Skip to main content

A Kidnapping Survivor on "Forgiving" Her Captors

In 1980, Debbie Morris was a 16 year-old high school junior who was kidnapped, raped, and beaten by Robert Lee Willie. Willie's story was portrayed by Sean Penn in the film "Dead Man Walking." She has written about her life in "Forgiving the Dead Man Walking." (Zondervan)



Date: NOVEMBER 02, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 110201np.217
Head: Debbie Morris
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:00

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Debbie Morris, was one of the victims of the killer portrayed by Sean Penn in the movie, "Dead Man Walking." Actually, Penn's character was a composite of convicted killers, including Robert Lee Willie, who kidnapped and raped Debbie Morris in 1980 when she was 16.

Her testimony helped convict him of an earlier crime, a murder, for which he was executed. Morris has written a memoir called "Forgiving the Dead Man Walking." Before we begin, I want to you to know that her description in this interview of her kidnapping is very disturbing.

Debbie Morris was parked by the river in her small hometown of Madisonville, Louisiana, with her boyfriend Mark went two men, Robert Lee Willie and Joseph Vaccaro (ph), approached the car. One of them stuck a hand through the window, pointed a revolver at Mark's head, and warned, don't do anything stupid.

People often wonder how they would react if they were in this predicament. Morris said her initial reaction was to be literally scared stiff.

DEBBIE MORRIS, AUTHOR, "FORGIVING THE DEAD MAN WALKING": I was stunned, yeah, I really know what it means to be scared stiff now. When they parked the car -- when they came to a stop outside of town and told Mark to get out of the car, I couldn't even move. He turned around to try to help me out of the car because I just literally could not move.

GROSS: Now, your boyfriend Mark tried to bargain with your kidnappers, you know, take my money, leave my girlfriend alone, just take my money and go. What did they do to him?

MORRIS: Well, at that time they just told him to shut up. They weren't in the mood to hear him at all, and I'm sure that they were more intimidated by him than they were by me because, you know, Mark's size was larger than either one of them. And so, I think that his presence made them very uncomfortable.

GROSS: So, for a while they put him in the trunk.

MORRIS: That's right, for a while they put him in the trunk of the car, eventually they drove us from Louisiana to Mobile, Alabama where they took Mark out of the trunk and they walked him back into the woods. They tied him to a tree, they stabbed him in the side, they cut his throat, and burned him with cigarettes. And then they actually shot him in the back of the head and left him there.

GROSS: And you were in the trunk at the time that they were doing that, they had later put you in the trunk. So, you heard the gunshots but had no idea of what really happened, but you assumed that he was dead.

MORRIS: Well, at first I guess I assumed the worst, and when they return to the car I asked them what they had done to him. And he told me that they just shot up in the air to scare him, and there was something that just made me believe that. I guess it was my own need for survival, so I did believe them at the time.

GROSS: Mark did survive, and we'll talk about that a little bit more later. But at this point after they had left him for dead you are on your own, and you had to figure out how to handle yourself and if you had any way of escape.

And I think your solution was to try to talk yourself out of this predicament, and to talk your abductors into believing that you were a real person, that they had to feel, I guess, empathy for you.

MORRIS: Well, that's right. I guess what I wanted to do was to try to control the situation through a conversation. I figured that if I could keep things sounding calm that they would remain calm, and you know, at the same time I wanted to try to make them see me as a real person and I just thought that if they knew me a little bit that they wouldn't be able to harm me. And I know that maybe now that sounds sort of irrational and very naÔve; however, it did work to my advantage.

GROSS: So, what would you say to them to convince them that you were real?

MORRIS: Well, I guess it started out really where they started asking me questions, and I had to decide was I going to answer them truthfully or not. Because they're asking me questions about things like my family, where I went to school, friends, and I didn't know at this time if I had just been abducted randomly or if they had been stalking me.

And so the main thing that I wanted to do was create a level of trust, you know, on their part in me; that I was afraid that if I lied to them and they knew it that they wouldn't trust me. And by getting them to trust me, I thought that maybe they would let their guard down a little bit, and that I would have a better opportunity to escape.

