional edge? What if he gets violent?

Millard explains that Willie's case is far along in the courts. There may not be much time. I decide I'd better write Robert right away. But I think, maybe he won't want a spiritual adviser, maybe he'll turn down my offer. Now, there's a thought...which, I readily admit, brings a feeling of relief. I had reached out to Pat Sonnier not knowing what to expect. Now I know.

Millard tells me about the crime. It sounds straight out of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.

Willie and Vaccaro had gone on an eight-day rampage that left Faith Hathaway dead, another teenage girl raped, and her boyfriend paralyzed. Shortly after the killing of Faith Hathaway, Willie and Vaccaro had kidnapped a teenage couple and taken turns raping the young woman in the back seat of the car as they drove across several states. The eighteen-year-old Hathaway girl had been brutally raped and stabbed and left to die in the woods.

Prior to these crimes, Willie had been involved in two other murders; the drowning death in 1978 of Dennis Buford Hemby of Missouri in a scuffle over drugs, and the shooting death in 1979 of Louisiana Parish Deputy Sergeant Louis Wagner II. In the Wagner murder, Willie had been a participant with several others in a robbery which occasioned the confrontation with the young deputy, although even the law enforcement officials agree that Willie had not fired the fatal shot.

"Robert's had a long, long history of run-ins with the law from an early age," Millard says. "Plenty of drug and alcohol abuse, you know what I mean? He takes pride in being tough. He even smart-mouthed the judge at his trial."

Millard explains that after they were arrested for the kidnapping of the young couple, Willie and Vaccaro pled guilty in federal court and were each sentenced to three consecutive life sentences. However, Louisiana authorities, concerned that federal jurisdiction would preempt state jurisdiction and allow Willie and Vaccaro to serve life sentences in a federal prison, thereby escaping Louisiana's electric chair, had prevailed in getting Willie and Vaccaro to stand trial in state court.

"The two were tried in the same courthouse at the same time, on separate floors, " Millard says. "Robert got death and Vaccaro got life. Both had indigent defender."

Mentally I'm doing a body count while Millard is talking. Three people dead, one paralyzed, a young girl traumatized by abduction and rape...No wonder Vernon Harvey is outraged. How could he not be? My heart freezes at the prospect of a relationship with someone who sounds as if he might be criminally insane.

Millard, reading my face, says, "I know. These are terrible crimes, and God knows I don't condone them, but you'll see when you meet him - there's a child sitting inside this tough, macho dude."

The next day I write to Robert Lee Willie. I tell him not to feel under pressure to say yes, but if he would like me to be his spiritual adviser I'm here for him. It is a sober, contained letter. No picture of me on a pony. No friendly enthusiasms.

"Sure, come on," Willie's pert letter says in reply just one week later. "never been inclined much to church and religion but I wouldn't at all mind the visits." His handwriting is a tender scrawl and some of the words are misspelled.

But I find out from Bill Quigley, who has recently met Frank C. Blackburn, the new warden under the Edwards administration, that some "pretty bad things" are being said about me at the prison - that I was "emotionally involved" with Pat Sonnier and that I had caused " a lot of trouble" with the "fainting episode." Bill suggests that I go to see Blackburn to talk things over.

"The way things stand now," Bill says, "I think he'll oppose your visit with any inmate."

My heart tightens. I have never been accused of anything like this before. My defensive juices rise. I feel my neck redden. It make me yearn for earlier, simpler ministries when I taught children, coached the eighth-grade volleyball team, conducted Bible classes, counseled novices. I hate conflict. True, I have my principles. But while part of me raises the lance and charges into the fray, another part frantically looks for shelter. E. M. Forster's observation, uttered when he was a child says it for me exactly: "I'd rather be a coward than brave. People hurt you when you're brave." I am not looking forward to confronting this warden.

Bill tells me that prisoners have a constitutional right to the spiritual adviser of their choice It's a good thing to know because it soon become evident that the prison wants to block women form serving as spiritual advisers to death-row inmates. Sister Lilianne Flavin, my friend and coworker, has recently been denied her request to counsel a death-row inmate. I find out that the two Catholic priest chaplains at Angola are the ones seeking to block me and other women from death-row prisoners. One of them has reportedly said that I was so "naive" and "emotionally involved" with Sonnier that I was "blind" to the fact that Pat may have "lost his soul" because he had not received the last rites of the Church during the final house of his life. Women, they are saying, are just too "emotional" to relate to death-row inmates.

I recall very clearly Pat's response in the last hours, when I reminded him that the priest was there for him if he wished to receive the last rites. He said that Millard and Bill and I were there with him - we who had shown him love and fought hard to save his life. Our love, he said, was his "sacrament." And he said that he had already confessed his sins and received communion, and he didn't see the point of "doing it all over again."

I run the fingers of my conscience along the fabric of this accusation and feel for the hard knots and tears that guilt brings. Had I been blind, naive? Had I jeopardized a man's spiritual well-being?

No. The fabric feels smooth and whole and sound.

I find myself searching for an explanation for the chaplains' antagonistic behavior. Maybe they feel threatened because Pat had asked me and not them to be with him at the end. The movies always show a "man of the cloth" raising his hand in blessing to the man on the scaffold. Maybe they feel that if they allow me in, others will follow and they will be displaced.

I call the prison and make an appointment to see the warden.

Driving to the prison, I picture once again the warden's office. I remember its quiet businesslike atmosphere. Now, with a change in governors, Maggio had been replaced by Edwards's appointee, Frank C. Blackburn. Tom Dybdahl at the Prison Coalition has told me that Blackburn seems to be a decent man, He's a psychologist and lay minister in the Methodist Church and has come out of retirement to take on the job of warden.

Blackburn rises from behind his large desk to greet me as I come into the office. He is short, stocky, in his early sixties, with a square face and a thick gray mustache. He is smoking a cigar. I sit in one of the brown leather chairs opposite him and he sits behind his desk. He starts right in: "I've been hearing some disturbing things about you."

