Dead Man Walking
The film, Dead Man Walking was made in 1995, and was adopted from Sister Helen Prejean’s 1993 autobiographical book, which has the same title. It examines one of the most highly debated controversial issues of our time – capital punishment. Since the protagonist of a film is regarded as the “good guy,” I would apply this label to Sister Helen Prajean, played by Susan Sarandon, and that of the antagonist, or the “bad guy” to Matthew Poncelet, played by Sean Penn. However, even though Sean Penn is definitely the “bad guy,” by definition, my feelings changed as the film progressed with Sean’s eventual understanding of the “enormity of his transgression.” (Rozan, 17) The story presented in the film attracts the viewer because of the strong emotions, which are evoked by the violence of the murder and rape, but also by the actors themselves.
The issues of crime and punishment are examined from multiple viewpoints – the victim’s family members, the killers, society, the lawyer, and a melding of all views within the religious conviction portrayed by Susan Sarandon. Your feelings go through many changes, as each view is examined and reexamined, as the story unfolds with more and more information concerning the actual crime and the events prior, during, and after its commission. The film unfolds with Penn’s emotions moving from “defiance to remorse,” (Rozan, 17) without actually providing a absolute judgment to the viewer, as to whether capital punishment is right or wrong-good or evil.As Sarandon tells Penn “There are spaces of sorrow only God can touch.” (Rozan, 17).
The concepts of good and evil are clearly defined within the context of the film by the parameters of our criminal justice system and society in general. A very clear message is given-the perpetrator of such heinous crimes will pay with his life. This view is not challenged by the film. The concept of capital punishment, however, is questioned, as the “workings” of death row are explained and eventually seen. Penn gradually comes to an awareness of himself and his place in our society by “fighting” his eventual death by execution. You end up wondering whether the cause of justice to society and specifically to the victim’s and their families could possibly be served just as well by a life sentence, without the possibility of parole. You further ask yourself if you could actually administer the lethal injection yourself, rather than having someone else do it.
The film makes a political statement concerning capital punishment, but doesn’t overtly “preach” its message. The message is provided by Penn’s quest for his soul’s redemption via Sarandon’s interaction. Dead Man Walking’s message has the viewer questioning beliefs, which he was previously sure of. Theoretically, you may think that capital punishment in this case is a foregone conclusion, but as you get to understand Penn’s character the “black and white” of the case now has shades of gray. The writer-director, Tim Robbins explores the psychological and moral relationship that develops between Penn and Sarandon. “The faint possibility that evil and goodness can find a way of speaking to one another, the dim hope that the former can be in some sense redeemed, the later in some sense educated.” (Schickel, 69) is proffered for the viewer to think about.
The “rewards” of criminal behavior result in Penn’s death. The cost of violent, unconscionable acts result in his execution. The crime cannot be justified, but the viewer cannot help but try to understand Penn as a human being that has to pay for an act, which society cannot condone or accept. You ask yourself “How could he do such a terrible thing?” Understanding is a tough challenge which is met by Sarandon’s character because she will not give up on Penn’s ability to understand how wrong he was and to seek forgiveness from a higher power, since society cannot forgive him. We know he is guilty, but the film does cause us to question what we may have formerly thought was totally right-capital punishment. You end up asking yourself, whether Penn’s personal redemption is worth foregoing his execution. Can good come out of evil? Can God truly forgive? If you say you are truly sorry and repent sincerely, is it enough? Are there really answers to questions such as these within our earthly realm, or should these questions only be resolved by God? I really do not know.
Many strong cases can be made in principle for and against capital punishment. The argument that is in favor is based on justice, and the nature of a moral community, which requires that each person has to respect the life and liberty of others. Those who commit vicious crimes imediately destroy the basis on which a moral community rests, and they give up their rights to citizenship and also to life itself. The argument against is based on love and the nature of an ideal community in which forgiveness and the hope for redemption and rehabilitation are the key elements. Protection of the innocent requires that criminals be isolated, possibly for life..
For the past decades capital punishment has been one of the most hotly contested political issues in America, but this debate is definitely a complicated one. Capital punishment is a legal, practical, philosophical, social, political, but also a moral question. The notion of deterrence has been at the very center of the practical debate over the question of capital punishment. Most of us assume that we execute murderers primarily because we believe it will discourage others from becoming murderers. Retentionists (people for capital punishment) have long asserted the deterrent power of capital punishment as an obvious fact. The fear of death deters people from committing crimes. But, abolitionists (people against capital punishment) believe that deterrence is little more than a obsurd assumption.