GROSS: Well, you know, one of the things they did while they had you in their captivity was to rape you several times.

MORRIS: That's right.

GROSS: And you had to decide should you try to fight them off -- did you have any chance of actually physically resisting them? And if not, what should you do? I mean, they wanted you to act like the you were really enjoying it to prove what good lovers they were. I mean, what kind of strategy did you take to survive that part of the abduction?

MORRIS: Well, during the first rape, you know, I was -- in the beginning of the rape I really was still in that state of shock. It was during that process of that rape that I think I came out of that fog, really, and realized what exactly was happening to me and I accepted what was happening to me at that point.

I didn't deny it and I made a choice right then that my survival was more important than anything that was going to happen to me in the meantime. And I just vowed that I would stay calm and that I would take whatever I had to take to be able to survive.

And, you know, at that time fighting them really was not an option. I can remember begging Robert Willie in the beginning, no, please don't do this to me. But they each had guns, and during the rape itself -- Robert Willie raped me first -- and during that rape, Joseph Vaccaro was driving the car while at the same time holding his arms over the seat of the car and holding a gun to my head.

So, at that point I really was -- I was more focused on the gun that was resting - I mean I could actually feel it on my head. So, I was more focused on that than I actually was on the rape. And in a way that was a good thing.

GROSS: So that you didn't have to think about the rape.

MORRIS: Exactly.

GROSS: But it was a good thing especially since the gun never went off.

MORRIS: Right, well, exactly. And now, you know, the gun -- in the long run, the gun caused less harm to me than Robert Willie did. So, the fact that, you know, my mind was sort of taken off of what was actually occurring during the rape and focused on the gun, you know, I think really was to my advantage in the long run.

GROSS: When they were asking you questions and you're trying to figure out how honest to be so that you could create a level of trust, what kind of questions where they asking you?

MORRIS: Well, they first started asking me things about my family -- did I have any brothers and sisters? Where did we live? They wanted to know exactly where I lived.

GROSS: Did you tell them?

MORRIS: Yes, I did. I did. I was afraid not to tell them. I was terrified of these men, and I guess, you know, in a way, like I said, you know, things -- really strange things go through your mind in a situation like this, and I didn't know what they already knew about me. And I didn't want to do anything to make them angry at me, so when they asked me where I lived I told them.

And, you know, I ended up asking them where they were from just to try to keep the conversation going, and they told me. You know, it turned out that ended up carrying over into the "who do you know from there" kind of conversation. And it turned out that we knew several people -- that we had several people that we knew in common.

GROSS: Do you think that was helpful in creating some kind of bond that they felt toward you?

MORRIS: I think in a way it was because, you know, we could actually have a conversation about some of the people that they knew, you know, as well as I did. And these were not people that were exactly mutual friends. They were, you know -- most people in my area if they were anywhere close to Robert Willie's age, they knew of him.

And they only wanted to be around him if they were participating in the same kind of things that he would do. People knew that Robert Willie was trouble, he had been in trouble since he was a kid in school.

So, the people that I knew were not friends with him by any stretch of the imagination, but they were still people that, you know, were from Robert Willie's home town that he had grown up with.

GROSS: Robert Willie kept asking you if -- basically if he was a good lover. So, I mean how did you respond toth at? You know, you try to be honest, but there's a limit to how credible you can be if you ask -- answered that affirmatively.

MORRIS: I told him he was disgusting. I told him that there was absolutely no way that I could ever enjoy what he was doing to me.

GROSS: Now, you weren't worried there of making him angry? Because your playing this thing in your mind like, how should I play them so that they spare my life? And you didn't want to make them angry with you, and here you are saying something that's bound to make him feel bad about himself.

MORRIS: Again though, it was honest, you know, I wasn't critiquing his skills as much as I was saying that I was absolutely disgusted at what he was doing to me. That he was forcing me into something like this, and I really think that, you know, Robert Willie was not crazy.

