Real-life "Dead Man Walking' victim -- who lives now in Northern Kentucky -- writes about her journey toward personal peace

Friday, September 25, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Debbie Morris in the yard of her Union. Ky., home
(Jeff Swinger photo)

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Debbie Morris has lived half her life with the inescapable memory of her rape and kidnapping by Robert Willie, the man Sean Pean portrayed in the film Dead Man Walking.

She'll never forget the horrendous act, but Mrs. Morris has learned to forgive.

"There's just not a day that goes by that, in some way, I don't think about it. It doesn't cause me pain anymore," the 34-year-old Union (Boone County) woman says.

"It's part of my life that I really am at peace with. I accept it. All of the stuff that went along with it made me the person that I am today, and I like myself today. It's very rare I'll ever wake up with a nightmare anymore."


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  • What: Debbie Morris will discuss and sign her book Forgiving the Dead Man Walking (Zondervan; $19.99).

  • When/where: 7-8 p.m. Oct. 29, Barnes & Noble, 7663 Mall Road, Florence. 647-6400.

  • When/where: 7-8 p.m. Nov. 12, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Rookwood Pavilion, 2692 Madison Road, Norwood. 396-8960.
  • Those nightmares began to subside as the woman's anger at Mr. Willie evolved into forgiveness. She tells the story of that journey in her new book, Forgiving the Dead Man Walking (Zondervan; $19.99), hoping it inspires others to forgive and find peace.

    These days, however, her household is anything but peaceful. The phone rings constantly with requests for media interviews and book tours. (She's on the cover of the October Ladies Home Journal).

    Although Mrs. Morris and her experience are not mentioned in Sister Helen Prejean's book Dead Man Walking (Vintage; $13) or the movie with the same title, her testimony helped seal Mr. Willie's fate. A minor in 1980, her name was unknown to the public outside of her Louisiana hometown. Nonetheless, she dreaded the publicity she faced.

    Eighteen years later, now that she has gone public about her ordeal, Mrs. Morris finds herself in the media spotlight again. She juggles interviews around her 1-year-old daughter Courtney's naps, while her husband, Brad, or her younger sister, Dionne Cuevas, watches their 4-year-old son, Conner.

    "I knew I needed to do something," Mrs. Morris said. "I prayed a lot, asking God what is it I'm supposed to do to make something positive come of it? I didn't have writing a book in mind at all."

    It was Sister Prejean, Mr. Willie's spiritual adviser, who encouraged her to write a book. Her relationship with Sister Prejean has evolved too, from resentment over the nun's support of Mr. Willie to friendship.

    Mrs. Morris and her husband, a pilot, have lived in Northern Kentucky since 1996. She started writing the book in June 1997 and finished last February. A member of Florence Baptist Church, she has spoken at her church and some local and national women's conferences about her experience. subhead:Torturous 36 hours rbody:

    R.L. Willie
    In 1980, Debbie Cuevas was 16 and living in Madisonville, La., when two men abducted her and her boyfriend, Mark Brewster, at gunpoint as they drank milkshakes in Mark's car along the town's riverfront. During the 36-hour crime spree, the men, Mr. Willie and Joseph Vaccaro, shot and left Mr. Brewster for dead. (He survived). They raped Debbie three times, terrorized her with death threats, then let her go.

    She later testified against Mr. Willie, putting up a solid front. She didn't cry.

    "At first, I tried to be the little hero everybody made me out to be," she recalled.

    After the trials ended -- with convictions or guilty pleas -- in November 1980, her anger began to surface.

    "I was angry at God. I was angry at my family. I was angry at friends because they just went on with their lives," Mrs. Morris said. "It seemed like nobody knew how to take care of me. It wasn't their fault. I don't blame them for that. My family made the mistake of listening to me when I said I'm fine."

    An honor student, her grades started to fall. She dropped out of high school her senior year, depressed and overwhelmed with life.

    She started drinking.

    Mrs. Morris sought counseling twice, in the spring of 1981 and in 1988, when she admitted herself to a chemical abuse hospital to treat her drinking problem.

    "I didn't hate him'

    The notion of forgiving Mr. Willie first presented itself before he was executed on Dec. 28, 1984, at Louisiana State Penitentiary.

    "I was having a really hard time dealing with knowing his execution was about to happen. A lot of it stemmed from so many people around me saying, "Aren't you happy? Aren't you excited this guy is finally going to fry?' I had a lot of conflict about knowing someone was about to die, and that I had had a role in it.

    "At the same time, I can honestly say the thought of him dying did give me some relief," Mrs. Morris said. "When I knew he was dead, I felt safer."

    Forgiveness did not come instantly. She took the first step the night before his execution.

    "I acknowledged that I didn't hate him," Mrs. Morris said. "I didn't want him to have pain in his death. I asked God to just take the anger from me."

    But how was she able to forgive someone who had done such horrible things to her?

    "Forgiveness is not something we do for other people. We do it for ourselves. God tells us we need to forgive . . . It was the only way I could let go of the pain and the suffering and the horror and the nightmares."

    The process of forgiving Mr. Willie, her family, God and herself continued as she attended her church and Bible study. The lessons spoke to her.

    "The unforgiveness was just really standing in the way of a better relationship with God, and I desired that in my life," she said.

    Like everything else in life, there can be setbacks. Her anger and resentment built again as Sister Prejean's book (1993) and the movie (1995) came out. She resented Sister Prejean for writing a book about her work with Mr. Willie. She felt the nun characterized him in a more positive light than he deserved.

    When Mrs. Morris heard about the movie, she was angry that people were going to make money off of what happened, when Mark Brewster's family still struggled to recover financially from his medical bills.

    She talked with Sister Prejean, who lives in New Orleans, in 1996. "I wanted to know that she was real genuine about what she was doing," Mrs. Morris said. "I wanted to know she really did care about the victims involved in these crimes, too."

    Her impression of Sister Prejean changed with that conversation. "I immediately heard the compassion in her voice," Mrs. Morris said. "She said, "I prayed for you so many times over the years,' and I knew that she had."

    Mrs. Morris invited her to her home in Mandeville, La., about four miles from where she was kidnapped. They met for three hours. "I always had respect for her," Mrs. Morris said. "After this meeting, I knew that I could like her, too. We could be friends."

    Lingering fears for future

    Mrs. Morris' biggest fear now is that she will be extremely overprotective of her children because of her experience.

    "I don't know that I'm going to want my daughter to date until she's 30, at least, or I'm dead. I don't know how I'm ever going to let her out of my sight."

    For now, her daughter sleeps peacefully in her crib while the Morrises juggle logistics to keep life as normal as possible. Brad Morris, her husband of seven years, has been supportive.

    "Her message in the book is powerful enough and strong enough that it needs to be heard," he said. "If one person reads this book, and it helps them get through a tough time, then the book has done what we wanted it to do."

    The two knew each other as teen-agers in their church youth group, and he knew of her ordeal long before he married her. "I accepted it then, and I accept it now."

    He's seen a change in her as her anger lifted and healing evolved over the past couple of years.

    "She just seems to be much more at ease, not as quick to get upset about things," Mr. Morris said. "She kind of goes with the flow a little easier."

    The biggest change, he said, has been her growth in spirituality. Indeed, writing the book strengthened her faith, providing her satisfaction that God keeps promises.

    "For so long, I wondered what good could come of all of this that happened to me," Mrs. Morris said. "Now, I can take a look at that book and see that this message about forgiveness is going to reach a lot of people. God promises us he'll make good of evil things."

    'Dead Man Walking' hard for Morris to watch

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