Capital punishment, also known as the death penalty, is a controversial subject in modern day America. Should criminals be put to death for their crimes? Or should punishments be limited to prison terms? Americans lineup on both sides of the issue with some States favoring executions and others banning the practice. Tim Robbins's Dead Man Walking is a film which delved into this subject through the story of a nun who is asked by a death row convict to become his spiritual advisor. The movie was based on Sister Prejean's Book of the same title about her real-life encounter with a convicted death row inmate named Pat Sonnier. (Westlund ) The different sides of this complicated issue were explored through different characters in the story, each with a different view on the events which has resulted in a convicted murdered facing his own execution. The main character, Sister Prejean (played by Susan Sarandon) was drawn into a situation where she must discover her role in the issue. While she believes she is staying above the fray, she is sent off on an emotional rollercoaster involving a murderer, his family, the families of the victims, lawyers for the defense and prosecution, and others, where each presented their side of the issue to her and she was forced to rediscover herself. In the end her faith in unconditional love guided her to the role as the instrument of redemption for a convicted murderer who must face his own execution.
Because the Death Penalty is such a controversial subject in modern society, it is the source of many disagreements and conflicts. Just about everyone has a view on this subject, either for or against, and both sides can turn to many sources for their arguments. Sometimes they turn to the same source. According to advocates in favor of capital punishment, the fifth amendment to the Constitution of the United States provided that no person man be "deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law." This clause of the constitution seems to allow for people to be deprived of their lives, as long as it is done within the boundaries of the law. To those who support this view, this is a clear indication of the Founding Father's acceptance of the death penalty and inclusion in the American justice system. While opponents of the death penalty turn to the eighth amendment which prohibited the government from imposing "cruel and unusual punishments" (Beschle) Those who espouse these views claim that the constitution is a living document which needs to be reinterpret from time to time; so as to keep up with social conventions. These people maintain that while capital punishment may have been acceptable in the past, in 21st century America, social mores have changed and the death penalty should be considered cruel; and therefore unconstitutional.
In addition to the legal arguments for and against capital punishment, there is what can be referred to as the "deterrent effect." Supporters of capital punishment often claim that the death penalty imposed for certain crimes, such as murder, can act as a deterrent to others not to commit a similar act. They assert that the threat of death for themselves will deter someone from committing murder. In response, those against capital punishment often argue that since criminals do not think they will be caught, the possible punishments are irrelevant. Each side can point to different aspects of research studies to interpret the results in ways that support their view, so many researchers believe the deterrent argument is uncertain at best. (Narayan) But families of victims often make a claim that is difficult to refute, that the deaths of their family members earn them the right to see the perpetrator executed. Even if one accepts anti-capital punishment arguments, it is still difficult to deny someone a chance to receive the kind of justice they feel they have earned. These types of arguments are based on emotional loss and can not be easily refuted by someone who has not suffered the same loss. Therefore, some of the most effective supporters of ending the death penalty are those who have suffered the painful loss of someone they love and still wish to end capital punishment. But these people are difficult to find since it takes someone of tremendous conscience to get past the pain caused by the murder of a loved one.
In the film Dead Man Walking, all of these points-of-view are taken into account as the lead character, Sister Prejean, navigated her way through this emotional minefield. First of all it must be stated that the death row convict, Matthew Poncelet (played by Sean Penn) was guilty of the rape and murder he had been convicted of. While he claimed that he was just an accomplice, not the murderer, his guilt was really never in doubt; just the degree of culpability. The families of his victims, the prosecutor, police, even some of Sister Helen's friends and family, represented the pro-capital punishment argument. For instance, the prosecutor gave a stirring speech at Poncelet's parole hearing which described the horrible acts committed by Poncelet, the possible futures of these two young persons who had their lives cut short, and the reasons why he deserved the punishment he received. In our society it is the role of these people to seek what the law requires be means of punishments. Regardless of personal opinions, the prosecutor and the parole board must follow the law and invoke the death penalty when legal and appropriate. To do otherwise would be a breach of the public trust. While these people may represent the pro-capital punishment side of the issue, it is their job and are bound by law to do so.
On the other hand were the victim's families which sought justice for their loved ones. In Dead Man Walking the victims were two teenagers: Walter Delacroix and Hope Percy, and their families represented the different reactions people undergo when enduring such traumatic events. While Walter Delacroix's mother grieved for a time and then tried to move on with her life, his father, Earl Delacroix, could not get over the death of his son and lived in a state of permanent mourning. Earl's grief is best described when he stated "When you lose a child all the memories get sealed in a place…..sealed like a shrine."(Dead Man Walking) It would seem that Earl's emotions were sealed in that place as well which led to the breakup of his marriage; an effect that is all too common in such cases. The other murdered teen's family was just as distraught but sought solace in other ways. Hope Percy's father, Clyde, told Sister Helen the story of how Poncelet taunted him on the way to court one day; and how he could have killed him as a result. Sister Prejean failed to realize that he did not kill Poncelet when he had the chance because he believed in the justice system and it's ability to execute murderers. Hope Percy's mother Helen then described her brother the Dentist who was forced to identified the body of Hope because the police didn't think the parents could handle it. Her brother quickly became a supporter of the death penalty after literally picking through the decayed remains of his own niece. In light of this, Clyde Percy and his family felt they needed some closure to their nightmare and believed they would receive justice when the system executed Poncelet. In their case, the death penalty was a necessity for emotional closure.
Representing the anti-capital punishment are those who, in the movie, seem to act in favor of the convicted murderer. As these people continually justify themselves throughout the movie: they are against the death penalty, not in favor of a convicted murderer. Many of those who are in favor of capital punishment often react as though those opposed to the death penalty somehow are in favor of the murderer. There are many in the film who hold this view, including Clyde and Helen Percy; who reacted angrily to the announcement by Sister Helen that she had become Poncelet's spiritual advisor. They felt that she had chosen the side of the person who raped and murdered their daughter over them. While this is understandable, it is not accurate. Those who oppose the death penalty do so out of a disdain for the death of a human being, even when the State performs the act. Both Sister Helen and Poncelet's lawyer, Hilton Barber openly acknowledge the heinous crimes of Poncelet, as well as him need for punishment. It is death as a punishment they do not want; and Hilton Barber's statement made in front of the parole board expressed his view that capital punishment was barbaric, cruel, and unfairly dispensed. Barber's argument attempted to show Poncelet as a human being and not just a convicted murderer, how he came from a broken poverty stricken home, he…