He was, you know, he was stable intellectually, and he would have known if I would have pretended and said, oh, yes that was wonderful. You know, he knew -- I cried throughout the rape. So, he knew that it wasn't anything I was enjoying.

GROSS: Something else that you did during this, you know, seemingly endless car ride that they were taking you on, heading toward Florida from Louisiana. They kept playing their favorite record, "Foghat Live," and you had a splitting headache so you kept telling them to turn down the volume and you finally turned it off yourself. And that was, I thought, kind of an interesting thing to do. Did you do that as a strategy or could you just not take Foghat anymore?

MORRIS: I just couldn't really take it anymore. That was after -- that was actually on the way back. Well, they played it, I guess, both times it was actually on the return that I turned it off. We had already let Mark go -- they had already taken Mark out into the woods and shot Mark.

And they seemed to be a little more relaxed after Mark was out of the picture. I think, you know, they knew that they had a much better chance of being able to control me than Mark and me. And so, you know, at some point after I had asked them several times to turn it down and they didn't, I just reached over and turned it off.

And I didn't do it in a way to -- as to, you know, really go against, you know, what they wanted to do, to try to anger them, you know. It had been a little while since I asked them to turn it down, and I just finally reached over and turned it off. I didn't realize that they wouldn't know how to turn it back on.

GROSS: Did anything that you actually did during the period that you were kidnapped -- was any of that like what you expected you would do? I mean I think a lot of people kind of imagine if I am a victim, I'm going to do this, or this is what I was taught to do if I was ever kidnapped or raped or mugged.

And there's a lot of, you know, good and bad advice that circulates about what to do if you're being victimized. So, is the way you handled yourself anything like what you were -- what you thought you would do if you ever found yourself in that situation?

MORRIS: Well, first of all, I had never even imagined a situation like this. I had never even imagined that I would ever be kidnapped. However, I can remember seeing things on television where a woman was being raped where she fought and ended up being hurt or something. And I can remember in my mind saying, don't fight it, that's not the worst thing that can happen to you. It will be much worse if you get killed.

And so, I can remember thinking at some point that if this ever happened to me that I would try to just relax and let that happen because I knew that it could get much worse. And so, I was able to do that, I was able to stay calm. And the other thing -- I mean I never imagined myself having these ordinary conversations with someone who would harm me or tried to harm me in the way that they were.

But one of the things that I did do is something that I could have imagined myself -- just knowing the kind of person I was. That was at one point when they had stopped the car, after Robert Willie raped me for the second time, I tried to throw a handkerchief out of the car, and I don't even know why because, I guess, you know, if somebody had seen that there's no way they would ever have thought, oh, this must be the handkerchief of a kidnapper.

But just -- I guess just to validate my story later I could say, well, I dropped my handkerchief as a clue out at this area. And Robert Willie caught me doing that and was extremely angry with me.

GROSS: My guest is Debbie Morris. Her new memoir is called "Forgiving the Dead Man Walking." We'll talk more after our break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Debbie Morris, and her new memoir is called "Forgiving the Dead Man Walking." She was abducted and raped by Robert Lee Willie and Joseph Vaccaro, and Robert Lee Willie was the person who was depicted by the Sean Penn character in the movie "Dead Man Walking." Actually, the Sean Penn character was a composite of two people one of which -- one of whom was Robert Lee Willie.

How did your abductors finally let you go?

MORRIS: They finally just decided to let me go. There had been the involvement of their drug dealer in the course of this production, and when he finally realized that I was being held against my will he sort of panicked over it, and said that he didn't want anything to do with it, and that they had to bring me home.

I don't know exactly why Robert Willie complied with that because he had already murdered one girl three days earlier, and he thought he had murdered my boyfriend at this time. So, I think that, accompanied with the fact that he was starting to experience some conflict about what to do with me, he had originally planned to murder me, and then through the course of the abduction he did soften towards me, and I think that he did decide in a way that he liked me.

And -- so, I think all of this together just made him decide to go ahead and let me go. So, they actually drove me to a location just outside of my hometown and let me out of the car.