Abolitionists claim that capital punishment does not deter murderers from killing or killing again. They base most of their argument against deterrence mainly on statistics. States that use it extensively show a higher murder rate than those that have abolished the death penalty. Also, states that have abolished the death penalty and then reinstituted it show no significant change in the murder rate. Stemming from the research I have done, I have found no record of change in the rate of homicides in acertain city or a state following an execution.
Most retentionists argue that no statistical evidence can prove that capital punishment doesn’t deter potential criminals. There is absolutely no way show, with any certainty, how many people were in fact deterred from killing someone.There are many factors that could contribute to murder including the the level of economic prosperity, the number of urban residents in the state, and the social and racial background of the population. These people defend the death penalty base on other arguments, relying primarily on the need to protect society from killers who are considered high risks for killing again.
Incapacitation is another controversial aspect of the death penalty. Abolitionists say condemning a person to death removes any room for rehabilitation. They are confident in the life-sentence presenting the possibility of rehabilitating the convict. But rehabilitation is a myth. The state does not know how to rehabilitate people because there are plenty of convict murderers who kill again. The life-sentence is also irrational because of overcrowding in the prisons. Early parole has released convicted murderers and they still continue murder. Some escape and murder again, while others have murdered someone in prison.Incapacitation is not solely meant as deterrence but is meant to maximize public safety by removing any possibility of a convicted murderer to murder someone again.
The issue of execution of an innocent person is troubling to both abolitionists and retentionists alike, and to me personally. The execution of innocent people is very rare. There are many safeguards guaranteeing protection of the rights of those who face the death penalty. There is legal assistance provided and an automatic appeal for persons convicted of capital crimes. Persons under the age of eighteen, pregnant women, new mothers or persons who have become insane can not be sentenced to death. I personally agrre with this, and agree that in these cases, there could certainly be a chance for rehabilitaion. Capital punishment saves lives as well as takes them.
Abolitionists say the cost of execution has become increasingly expensive and that giving someone a life sentence is more economical. A study of the Texas criminal system estimated the cost of appealing capital murder at $2,316,655. This high cost includes $265,640 for the trial; $294,240 for the state appeals; $113,608 for federal appeals (over six years); and $135,875 for death row housing. In contrast, the cost of housing a prisoner in a Texas maximum security prison single cell for 40 years is estimated at $750,000. (Schickel, 72) This is a huge amount of taxpayer money but the public looks at it as an investment in safety since these murders will never kill again.
Life imprisonment without parole serves the same purposes as capital punishment at less cost without the practical disadvantages and injustices of its actual practice. Churches should call for an immediate moratorium and work for the eventual end of the death penalty. Many contend that the use of capital punishment as a form of deterrence does not work, as there are no fewer murders in countries or states that do have it, then those that do not. In order for capital punishment to work as a deterrence, certain events must be present in the criminal’s mind prior to committing the offence. The criminal must be aware that others have been punished in the past for the offence that he or she is planning.
The moral issues concerning the legitimacy of the death have been brought by many abolitionists. They think that respect for life forbids the use of the death penalty, while retentionists believe that respect for life requires it. Retentionists says the bible (Genesis 9:6) says, “Whosoever sheds man’s blood, by man may his blood be shed.” This classic argument in favor of the death penalty has usually been interpreted as a proper and moral reason for putting a murderer to death. Supporters of capital punishment say that society has the right to kill in defense of its members, just as an individual has the right to kill in self defense for his or her own personal safety. This analogy is somewhat doubtful, however, as long as the effectiveness of the death penalty as a deterrent to violent crimes has yet to be proven.
Ansen, David. “The Killer And The Nun.” Newsweek 8 January 1996.
Moore, Susan. “Responsibility.” Quadrant September 1996.
Musbach, Tom. “Evangelical Cinema.” Commonweal 22 March 1996.
Prejean, Helen. Dead Man Walking. New York: Random House, 1993.
Rodgers, Christy. “Dead Man Walking.” Cineaste June 1996.
Rozen, Leah. “Dead Man Walking.” People 15 January 1996.
Schickel, Richard. “The Executionee’s Song.” Time 8 January 1996.
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