"That I was emotionally involved with Patrick Sonnier and so did not fulfill my function as spiritual adviser?"

"That's right. And so emotionally distraught that you fainted in the death house and caused a lot of commotion for the personnel."

I'm ready for this, sure of my moral ground. I let the warden say what's on his mind.

He has a heavy responsibility as warden, he explains to me, and doesn't "relish" having to carry out executions, but it "comes with the job," and one responsibility which he takes "very, very seriously" is that condemned inmates get good spiritual counsel and a chance to "get straight with God" before they die. In fact, on becoming warden he initiated a seminar for death-row inmates to be conducted by "a top-notch Christian preacher." Naturally, he explains, no inmates are forced to attend, but the opportunity is there for them if they want it.

I say that the way I understand it, the Constitution provides a prisoner with the right to a spiritual adviser of his choice. Blackburn agrees with me, adding , "The only way we can bar a spiritual adviser from the prison is if we deem them a threat to prison security."

I am saying all this and he is looking at me and listening and taking long, slow puffs on his cigar. He seems a reasonable man. He does not interrupt when I speak.

I tell him that, yes, I cared for Patrick Sonnier. Despite his terrible crime, he was a human being and deserved to be treated with dignity and, yes, I was emotionally distraught watching him die. "Who wouldn't be," I ask him, "watching someone killed in a such a cold, calculated way right in front of your eyes? You and the others are part of a process that shields you from natural, human emotions. The raw truth is that you're killing a fellow human being whose hands and feet are tied, and who wants to admit he's doing that?"

There is silence for a short moment, and then Blackburn says, "We can't let feelings dominate our actions or we couldn't carry out our responsibilities. I keep close tabs on the guards who work on death row because they have the closest daily contact with the inmates. There have been a few who have let this thing get next to them. When this happens, I offer them an assignment in another part of the prison."

I challenge him: "But you're a Christian, a minister in your church, a man who professes to follow the way of life that Jesus taught. Yet you are the one who, with a nod of your head, signals the executioner to kill a man. Do you really believe that Jesus, who taught us not to return hate for hate and evil for evil and whose dying words were, 'Father, forgive them,' would participate in these executions? Would Jesus pull the switch?"

The blue-gray smoke from the cigar is intensifying around Blackburn in a cloud. I am beginning to feel as if I'm talking to the Wizard of Oz.

"Nope," he says, "I don't experience any contradiction with my Christianity. Never thought about it too much, really. Executions are the law, and Christians are supposed to observe the law, and that's that." And then he adds, "My wife, she's a good Christian woman, and she supports the death penalty, and believe me, you can't find a better Christian woman than my wife."

How is it, I wonder, that the mandate and example of Jesus, so clearly urging compassion and nonviolence, could so quickly become accommodated ? Over the centuries "lawful authorities" - supposedly in God's name and with God's blessing - have hanged, shot, guillotined, drawn and quartered, burned, gassed, electrocuted, lethally injected - criminals. Over the years the crimes meriting death might change, but, for the most part, the blessing of God on retaliatory punishment has been unquestioned. Of course, those who justify retaliation can cite as authority numerous passages in the Bible, where divine vengeance is meted out to guilty and innocent alike: the Great Flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the slaying of the firstborn sons of the Egyptians (God's "lesson" to a recalcitrant Pharaoh), to mention just a few examples. Even the Pauline injunction "Vengeance is mine, says the Lord, I will repay" can be interpreted as a command and a promise - the command to restrain individual impulses toward revenge in exchange for the assurance that God will be too pleased to handle the grievance - in spades. That God wants to "get even" like the rest of us does not seem to be in question. (1)

One intractable problem, however, is that divine vengeance, (barring natural disaster, so-called acts of God) can only be interpreted and exacted by human beings Very human beings.

I can't accept that.

First, I can't accept that God has fits of rage and goes about trucking in retaliation. Second, I can't accept that any group of human beings is trustworthy enough to mete out so ultimate and irreversible a punishment as death. And third, I can't accept that it's permissible to kill people provided you "prepare" them with good spiritual counsel to "meet their Maker." Camus had argued that for people who believe in life after death, capital punishment is more easily rationalized, since death is a mere "temporary" punishment (only eternal life is considered final). But there is, Camus maintained, one, firm, unbreachable solidarity that human beings have - solidarity against death and suffering. On this common ground, he believed, all human beings - religious or atheist - must unite (pp. 222-225).

The swath of violence cut by Christian across the centuries is long and wide and bloodstained: inquisitions, crusades, witch burnings, persecutions of Jewish "Christ-killers." Now, in the last decade of the twentieth century, U.S. government officials kill citizens with dispatch with scarcely a murmur of resistance from the Christian citizenry. In fact, surveys of public opinion show that those who profess Christianity tend to favor capital punishment slightly more than the overall population - Catholics more than Protestants.(2) True, in recent years leadership bodies of most Christian denominations have issued formal statements denouncing the death penalty, (3) but generally that opposition has yet to be translated into aggressive pastoral initiatives to educate clergy and membership on capital punishment. And the U.S. Catholic Bishops in their "Statement on Capital Punishment," while strongly condemning the death penalty because of the "unfair and discriminatory" manner in which it is imposed, its continuance of the "cycle of violence," and its fundamental disregard for the "unique worth and dignity of each person," nevertheless uphold the "right " of the state to kill.(4) But if we are to have a society which protects its citizens from torture and murder, then torture and murder must be off-limits to everyone. No one, for any reason, may be permitted to torture and kill -- and that includes government. Before prisons existed, executions might have been justified as society's only means of defense against the crazed, violent killers. But today in the United Sates, following the example of other modern industrialized countries, we can incapacitate violent criminals through long-term imprisonment.

Recently this point was succinctly argued by convicted murder Willie Leroy Jones. On September 15, 1992, just before the state of Virginia electrocuted him, he said, "Killing me is not the answer. There's a place called prison."

I look at Warden Blackburn and he is looking intently at me. He is ready to move the discussion to another front.