GROSS: Did they make you promise that you'd never talk to the police?

MORRIS: Oh, they did. They made me promise that I wouldn't go to the police. Robert Willie even went as far as to say things like, now everything's cool between us now, and I never did anything really to hurt you, and you know, things like, if we see each other walking down the street we can stop and talk, can't we?

And to that, you know, I said - well, I first told him that I did promise I wouldn't go to the police. I lied. But I also told him when he asked if we could stop on the street and talk to each other that I didn't think that would be wise idea that that might make people suspicious, and it just wouldn't really be in our best interests. And he said, oh yeah, that's right, that's right, you know, I agree with you.

And so, when he let me go one of the last he said to me was, you know, I'm letting you go because I fell in love with you. And he let me go.

GROSS: Now, you promised him that you would never tell the police. Did you believe yourself as you were saying it?

MORRIS: Oh, no. Not in a hundred years, no way. I intended the entire time to go straight to the police. In fact, during the first rape I made a conscious effort to remember as many details as I could. I remember -- I mean I remember things that amazed the FBI, and the entire time I knew as soon as I got away I was going to the police. But, you know, I wasn't going to tell him that.

GROSS: So, you went to -- to call the sheriff. Two deputies came to your house, and you ended up throwing them out of your house. What did they say that made you so angry?

MORRIS: Well, I could tell that they didn't believe what I was trying to tell them, and you know, I was mostly interested in finding Mark. And so, I kept skipping ahead in the story saying, I know where Mark is, you got to start looking for him. And they would say, now, slow down, slow down, now let's start from the beginning and go through the whole story.

And, you know, so I finally decided to back up and tell them the whole story. And they stopped me at one point and advised me of the problems associated with not telling the truth to law enforcement agents. They just assumed that I was a runaway, and I think that they thought that this was my way of getting myself out of a heap of trouble that I would have been in if I had really run away.

And so, I -- that was just the final straw, I just, I guess all of the calmness and the control that I had had for the last 30-something hours just exploded at that point. I just snapped, and I started screaming at them and I think that that was the first time that the anger and the shame and the frustration associated with what happened to me was able to come out some. And I just went to my door and threw it open and said that they needed to leave my house.

GROSS: What happened next? I think a local police officer came over.

MORRIS: That was about the time our local town police officer showed up at my door, and I just started blurting things out to him -- important information that the other officers wouldn't listen to at the time.

And as soon as I said their names, you know, I told our local town police officer, I said, I even know their names. And he said, what are they Debbie? And I told him, and when I did the two deputies that were standing there looked at each other and one of them said, oh my God, she's telling the truth.

GROSS: Because they recognized...

MORRIS: Right, they recognized Robert Willie's name. I don't know that they recognized Joe Vaccaro's name at the time.

GROSS: Debbie Morris, her new memoir is called "Forgiving the Dead Man Walking." We'll talk more in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with Debbie Morris. In her new memoir "Forgiving the Dead Man Walking," she writes about how she was kidnapped and raped by Robert Lee Willie in 1980 when she was 16. The character portrayed by Sean Penn in the film "Dead Man Walking" was based, in part, on Willie.

Morris was kidnapped with her boyfriend Mark. Willie and his partner, Joseph Vaccaro, shot Mark and left him for dead. After the kidnappers released Morris, she told the police they had to find Mark.

So, the police found your boyfriend Mark. He had survived the torture and the knifing and the gunshot to his head. What shape was he in?

MORRIS: At the time they found him I think that he was conscious but barely. I think his eyes were open, the way they described it to me was that he was -- he was sort of in shock because of his injuries and blood loss, and things like that. And he obviously was terrified, he was -- he was very disoriented.

What he had actually -- they actually found him, I can't remember exactly how many yards, but probably close to a hundred yards away from the tree where he had been shot. He had been able to chew the rope from his hands and he had to drag himself looking for the road. He later told me that he could hear the cars -- he could hear the traffic, and what he was hearing was the traffic on Interstate 10 off in the distance and it was that going through the woods.

