Robert Lee Willie

Louisiana State Penitentiary, where Willie was confined and executed

Robert Lee Willie (January 2, 1958 - December 28, 1984) was a Louisiana man who was convicted of the May 28, 1980 kidnap, rape, and murder of 18-year-old Faith Hathaway. He was sentenced to death and held on Death Row at Louisiana State Penitentiary prior to his execution in an electric chair.

Sister Helen Prejean, a teacher and one of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Medaille from New Orleans, began to write to him and later served as his spiritual adviser. In her book Dead Man Walking (1993), she explored her experiences with men on Death Row and the basis for her growing opposition to the death penalty. The book was adapted as a 1995 film of the same name, starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. The book was also adapted as an opera, first produced by the San Francisco Opera in 2000.


Willie and Joseph Vaccaro picked up Faith Hathaway, who was walking home after celebrating with friends the night before she was to enter the U.S. Army. They drove her to a remote area, raped her, and stabbed her to death.[1] They left her body at Frickes Cave, a borrow pit, south of the parish seat Franklinton, Louisiana, along Highway 25 and near the Bogue Chitto River.[2]

Eight days later, on May 31, 1980,[2] the pair attacked a 20-year-old male, Mark Brewster, and 16-year-old female, Debbie Cuevas, both from Madisonville.[3] The men raped the girl and stabbed and shot the man. They dropped her off after they visited another person's trailer home. Brewster survived his attack, but suffered paralysis from the waist down from his injuries.[2][3]

After being convicted, Willie also pleaded guilty to stealing $10,000 worth of marijuana from and murdering Dennis Hemby in 1978. He committed this crime with his cousin, Perry Wayne Taylor.[3] Willie and Vaccaro were arrested in Arkansas.[2]


In court Willie presented a hard case, saying that he had enjoyed raping Hathaway. Cuevas testified in court against him. At the trials, Willie and Vaccaro presented disputing accounts as to which man had what role in the crimes. Willie was convicted of the kidnapping, rape and murder of Hathaway and sentenced to death.[2]

After being convicted, he pleaded guilty to the robbery and murder of Dennis Hembly in 1978, committed with his cousin Perry Wayne Taylor. They stole $10,000 worth of marijuana. Taylor pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to 21 years. Willie was sentenced to six life sentences in total.[3]

Vaccaro received two life sentences for his part in the Hathaway and Cuevas / Brewster crimes. As of 2001 he was serving time in a federal prison in Kansas.[2]


Willie was the son of Elizabeth Oalman of Covington, and had four brothers. In interviews, he recounted a life filled with drugs, alcohol and violence. His father John Willie, 53, served 27 years at Angola for cattle theft, aggravated battery, and manslaughter.[3]

Death RowEdit

In 1982, Sister Helen Prejean began to write to Willie, at the request of the prison chaplain. A teacher in New Orleans, she was one of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Medaille and had acted as spiritual adviser to another inmate on Death Row.

Willie was held on Death Row pending his execution, as appeals made their way through the courts. As was customary for such inmates, he was isolated socially and unable to work or participate in prison programs. After some time, Sister Prejean began to visit him and became his spiritual adviser. As she recounted in a book (see below), she worked to acknowledge him as a human being, help him acknowledge his crimes and reconcile with God.


Willie was the 32nd person executed in the United States since 1977. That year, judicial executions resumed after the US Supreme Court had ruled that states needed to revise their death penalty statutes to meet constitutional concerns. As of February 2018, Willie’s execution is the only one successfully carried out in the post-Furman era between Christmas and New Year.

Willie was the sixth man in Louisiana to be executed in a 13 month-period.[3] He asked Sister Prejean to be with him the day of the execution; he was also visited by his mother and brothers. Sister Prejean attended the execution at his request; he winked at her before the end.[1] Prior to his execution, he said to Hathaway's mother and stepfather, Elizabeth and Vern Harvey, who were there as witnesses, "I hope you get some relief from my death."[3] He also said, "Killing people is wrong. That's why you've put me to death. It makes no difference whether it's citizens, countries, or governments. Killing is wrong."[3]

Afterward Sister Prejean said that Willie had expressed remorse before his death. He had also "told her he would wink at her as a sign 'that I'm free inside and God's taking care of me'."[3][failed verification] Yet Debbie Cuevas recounts in her book that Willie never felt remorse:[4]"Did he show any real remorse before he died?" I asked ... [Helen Prejean] shook her head sadly. "No. And you know, Debbie, I'm not sure he was capable of that."'


Feeling that victim's families were overlooked in the criminal justice system, the Harveys founded a group, Parents of Murdered Children, to help others. They have worked to ensure that families are given more information about court proceedings as well. They have continued to support the death penalty.[3]

Sister Prejean wrote a non-fiction book Dead Man Walking (1993) about her encounters with Willie and Elmo Patrick Sonnier, the first convicted murderer for whom she had served as spiritual adviser, and with personnel in the prison system. She explored the effects of holding people on Death Row and being involved in executions for guards, chaplains and other officials. She has become an advocate to abolish the death penalty.

Her book was adapted for a 1995 film of the same name, starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. The character Matthew Poncelet, played by Penn in the film, and his crime, were drawn from Willie and Sonnier. The book was also adapted as an opera by the same name, first produced in 2000 by the San Francisco Opera.

Debbie Cuevas later married and had a son and a daughter. Known then as Debbie Morris, she still struggled to come to terms with her experience. She eventually forgave both Willie and Vaccaro for their crimes against her. In a memoir, Forgiving the Dead Man Walking: Only One Woman Can Tell the Entire Story (1998), she tells of her spiritual journey. She writes that she had decided to forgive Willie for the crimes he committed. After her book was published, Morris began writing to Vaccaro in prison.[2] Through this period, Morris also established a friendship with Sister Prejean. Morris opposes capital punishment. She has said in her book that she believed her testimony contributed to Willie's being sentenced to death and executed.[4]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b "LOUISIANA KILLER IS PUT TO DEATH" (Archive). Associated Press at the New York Times. December 29, 1984. Retrieved on May 28, 2016.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Johnson Jr., Allen. "Forgiving Her Rapists" (Archive). Gambit Weekly (2001-03-27). Retrieved on 2007-11-22.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j DeParle, Jason. "Victim's parents watch Willie die" (Archive). The Times-Picayune. December 28, 1984. Retrieved on May 28, 2016.
  4. ^ a b Morris, Debbie. "Forgiving the dead man walking". Zondervan (2000-07-21). Retrieved on 2017-12-25.

External linksEdit