"What about this fainting episode you had?" he asks.

"I fainted because I was hungry, " I tell him. And I remind him of the prison rule forbidding visitors from bringing food into the prison and how the rule had forced me to fast for long periods of time once inside the prison.

"You know, Warden," I say, "if it were emotional stress that caused me to faint, I would have fainted when I witnessed Pat's execution, not two days earlier when I was planning a prayer service with the chaplains."

I want to handle this fainting episode carefully. What he calls " a lot of commotion for prison personnel" if stretched a bit, could be interpreted as a threat to prison security if it were judged to involve an "inordinate" diversion of attention to my well-being instead of to inmates.

"He nods his head, rests his cigar on the ashtray, and says to me, "We understand each other. We're going to do all right."

Those matters settled, I tell him that I wish to become Robert Willie's spiritual adviser and I need him to speed up the process of my approval because there may not be much time for Willie. He says he'll take care of it.

We rise and shake hands.

"I think the two priest chaplains here are pretty upset with me, " I tell him. He nods his head vigorously.

I say, "It seems they're trying to block women from visiting death row."

"I'll see that it's straightened out," he says.

And he does. A couple of weeks after my meeting with him, Sister Lilianne receives approval to serve as spiritual adviser to a death-row inmate.

Organizing efforts for the October walk form New Orleans to Baton Rouge are gaining momentum. The steering committee is meeting every week now. Participants are signing up.

I have decided to move into a house near the Quigleys with two other nuns, Ann Barker and Leigh Scardian. We are drawn together by our concern for the poor and our desire to translate faith into social action. Once a week we gather with Bill and Debbie to talk, pray, and share a meal. We also participate in the pot-luck dinners in the Quigleys' spacious back yard, where a refreshing cross-section of people gather --lawyers, project residents, ex-offenders, teachers, professors. I am glad to be a part of an effort that draws together black and white, rich and poor -- an antidote, I believe, to what I see as an endemic nation malady, the isolation of socio-economic classes and races from each other.

For me, the costliest part of being a member of the new community is moving my residence out of St. Thomas. I hate to lose touch with the residents there. But I realize that the focus of my work now extends across the state, and it seems a matter of justice not to occupy valuable apartment space if I am not devoting myself primarily to the people who live there. There is a list five miles long of people waiting to get project apartments.

I also realize that by changing residence I am not changing my commitment to stand with the poor and work for justice. Plus, I will continue to have contact with the people of St. Thomas because Pilgrimage for Life, the Louisiana abolitionist group, is housed at Hope House, and I continue to attend weekly staff meetings there.

Meanwhile, there's Eddie Sonnier. Since Pat's execution I have continued to visit him and driven his mother, sister and aunt to visit him. He seems calmer. Something in him has settled. He has found some footing, some niche of workable peace. Once he said to me, "Pat's dead now and there's nothing I can do to bring him back. Every night before I go to sleep, I read the last letter he wrote to me." He has taken to calling me "Sis." It fits. I know I'm family to him.

Within a week after getting approval from the warden, I go to visit Robert Willie. It's October 1984, six month after Pat Sonnier's' execution. With Pat time had a slower, more open-ended feel. But now time is an undertow.

Here are the same red block letters over the green metal door. Here is the same eerie feeling coming back. There is no getting used to this place. I half expect Pat to show up behind the heavy mesh screen in the visiting room. But this is no Pat Sonnier coming into the cubicle. A slight young man in his mid-twenties peers through the screen to get a glimpse of me. He has dark blond hair brushed back in front, but long in the back, down to his collar. He has one of those intricate beards, an inverted V mustache above his lips coming down in two lines around his lips to his chin. The middle of his chin is clean-shaven but just under the bottom lip there's a little tuft of hair. He's fair-skinned and has pale blue eyes. He looks showered and neat in a blue denim jacket over a white T-shirt tucked into his jeans. Very thin waist.

I look at this man who has left such destruction in his wake. I can't get over how small he is and how delicate his feature are - nose, chin, lips - almost feminine, except for the beard. The process that has brought me to him is mysterious, but here I am and here he is.

"Thanks for coming to see me, ma'am. Never thought I'd be visitin' with no nun," Robert Willie says and laughs softly. I'm surprise at how deep his voice is - the slight body led me to expect a higher pitch. He speaks in a slow, even-toned drawl. He bends his head down low to take a drag from the cigarette in his hand cuffed to his waist. Very self-possessed. Like a cowboy.

I take the lead in the conversation. I let him flow along and come into it when he feels like it. I want him to know who I am, what I think, how I feel. I do not expect much personal revelation from him here in the beginning of our relationship. I tell him about going to the St. Thomas Project and working at Hope House. I tell him about my opposition to the death penalty and the walk we're planning from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. I tell him that after Pat's execution, I thought I'd never be coming back to death row again, but how Millard had come over for lunch and - here I am. I tell him some of the "Millard stories" (of these, there are an abundance). I tell him about my family and childhood. I tell him about becoming a nun.

He stops me there.

"Don't you miss having a man? Don't you want to get married?"

He is simple and direct. I'm simple and direct back.

I tell him that even as a young woman I didn't want to marry one man and have one family, I always wanted a wider arena for my love. But intimacy means a lot to me, I tell him. "I have close friends - men and women. I couldn't make it without intimacy."

"Yeah?" he says.

"Yeah," I say. "But there's a costly side to celibacy, too, a deep loneliness sometimes. There are moments, especially on Sunday afternoon, when I smell the smoke in the neighborhood from family barbecues, and feel like a fool not to have pursued a 'normal' life. But, then, I've figured out that loneliness is part of everyone's life, part of being human -- the private, solitary part of us that no one else can touch."

"What I miss most about being here," he says, and I notice he blows the cigarette smoke downward so that it does not drift into my face, "are the women and just bein' in the bars and listen' to the music and dancin' 'til three or four in the morning. And I'm not goin' to lie to you, ma'am, I believed in doing it. Me and my lady friends, we'd get us a blanket and a bottle or a little weed and go into the woods and do it," and he gives a slight smile.