And he could hear that, and he was trying to make his way out to the road. But he was very disoriented because of his injuries and very confused. So, it appeared that he had just sort of made a big circle and ended up not being able to go any further. He was paralyzed, at this point, on his entire right side due to the injury to his brain where the bullet entered the left side of his head.

GROSS: What shape is he in now?

MORRIS: He has made very close to a full recovery. I don't know that he ever completely regained the strength in his right side, and I don't think that he ever totally regained his weight back, and his ability, you know, his ability to use his right hand, for instance, as well as he did before the kidnapping. However, if you saw him walking down the street you wouldn't know that anything like this had ever happened to him.

GROSS: That's remarkable.

MORRIS: Yes, it is.

GROSS: How long did it take until the police found your abductors, Joseph Vaccaro and Robert Lee Willie?

MORRIS: It was several days later. Let's see -- they returned me on Sunday morning -- I think it was Wednesday, maybe. So, three to four days later was when they actually found them in Arkansas.

GROSS: And I think they confessed to your abduction.

MORRIS: They did, eventually, confess to it. They confessed to everything, but when it got to the point of confessing to the murder of Faith Hathaway, they confessed to having a role in it, but they each blamed the other; in actually being the one to stab her.

GROSS: Faith Hathaway was the woman who they had abducted and murdered three days before they got their hands on you.

MORRIS: That's right.

GROSS: So, now you were asked to testify in the Faith Hathaway murder case, but you were told that you couldn't explain that you knew Willie and Vaccaro because they had abducted you. Why couldn't you explain the circumstances that enabled you to hear them speak?

MORRIS: It's hard for me to go back and be able to describe all of the exact, you know, describe it in legal terms, but basically the murder was being tried separately from my abduction and rape. And so, you couldn't enter other crimes into the testimony -- so, into this trial for the murder.

So, I had to testify and talk about a conversation that I had with them, but I couldn't explain to the jury how I, you know, how I ended up in their company. And that was extremely humiliating for me because, you know, I could only imagine what people must have been thinking about why in the world I would be hanging around men like this.

GROSS: But you did what you had to do.

MORRIS: I did. I did. Because the most important thing for me was that these two men go to prison forever.

GROSS: And so, they were both sentenced to life several times over, and was it just Robert Lee Willie who was given the death sentence?

MORRIS: Robert Lee Willie was the only one who was sentenced to death.

GROSS: Why just him, why not Vaccaro?

MORRIS: Well, there are -- there are different explanations for that. One had to do with jury selection. They were both tried, they were tried simultaneously but in separate courtrooms for the murder of Faith Hathaway.

And the juries were selected from the same jury pool, and there is one theory that there was a juror who had been turned down for Robert Willie's jury, but had been selected for Joseph Vacarro's jury, and that may not be completely accurate -- it may be the other way around.

But anyway, some people think that this one juror who couldn't vote for the death penalty in Joseph Vacarro's case was what made the difference because, you know, you can be sentenced -- you can be found guilty but then it's my understanding that there has to be a unanimous vote for a person to be sentenced to death. And they couldn't come -- they couldn't get that in terms of Vacarro's case.

GROSS: You had to testify with your abductors seated in the courtroom. What was it like to having to describe what they did to you with them there listening?

MORRIS: That was one of the most difficult things I've ever had to do. It was extremely humiliating -- by the time we got to the rape trials Robert Willie had already been sentenced to death. So, he had nothing to lose, and he did really disgusting, disrespectful things to me in the courtroom, such as he would blow kisses to me, he made noises like he was being sexually aroused when I had to recount the details of the rape, and especially when I had to use some of the language involved because I needed to repeat things word for word the way he and Joseph Vacarro said them to me.

He would lick his lips, and he was also very disrespectful in addition to the parents of Faith Hathaway, the girl who had been murdered, and he would call out and say things to them in the courtroom about their daughter. And you know, he did the same to my mother.

And he also, at one point, Robert Willie looked at Mark Brewster in the courtroom and he drew his finger across his neck as if he were cutting his throat again. So it was extremely difficult and humiliating. Sometimes I look back at it now that I'm an adult and I don't know how I was able to withstand it and go through it.

GROSS: How would you respond when Willie was doing that? He obviously wanted to get to you in some way, he wanted to get some reaction from you, would you react?

MORRIS: I didn't even look at him, I didn't react at all. I just pretended as if he were not there.

GROSS: So, you were -- you got a victory in the justice system in the sense that, you know, Willie was -- was given several life sentences plus the death sentence and he was executed. And Vacarro is what? Serving several life sentences?

MORRIS: That's right. Joseph Vacarro got the same exact sentence as Robert Willie did except in place of the death sentence he received another life sentence.

GROSS: So, how did you feel when the trials where over and they were given the harshest treatment that the criminal justice system could mete out?

MORRIS: I felt very satisfied at the, you know, sentences. I was extremely relieved that it was over, and, you know, as far as Robert Willie getting the death sentence I knew all long that that's what the prosecutor was aiming for.

And I guess, you know, I never gave a whole lot of thought to the death penalty at the time because during that time, no one had been put to death in the state of Louisiana in years. And so, really, the death penalty was something that was more just words on a piece of paper, and it was my assurance that he would never be paroled again, and that was just fine with me.

GROSS: My guest is Debbie Morris. She has written a memoir about her kidnapping and rape called "Forgiving the Dead Man Walking." We'll talk more after our break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Debbie Morris. She has written a memoir called "Forgiving the Dead Man Walking," and Debbie Morris was abducted and raped by Robert Lee Willie and Joe Vacarro. And Robert Lee Willie was the character who was depicted by Sean Penn in the movie "Dead Man Walking." Although, really, that Sean Penn character was a composite of Willie and another killer.

Debbie Morris, after the sentencing was done everybody told you, well, okay, it's over now, Resume your life. Could you do that?

MORRIS: I tried. You know, I tried to just go back to high school and act as if things were over, but for me it just really wasn't over. The end of the trials didn't mean the end of the ordeal for me. It was still very much alive and playing in my mind.

And I guess after the trials were over was when a lot of my problems really set in, because as long as I was testifying in the trials, I really was focusing on things other than what happened to me, the pain that had been caused me, and the terror that I had been through.

And also during the trials I had a sense of value, I had a sense of self-worth that I think I had lost during the kidnapping and during the rape because people kept telling me things like how strong I was and things like how important I was to making this case.

And so, it gave me some value that I really needed, I think, to get through the initial weeks and the initial months. However, it took the focus away from just how scared I really was on the inside, and it made it harder for me to talk about because I started wanting to be that hero that they were making me out to be. But I really wasn't feeling that way.

GROSS: I want ask you about something very difficult that you had to do. You know, your boyfriend Mark had a long period of hospitalization and rehab after he recovered from his near-death experience, and he wanted you with him as much as possible. And at some point you realized that you had to get on what your life, which required some time on your own, and also, you kind of wanted to break up with him.

Breaking up is always hard, but I mean when your boyfriend is lying -- recovering from this, you know, near murder, an experience that you kind of had together, it must have been so hard to figure out a way to change the relationship.

MORRIS: That's still the hardest part of all of this for me to talk about, also. Yeah, you know, there came a point when I realized that, you know, I needed to swim or sink. And in order to be able to move on with my own healing, I couldn't continue to go there day after day after day and help him in his recovery.

It wasn't only helping him with things like the physical therapy and the speech therapy, it was constantly trying to keep the spirits up. And Mark was someone who, before this happened, was so carefree -- you never saw him down in the dumps or depressed.

You know, that just wasn't part of his personality at all, he was always so pleasant and optimistic, and it was so difficult for me to see him like this. And at the same time, I was battling my own depression over what had happened to me, and trying to hide that and trying to be strong for all of these people who needed me to.