"Well, Robert," I say, "let's face it. If I had a husband and family, chances are that I'd be there with them this afternoon, instead of visiting with you."

"True," he says. "Glad you're here ma'am."

He's primed now and he talks about his case in the courts. He's aware that "time's gettin' short" and says how he's been reading and studying every law book he can get his hands on. "When you're in a place like this, you learn the law fast, " he says. "Let's just say you have special motivation," and he smiles. He speaks softly. At times I have to press near the screen to hear him.

Bill Quigley is one of the attorneys pressing a class-action suit on behalf of death-row prisoners, and I've heard him mentioning Willie as one of the plaintiffs. The suit aims at securing better conditions on death row: more phone calls, access to a legal library, "contact" visits, better health care. Not may inmates are willing to put their name to such a suit. Facing death in the electric chair leave them "stuck out" enough, they figure. Better to keep a low profile.

But Robert Willie says, "Hell ("hay-ull," said in two syllables), let's face it, we're all up against the ultimate anyway. Ain't nothin' more ultimate than death, is there? I say, let's join forces and make a stand. Together we stand; divided we fall." I'm not surprised when he tells me that he subscribe to Soldier of Fortune magazine.

Driving home I think of the man I have just met. I had expected a wild-eyed, crazed, paranoid type, but met instead this polite, soft-spoken, obviously intelligent young man. From the terror he's wreaked I'd expected a huge brute, but he's so small, so slight. I notice that he didn't mention his crimes; he didn't show any remorse. While I was talking to him, I kept thinking about Faith Hathaway, and I was conscious of her there, silent, in the room. I am defending Robert Willie's right not to be executed and I am affirming his dignity as a human being, but I can never for one moment forget what he did. I decide that as soon as our New Orleans to Baton Rouge trek is over I will visit the Harveys.

On Friday morning, October 26, a group of us -- about 40 people -- gather on the outskirts of New Orleans to begin walking the 80 miles to Baton Rouge.

Several TV and radio stations and newspaper reports show up. "What do you hope to achieve by doing this?" they ask. I am one of the marchers assigned to speak with the media. I say that this march is the beginning of a statewide information campaign about the death penalty.

We know that one of the key issues we must address is the fear of crime which fuels the death penalty. Actually, the public (not by accident) has an exaggerated perception of the risk of felon-type murders (murders which occurred in the course of another felony which may be punishable by death). The risk varies, of course, according to one's neighborhood - inner-city residents have good reason to fear felon-type murders - but nationwide, according to 1989 statistics, a very small percentage, 2.0 persons per 100,000, die of felony-type murders each year, roughly the same percentage as those who die from drowning or accidental poisoning. In contract, the probability of dying in an automobile accident is 47.9 per 100,000, and the probability of dying from heart disease is 765.5 per 100,000.(5) But the public's view of crime is largely shaped by the media, which are prone to emphasize death from violence while downplaying more prevalent and commonplace threats to life. In one study, for example, some respondents thought that homicides cause more deaths than strokes, when in fact strokes cause eleven times more deaths.(6)

Along with the media, politicians also distort public perception of crime. Politicians in dramatic thirty-second campaign ads purporting to address the "crime problem" tend to emphasize the most violent crimes, which they then propose to counter by use of the death penalty. "Tough problems call for tough solutions," they say - as if executing a few people a year has anything to do with their real management of crime.

The truth is that the death penalty is potentially relevant to only a very small pool of the 14 million - plus "index crimes" committed in this country every year. Supreme court decisions and resulting legislation have restricted the use of the death penalty to certain forms of aggravated homicide - about 1 of every 2,986 "index crimes" and only 1 of every 345 violent crimes.(7) Such constricted use make the death penalty, in fact, only a relatively minor criminal-justice policy. Dealing with the real crime problem in this nation involves a far more comprehensive approach in areas of employment, drug prevention, police security, and education - not easily packaged in thirty-second, bang-for-the-buck T. V. campaign ads.

Along the road from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, I use every media opportunity to provide facts about the death penalty. I point out that in Louisiana, since the legislative reforms of 1977, life sentences for first-degree murder have become real life sentences, so we can protect ourselves from dangerous criminals without killing them.

I also point out that execution of a prisoner cost more than life imprisonment. That's because capital trials require more expert witnesses and more investigators, a longer jury-selection process (those who oppose the death penalty must be screened out), the expenses of sequestering a jury, not one but two trials because of the required separate sentencing trial, and appeals in state and federal courts. When a D.A. decides not to go for the death penalty, there may in fact be no trial at all, but whenever the death penalty is sought, almost always there is a trial and all it entails. In Florida, which may be typical, each death sentence is estimate to cost approximately $3.18 million, compared to the cost of life imprisonment (40 years) of about $516,000.(8) Another reason for the swollen costs is the added expense of incarcerating prisoners on death row. Most states segregate death-row prisoners in maximum security units and must hire additional security personnel. Nor are most death-row prisoners allowed to work, which prevents them from helping to pay for their upkeep.

Besides the expense there is also a "distortion cost" which capital trials and appellate proceedings impose on the court system. State supreme court judges in some death-penalty jurisdictions report that they spent a disproportionate amount of their judging time tending to capital punishment business.(9)

To these utilitarian argument I add others in these media interviews -- that the death penalty is too selective and capricious to serve as a deterrent, that is racially biased - but the argument I always save for last is this one: if we believe that murder is wrong and not admissible in our society, then it has to be wrong for everyone, not just individuals but governments as well. And I end by challenging people to ask themselves whether we can continue to allow the government, subject as it is to every imaginable form of inefficiency and corruption, to have such power to kill. "It's not a marginal issue," I say. "It involves all of us. We're all complicit. Government can only continue killing if we give it the power. It's time to take that power back."

It's my first time meeting people in the media. I notice how friendly many of them are. After the interviews I always shake hands and thank them for coming out, the reporters and the camera people too; and before the walk is over I have quite a collection of their personal cards, which I file so I can call on them in the future. Reflecting back after 10 years, I realize now, even more that I did then, just how crucial the media are to public education on this issue, and I am struck by how may reporters and journalists become sympathetic to the cause of abolition once they become knowledgeable about the issue.

We walk in the sunshine. It's October, one of Louisiana's clearest, driest months. The sky is cobalt blue. The trees and grass are still mostly green, but the swamp maples have turned orange-red. It feels good to be walking out on the open road. Bill Quigley is at the head of the line, setting the pace. We'll do twenty-five miles each day. When people drop behind the crowd (people such as me, with short legs), a van picks us up and brings us to the front. That way we keep a brisk pace. Everybody's full of chatter. Some sing. One young fellow plays a kazoo. We're an interesting assortment: black and white, ex-cons and nuns, secretaries and teachers, housewives, students, a carpenter, lawyers, a woman whose sister was murdered but who opposes capital punishment, some family members with sons on death row, a Vietnam vet.

Many people, barreling along the highway, energetically signal their response to our cause: they put thumbs down; they flip us the middle finger; they shout "Fry the bastards"; they call us "bleeding-heart liberals"; they call us "commies." But every now and then we hear a horn and see a thumb up, and we all wave and cheer.

Then as the sun climbs in the sky and shoes rub and legs and hip joint ache, we fall silent, and all you can hear is the thud and scrape of feet moving and the whine and roar of cars and trucks on the highway.

For three days we walk.

We arrive in Baton Rouge as the sun is setting. The darkness is fast descending and the streetlights have come on and give a furry amber glow. As we approach the capitol steps we spot a small group holding up posterboard signs. Supports coming to join us for the rally? Getting closer, we can make out what the signs say" "What about the victims?" "Justice, even for victims." It's a counterdemonstration group. How will we deal with them? Ignore them? Talk to them? The steering committee huddles. We decide to send a couple of people on a "peacekeeping" mission.

We hold the rally. The press gives us good coverage. The "peacekeeping" mission is successful, and we are not interrupted by the counterdemonstrators. We can all go home now, and my thoughts are turning toward the free and airy bus ride home, sitting, not walking, and knowing I'm not responsible any longer for all these people and the myriad details of organizing.

A full moon has come out and is shining its white metallic light on the capitol steps. People are drifting down he steps toward waiting yellow school buses and cars.

A young man, one of the marchers, touches my arm and points to the bottom of the steps where the counterdemonstrators are and says that a man says to tell me " to watch out or someone is going to hurt you." The man down there wants to talk to me. He says his name is Vernon Harvey. My heart tightens. Oh, God, not her, not now. "Someone wants to hurt me?" What does that mean?

I look down the wide rows of white steps -forty-eight steps, to be exact, each engraved with the name of a state and the date it achieved statehood. At the age of ten with my Girl Scout troop, my green skirt swishing across my bony knees, I had skipped and run up and down these steps, saying the name of each state in singsong. Now I am all too glad to have forty-eight states between me and Vernon Harvey.

I don't have to respond to the invitation, I reason with myself. With the crowd milling about, I could pretend the message never reached me. Besides, maybe another time less confrontational that this would be better for our first meeting. Any time would be better than this.

The young man delivering the message looks at me expectantly. I know it would be cowardly not to respond to the invitation. I thank him for the message, my heart racing, and walk down the long, white steps to Vernon Harvey.

I introduce myself. He's a short guy with close-cropped gray hair, black-rimmed glasses. I brace myself for attack. He says he's heard I visit with death-row inmates and that I'd better watch myself with those "scum." "They'll just as soon slit your throat as look at you," he says. He's not shouting as he looks at me when he talks.

Relief, I was prepared for an apoplectic rage, and here he is expressing concern about my safety.

We must have executions, he tells me, because it's the only way we can be sure these "mad dogs" don't kill again. He ticks off his favorite pro-death-penalty arguments, just as I tick off mine for abolition. I have to respect that he's out here at the foot of these capitol steps because he believes in his cause as strongly as I believe in mine. Maybe even more. I haven't had anyone close to me murdered. I tell him that I'm terrible sorry about his stepdaughter and ask if I may come to visit him and his wife. "Sure, come on over," he says, and he writes his telephone number for me on a piece of paper.

The next week I call him and get directions to his house in Covington, a small town on the north side of Lake Pontchartrain. I go in early November on a Sunday afternoon The first feel of fall is in the air. I bring a sweater along. I don't know how long I'll be, probably late, and the evenings are getting cool. This is one visit that can't be rushed.

I turn into the driveway of a cozy-looking little house surrounded by tall trees. There is a swing on the front porch. A happy enough looking house, I think, as I climb the front steps and reach for the doorbell. As a child, riding in the family car throughout the neighborhoods, I used to play a secret game of looking at houses and trying to guess from the outside appearance whether or not the people inside were happy. Bright, cheery houses: happy people inside. Sad, bedraggled houses: sad people inside.

Great as the sea is thy sorrow. Words well up from a prayer to Mary, mother of Jesus, who watched her son dying on a cross.

Vernon comes to the door and invites me in, asking good-naturedly if we're planning to do any more walks against the death penalty any time soon because he'd sure like to be there at the end of it to welcome us. Elizabeth, his wife, comes into the living room and introduces herself. She's younger than Vernon and more reserved, not the tease that he is. Faith's graduation picture hangs on the living room wall. A pretty girl with some of Elizabeth's features. Same facial structure, same nose, same eyes. In her blue graduation gown she looks happy, her eyes gazing past the camera into her bright, young future.

We sit in comfortable chairs in the front living room. I sit where I can see their faces and ask them to tell me about their daughter. They seem to want to talk. Maybe it's cathartic for them.

Tragedies have a date and time. Tragedy in the Harvey Family happened on May 28, 1980.

Faith, eighteen years old, had graduated from Mandeville High School in early May and planned to join the Army on May 28. She wanted to study a foreign language. She hoped to be stationed overseas.

"With me having a long career in the military," Vernon says, "I had told her about the travel, the educational opportunities plus -- this is a big thing with me -- patriotism; it's good to give a few years of service to your country, even if you don't plan to make it a life career.:

Elizabeth, calm, her voice without emotion as though she is describing someone else's tragedy, tells how on May 28 a recruiting sergeant was to meet Faith at her apartment to drive her to New Orleans for induction. (At the time, the Harveys lived in an apartment complex that Elizabeth managed and Faith had her own apartment in the complex.) A few days earlier Elizabeth had taken her shopping to get things she would be needing. "You know, practical things," Elizabeth says, "new bras with plenty of support, a case for her contact lenses, medicine for menstrual cramps."

The recruiting sergeant would not be coming until early afternoon, so Elizabeth had planned to go over to Faith's apartment to help her with last-minute packing in the morning.

On May 27 at five o'clock in the evening, Faith headed hurriedly out the door of her parents' apartment on her way to Bossier's Restaurant, where she waitressed. After work she planned to visit with friends to say good-bye and to celebrate the beginning of her new career. As Faith was leaving, Elizabeth had noticed her sandals - the one the right foot was torn - and had suggested that she ought to change them, but Faith had been in a hurry and said she'd be late for work.

The next time Elizabeth would see the sandals they would be in a cellophane bag as state's exhibit number 10 at the trail of her daughter's murder, and she would identify them along with other objects: a purse, a blue skirt, a blue blouse, a driver's license, a ring, a medallion, a Timex watch with a blue face.

"You don't know when you see your child leave through a door that you are never going to see her alive again," Elizabeth says. "If I had known, I would have told her how much I loved her. My last words to her - the last she ever heard from me - were about sandals."

On the morning of Wednesday, May 28, Elizabeth and Vernon waited for Faith to come through the front door. The big day had finally arrived. After today they would have to rely on letters and an occasional phone call. Letting Faith have her own apartment had been one step toward independence, but today would be the really big venture. Faith had promised to write.

"She would've too," says Elizabeth. "We had a close relationship. She'd always talk things over with me, And she and Vern were close. Faith was four when Vern and I met, seven when we got married. He wasn't just a stepfather; he loved her every bit as much as I did." And I look over at Vernon and see his head down, tears rolling down his cheeks. It's been four years since Faith's death and he still cries when he talks about her. I wish I could take away some of his pain. I feel helpless, overwhelmed. All I can do is listen.

But Faith was late that May 28th morning. Elizabeth called her apartment. No answer. She waited and called again. No answer. No footsteps at the door. No telephone call to say that she was a little late but on her way. No Faith.

Concerned, Elizabeth and Vernon had gone over to her apartment, but it was empty, the bed still neatly made. Elizabeth describes how the she held the terror at bay, thinking of possible scenarios: maybe she had overdone the drinking a little and gone home with a friend to sleep it off; maybe it had been late when the partying had ended and she had decided to spend the night with one of her girlfriends...

"But it was strange that she did not call me," Elizabeth says. "She would always telephone me and tell me where she was. I kept telephoning her friends one by one. I just couldn't accept that I didn't know where she was."

When Faith did not appear by 3:00 p.m., Elizabeth called the recruiting sergeant, who was supposed to drive Faith to New Orleans. He said he had already been by her apartment twice. Vernon then went to the Mandeville Police Department.

"I told them our daughter was missing," he said, "but they said someone had to be missing at least forty-eight hours before they could do anything."

Later the same evening Vernon drove to the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's Office to file a report on their missing child.

Thursday, May 29, and Friday, May 30, passed. The sheriff's office formed a search party. Vernon joined. It was a formidable undertaking to search in this expansive countryside with its massive patches of wilderness areas full of underbrush, thickets, and gulleys.

On Sunday, June 1, a family picnicking near Fricke's Cave in a remote wilderness area south of Franklington found a purse, clothes, and a wallet and turned them over to the Franklington Sheriff's Department. Someone called the Harveys to tell them they had heard that some of Faith's things had been found.

"We got that information from our own resources, not from the police," Elizabeth says. "They never called us. We called them."

On Monday, June 2, Elizabeth continues, the search party from the sheriff's office went out to comb the area where the clothing had been discovered, but they found nothing. Vernon says how he had noticed " a real bad smell" in the area where they were searching, and thought there must be some kind of garbage dump or dead animal nearby.

On Wednesday, June 4, eight days after Faith's disappearance, two investigators from the district attorney's office found her body behind a log in the vicinity of Fricke's Cave. She had been stabbed seventeen times in the neck and upper chest.

Vernon is crying. Elizabeth, recounting the gruesome details, does not cry. Somehow she's found a way to leach out the horror. Their daughter's badly decomposed body was nude, supine, legs spread-eagled.

Vernon says, "Faith didn't know the animals she was dealing with when Willie and Vaccaro offered her a ride home. She had been with friends all night. You know, young people, they think everybody's their friend. We think somebody must have slipped something into her drink. The coroner's report said her vagina was all tore up. The electric chair is too good for Robert Willie and Joseph Vaccaro."

He can't sop crying. He says a couple of sentences and cries, says some more and cries again. Listening and knowing he is reliving it all over again, I want to tell him, "Stop. Please stop." I want him to be oblivious, to forget, to let all the horrible details fade. I can't find any words. I am crying too.

"At first they couldn't find the graduation medallion around her neck because it was embedded so deep from the stabbing, " Elizabeth says. "She had been so proud of that medallion. She wore it all the time. It said: "Class of '80, Dawn of a New Decade."

The police would not let Vernon and Elizabeth come to the morgue to identify the body, explaining that it would be too traumatic for them. But Elizabeth says that she could not bear for the body to buried forever without being "absolutely, positively sure without a doubt" that it was Faith they had found. "What if, because of the decomposition and the circumstantial evidence of the clothes nearby, they only thought it was Faith? I had to be sure."

So she had telephoned her brother in Richmond, Virginia, a dentist, who had done some dental work for Faith in April. On the evening before the funeral he had gone to the funeral home and made a positive identification form the dental restorations.

Vernon says, "Elizabeth's brother was pretty tore up when he came back from the funeral home. Before he reached his hand into that bag with all the lime in it and fished out Faith's jaw, he said he had always been against the death penalty. But, boy, after that, he was for it."

"I knew it had to be Faith, that's what my mind told me, but I just had to be sure," Elizabeth says.

Young Lizabeth, the fourteen-year-old-daughter of Vernon and Elizabeth, dashes into the living room. She leans close to her mother and whispers something. Elizabeth introduces me and she turns toward me politely, "How do you do." I calculate that she was ten years old when Faith was killed. Her life here in this room is tangible. She is pretty and whole and unharmed. I'm glad that Vernon and Elizabeth have her. Maybe she is what keeps them going. Perhaps for her sake they have not allowed themselves to dissolve in grief. Lizabeth bounds out of the room as quickly as she came in.

Vernon recounts the scene and the murder. Both Willie and Vaccaro, he says, gave basically the same account in their confessions, except that each blame the other for the stabbing.

Sometime in the early-morning hours of May 28 the two men met Faith outside a bar and offered her a ride home. Instead, they drove her down gravel roads to a remote place, made her take off all her clothes, blindfolded her, and led her down a ravine where they forced her to lie down and raped her. Then one of them stabbed her to death while the other held her hands. Some fingers of her right hand were missing where the knife had cut as she raised her hand to protect herself.

"The SOB, Vaccaro, got a life sentence," Vernon says, and he is crying again, "and it's been four years and they haven't fried Willie's ass yet. We've been waiting and waiting for justice to be done. I can't rest until justice is done. All you hear about these days is the rights of the criminal. What about our rights? Don't we have a right to see this chapter closed?"

I wonder how Vernon and Elizabeth would have fared emotionally if Robert Willie, like Vaccaro, had been sentenced to life imprisonment He would have slipped into anonymity behind Angola's walls, his fate sealed, his crime punished, and maybe these grieving parents could, over time, have laid down their grief and carried on with their lives. But now they are like two deer paralyzed by headlights in the road. All they can think, all they know, all they want is the death of their child's murderer that the state has promised them. So they follow the case in the courts. They hold their breath each time there's a new appeal. They wait and wait, reliving their daughter's murder again and again. And the hope is that when Willie's death does come, it will ease their pain and their loss. At last, they will have justice.

The pale October sun has been sliding steadily downward and through the window I can see the trees turning into dark purple silhouettes. Inside, darkness has been slowly seeping into the room. Elizabeth gets up and turns on a lamp. I know I have to drive back across the lake, but time is standing still. In the presence of such suffering, it doesn't matter how late I get home.

"Let's go to the kitchen and I'll make us some coffee," Elizabeth says. As we walk to the kitchen, Vernon keeps talking, "Willie and I met face to face in the hallway during his trial. He was cocky. He said he'd never go to the chair. I told him I'd see his ass fry."

Then he picked up on the point he had made to me when I met him on the capitol steps - that the only way to be sure we get rid of someone like Willie is to kill him. Elizabeth agrees. "That's the only way we can be sure that he'll never kill again," she says. "In prison he could kill a guard or another inmate. Someone like Willie can escape from prison."

I disagree with these arguments, but the intensity of all the sorrow silences me. I do not offer counterarguments. I just let all the torrents of rage and loss and sorrow tumble over me.

"He's a mad dog, that's what he is," Vernon says, and he tells how Willie and Vaccaro, after killing Faith, had continued their reign of terror, kidnapping a teenage couple, raping the girl, tying the boy to a tree, stabbing him, shooting him, and leaving him for dead. "Miraculously he lived," Vernon says, "but he's partially paralyzed from the waist down."

Vernon has stopped crying. It's his anger talking now, which I welcome. At least he's not dissolving in grief and loss. I want him to survive this terrible sorrow. I want him to make it.

"Before their rampage was over, " Vernon says, "Willie and Vaccaro drove through five states, stole four cars, robbing, raping and killing all the way. The law had a bulletin out on 'em for the kidnapping, and that's what they first arrested them for. They had turned the young Madisonville girl loose, and she had gone to the police and described them. When the law arrested the two of them in Arkansas for the kidnapping," he says, "they didn't yet know they had killed Faith. That only came out as they confessed to the kidnapping."

I think of the young man I have just visited with the neatly combed hair and the quiet voice. I think of how he exhaled his smoke downward so that it didn't blow into my face.

"I am going to be Robert Willie's spiritual adviser," I tell them quietly. I have to say it. I have to let them know. We have made our way to the kitchen and now sit at the small table there. Elizabeth is pouring the coffee into our cups.

"He needs all the spiritual advisers he can get," Vernon says. "He's an animal. No, I take that back. Animals don't rape and kill their own kind. Robert Willie is God's mistake. Frying in the electric chair is the least of the frying he's about to do when God sends him to hell where he belongs," and he jabs his finger downward.

On two occasions, Vernon says, he almost "took Willie out." One was during a recess at the trial. In the the small courtroom Vernon was standing close to Willie and within inches of a deputy's unstrapped, holstered pistol. "In three seconds I could have slipped that gun out and blown Willie away," Vernon says, "but there was the deputy there and other people. I might have hurt somebody else, so I didn't do it."

The second opportunity came, he says, when he was driving to New Orleans on the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway and saw federal marshals in a vehicle driving Willie to New Orleans. Vernon had rammed down the accelerator and raced after them. "Willie turned and saw me, he knew who it was on their tail," he says, " and he must have said something to the driver. I saw the driver eyeballing me through his rearview mirror and he was gunning that Pontiac for all it was worth, but I had my Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, and his pedal was to the floor and I was still gaining on them. I could hear them over the C.B. radio. They were scared. They knew that if I rammed them at that speed they wouldn't be able to control their car, they'd go into the lake."

But then, again, Vernon says, he had refrained and fallen back. They were officers of the law doing their job. He didn't want to hurt them. "Besides," he adds, "they would have put my ass in jail and I couldn't be here for Elizabeth and Dale" (his pet name for Lizabeth).

I am amazed at these stories. I have only seen high-speed car chases in the movies. Poor Vernon. What does he do with all this rage he feels? My heart goes out to him and to Elizabeth. These are good, descent, nice people. Here they are, inviting me into their home, offering me coffee, sharing with me the most intimate, terrible pain of their lives.

"And do you know," Vernon continues, "that we almost didn't get the son-of-a-bitch, Willie, to face the electric chair here in Louisiana because the feds already had him serving a bunch of life sentences in Marion*? Willie figured he'd beat the chair here in Louisiana because he thought that as long as the feds had him, the state couldn't touch him. And I was talking to people - lawyers and a bunch of other folks - and that's what they were all telling me, that Willie had to serve his federal term before the state could get their hands on him.

"No way was that going to happen," says Vernon, and he tells how he told his congressman, Bob Livingston, about his problem and Livingston told him to write a letter to President Reagan and he would put it in the President's hand.

"Well, Livingston must have gotten through," Vernon says, because several weeks later the phone rang and a woman's voice said to hold please for the President. "Hell, I didn't know which president the lady was talking about, the Kiwanis Club or whatever. But when I heard the voice, I knew what president it was, all right. I'd know Ronald Reagan's voice anywhere. He told me - these were his words - 'As soon as the U.S. Supreme Court turns Willie down, which won't be long, he'll be sent back to Louisiana to stand trial for your daughter's murder, you can depend on that.' And I like the way he put it --'as soon as the Court turns him down, which won't be long' -- that's just the words he used, and I told him that I appreciated that."

But I can tell Vernon's talking to the President of the United States didn't impress him. Only the satisfaction of getting Robert Willie really mattered, and if that took the President himself, so be it. The rage of his pain and the agony of his loss eclipse everything else.

It's time to leave. I get up and move toward the car. Vernon and Elizabeth walk out with me and he says, "You know, even Willie's own father, who has spent twenty-six years of his life at Angola for everything from cattle rustlin' to murder, says his son ought to get the chair."

I start the motor. I thank the Harveys for letting me visit. I promise to pray for them. I promise to come back to see them again sometime.

"We're like different baseball teams," Vernon says. "Different points of view, but we respect each other."

It's been a friendly exchange. Vernon and Elizabeth hadn't batted an eye when I told them I was Willie's spiritual adviser. I can tell they're grateful for my visit. Friends, it seems, have dropped away since the tragedy.

A month or so later the friendliness between us will be shattered. I will meet the Harveys at Robert Willie's Pardon Board hearing. They will be there to see that he dies, and because of my visit and the sympathy I have shown them, they expect that I also want to see him die.


(1) For a probing exploration of the relationship between religion and the practice of retribution, see Susan Jacoby's Wild Justice: The Evolution of Revenge (New York: Harper and Row, 1983).

(2) See Table 1 in Fox, Radelet, and Bonsteel's "Death Penalty Opinion in the Post-Furman Years." Over a fifteen-year period - from 1972 to 1988 - a composite 73.3 percent of Catholics and 71.4 percent of Protestants favored death for first-degree murderers while support in the overall population registered at 71.2 percent.

(3) See The Death Penalty: The Religious Community Calls for Abolition, published by the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and the National Interreligious Task Force on Criminal Justice. Copies may be obtained from NCADP, 1325 G. Street NW (LL-B), Washington, DC, 20005, (202) 347-2411.

See also Philip English Mackey's work in which he illustrates that some of the most vocal defenders of the death penalty in America a century ago were Christian clergymen: "An All Star Debate on Capital Punishment, Boston, 1854," Essex Institute Historical Collections 110 (July, 1974): pp. 181-199.

(4) In the 1980 "Statement on Capital Punishment," the U.S. Catholic Bishops state: "Allowing for the fact that Catholic teaching has accepted the principle that the state has the right to take the life of a person guilty of an extremely serious crime..."

The state's right to execute criminals is a long-standing teaching in the Catholic Church. Augustine(354-430) argued that the wicked might be "coerced by the sword" in order to protect the innocent, and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) declared the killing of "evildoers" lawful when "directed to the welfare of the whole community."

For a historical perspective on the Catholic Church's position supporting the government's right to use force against its citizens, see chapter 5 of Elaine Pagels Adam, Eve and the Serpent (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), pp. 98-126.

(5) These estimates, computed by Glenn L. Pierce and Michael L. Radelet, were based on an estimated population of 248,239,000 and utilized statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice, 1989 (supra note 4, at 48), and the U.S. Department of Commerce, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1989, pp. 78, 84 (1990). See Glenn L. Pierce and Michael L. Radelet, "The Role and Consequences of the Death Penalty in American Politics," New York University Review of Law and Social Change 18, no. 3 (1990 -1991): pp. 711-728, esp. p. 714.

(6) Paul Slovic, Baruch Fischoff & Sarah Lichtenstein, "Fact Versus Fears: Understanding Perceived Risk," in Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases Daniel Kahneman, Paul Slovic, and Amos Tversky, eds., (1982), p.467.

(7) See Pierce and Radelet, "The Role and Consequences of the Death Penalty in American Politics," op. cit., p.713.

(8) David von Drehle, "The Death Penalty: A Failure of Execution," Miami Herald, July 10, 1988. See also Robert L. Spangenberg and Elizabeth R. Walsh, "Capital Punishment of Life Imprisonment? Some Cost Considerations," Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review 23 (1989): pp. 45-58; Margot Garey, "The Cost of Taking a Life: Dollars and Sense of the Death Penalty," University of California-Davis Law Review 18 (1985): pp. 1221-1273; and Massachusetts Bar Association, "The Dollars and Human Costs of the Death Penalty," in a Special Issue on the Death Penalty, April 1992.

(9) Massachusetts Bar Association, "Costs of the Death Penalty."

* A maximum-security federal prison in Illinois.


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