At the same time, you know, that I knew I needed to get away from that. I couldn't go there every day and continue to do that because it was depressing me so much -- it was something that was incredibly difficult for me to do. I felt so much guilt, I felt like I was abandoning Mark, and I still battle with that sometimes. It's been the hardest thing for me to be able to forgive myself for.

But I can look back at it now that I'm an adult, and I know that that was such a huge amount of pressure for a 16-year-old, and, I guess, I wonder where the adults were. Why they didn't step in and why they couldn't see what was happening with me.

GROSS: Debbie Morris is my guest, and her new memoir is called "Forgiving the Dead Man Walking." And the "dead man walking" refers to the character that Sean Penn portrayed in the film "Dead Man Walking." Sean Penn portrayed a composite of people, and one of those people in the composite was one of the abdcctors who kidnapped and raped Debbie Morris.

When one of your abductors, Robert Lee Willie, was waiting on death row Sister Helen Prejean became his spiritual adviser. And she wrote a book, "Dead Man Walking," and the movie was based on her book. How did you feel when you found out that Robert Lee Willie had a spiritual adviser who was working so closely with him and who was also working on his behalf to stop the execution?

MORRIS: I had a mixed reaction. Mostly, I was resentful of that, and I think that, you know, usually anger and resentment stemmed from other feelings. And in this case, for me, it was from, you know, the fact that I was feeling really lonely during this time. I felt like I was going through something this traumatic and this serious all by myself.

And I felt that, you know, it was unfair that I was alone without anyone I could really confide in and talk to about my real feelings surrounding this and that Robert Willie had someone there to be with him. You know, so again, I sort of blamed Robert Willie for causing more pain in my life.

But I was resentful of Sister Helen, you know. Part of it was that, you know, by this time I had already felt that God had turned his back on me by letting something like this happen to me, and then I looked at Sister Helen - and, you know, the town that I grew up in was predominantly Catholic -- South Louisiana is predominantly Catholic.

I had known lots of nuns and lots of priests, and I had been Catholic as a child, and so here was Sister Helen, you know, one of the people that I thought I had always been able to trust and count on, and she was taking the other side, at least that's the way I looked at it then.

GROSS: What did you expect to feel when Robert Lee Willie was executed, and what did you feel when it happened?

MORRIS: I expected to feel relief. I expected to feel a sense of closure and a sense of peace being restored to my life, and I expected to be able to then finally have the confidence and desire to move on and get on with the rest of my life, and put this behind me.

GROSS: Did you feel...

MORRIS: That didn't really happen. What I felt instead when I woke up and found that Robert Willie had indeed been executed was just numb, you know, I just felt numb. I didn't have any excitement, and I didn't have any joy at all.

There was some relief, I believe, just in knowing that finally I could go to sleep at night without worrying that I would, you know, be awakened to him in my room or something. Because he did make threats that if he ever got out of prison -- if he ever escaped from prison that he would come back and find me and kill me.

And so I, you know, I still was very much afraid of him. And so, I finally did feel a little bit of relief that I didn't have to be afraid of him anymore.

GROSS: My guest is Debbie Morris. She has written a memoir about her kidnapping and rape called "Forgiving the Dead Man Walking." We'll talk more after our break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Debbie Morris. She was kidnapped and raped in 1980 by Robert Lee Willie. The killer portrayed by Sean Penn in the film "Dead Man Walking" was based, in part, on Willie. She's written a memoir called "Forgiving the Dead Man Walking."

When and why you decide to contact Sister Helen Prejean?

MORRIS: I had thought about it many times over the years. But I finally decided to contact her after the movie "Dead Man Walking" had come out. I hadn't seen the movie yet -- I had planned to see the movie, I just hadn't had the opportunity yet. And, I was having a whole lot of resentment and anger that was coming up again in my life that I thought was over.

I thought I had put all of it in the past and dealt with it, and when the movie came out and I realized that I was angry all over again. But this time I wasn't angry at Robert Willie anymore as much as I was angry at people like Sister Helen, and people like Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, you know, people who were keeping the story alive, so I thought.

GROSS: In showing empathy for him? Or...

MORRIS: You know, it didn't even matter as much how -- you know, what feelings they had for him, it was just that as long as they were out writing books and making movies it made it impossible for me to forget about what had happened. And, you know, I accepted -- I had accepted a long time ago that there were people out there who felt sorry for Robert Willie or who didn't think that he should be executed.

You know, I, along the way, had had my own feelings of ambivalence about the death penalty. Especially when I realized that I received no comfort really and no healing after the execution. But I still was at the point in my life when the movie came out that I just wanted it to be in the past. And it also angered me, in the case of the movie, that there were more people who were going to profit financially off of other people's pain again.

GROSS: So, you contacted Helen Prejean at about the time of the movie. What did you most want to talk with her about? Or what did you talk about?

MORRIS: Well, I guess I wanted to call her and talk to her just to get to know her. You know, by this point, you know, I was trying really hard to respect what she was doing and to feel good about what she was doing. Especially because, you know, I felt like she was being directed by God to do this.

And as a Christian myself, I knew that God's will was more important than my will. And, I guess, I felt that if I just met Sister Helen face to face and I could genuinely feel that she was trying to do God's will in her life by this ministry that she had. Then I could be more accepting of it, and it would be easier for me to let go of the anger and resentment because I didn't want to be angry and I didn't want to be resentful towards her.

GROSS: And did meeting her help?

MORRIS: Meeting her really helped, it made all the difference, you know, just in the phone conversation that we had. You know, when I called her I wasn't calling her in a confrontational way -- I wasn't angry when I called her, and that wasn't my point. So, she heard that, initially, so she didn't have to be defensive at all with me and, you know, she didn't have to be afraid of where the conversation was going to lead.

You know, she told me that later -- or even in the conversation that she sensed a wholeness in my voice, that she sensed a healing tone in my voice. And she was very glad that I had called, and so we ended up getting together in person and we just shared some of the things that we knew about Robert Willie.

She was very interested in the details of my story. She had never heard all of the details of my story, and I think she was more interested in, even though it was painful for her, you know, it's always painful for Sister Helen when she hears about what the victims have gone through.

But I think by this time, you know, she knew she was ready to hear that...

GROSS: It's not that she thought he was a good guy or anything.

MORRIS: Exactly. She knew the kind of person he was probably, you know, better than most people. Maybe not better than me, but probably better than most people. And so, you know, she was ready to hear some of those things, but I think she was most intrigued and impressed and grateful. I think, for the, you know, just the healing that I had gone through, and the strength that I had been able to draw from what had happened to me. She was very encouraged by the peace in my voice.

GROSS: What are your thoughts now on the death penalty? Not many people have had the experience of having someone who committed a crime against them be executed, you're one of the few who can actually speak about this.

MORRIS: I'm still somewhat ambivalent. It's difficult for me, because the person who harmed me and that I was so afraid of is dead now. And, you know, I said earlier and I would be dishonest if I didn't say that I, you know, I had experienced some relief from that. However, if I were sitting on a jury today there's no way that I could vote to send someone to their death. So, I guess I lean more toward being opposed to the death penalty.

GROSS: But you're still ambivalent.

MORRIS: Somewhat, and I guess maybe that -- it just goes back to my own feelings of knowing that, you know, it did help me to sleep better at night once Robert Willie was dead. But I can say now that I don't think that's just cause to execute someone.

GROSS: Debbie Morris, thank you very much for talking with us.

MORRIS: Thank you very much for having me on your show.

GROSS: Debbie Morris' new memoir is called "Forgiving the Dead Man Walking."

I'm Terry Gross.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: Debbie Morris
High: In 1980, Debbie Morris was a 16 year old high school junior who was kidnapped, raped and beaten by Robert Lee Willie. Willie's story was portrayed by Sean Penn in the film "Dead Man Walking." She has written about her life in "Forgiving the Dead Man Walking."
Spec: Violence; Death; Capital Punishment; Rape; Crime; Religion

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Debbie Morris
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue