DEAD MAN WALKING

Of Monsters, Murder and Divine Mercy

“Sister, I won’t ask for forgiveness; my sins are all I have,” sings Bruce Springsteen in this movie’s title song while the end credits roll over the screen – giving voice once more to Matthew Poncelet and the men portrayed in Sister Helen Prejean‘s nonfiction account on which this movie is based; that angry “white trash,” those men who are “God’s mistake,” as one victim’s father says, inconsolable over the loss of his daughter; those men locked up in high security prisons for unspeakable crimes which many of them claim they didn”t commit. And Matt Poncelet (Sean Penn) is just such a guy; locked in bravado and denial, he proclaims his innocence and would rather take a lie detector test on the day of his execution “so my momma knows I didn’t do this” than own up to his responsibility.

With Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon), we first learn about the crime which landed Poncelet on death row – the rape-murder of a couple on lovers’ lane – from the account she receives when she starts writing to him and eventually agrees to visit him in prison. It is, as she will soon learn, a story that anti-death penalty advocates are all too familiar with; a story of unequal access to lawyers and of two defendants, each blaming all guilt for their crime exclusively on the other, regardless what truly happened. And as long as she is assured that even if Poncelet would have a new trial he wouldn’t go free (as an accomplice, under Louisiana state law he would receive a lifetime prison sentence), Sister Helen is willing to help him find a lawyer and, when the date for his execution is set, try to obtain a reprieve.

But it does not end there, as she soon finds out; and one of this movie’s greatest strengths is the way in which it portrays all sides of the moral issues involved in the death penalty. There are the victims’ families, a stunning 70% of which break up after the murder of a child, and who are forever stuck with the unloving last words spoken to their loved ones and the memory of all the little homely details reminding them of their loss. There are the prison guards and nurses, trying to see executions as “part of their job” – with varying success. There are the politicians, barking slogans on TV; promising to “get tough on sentencing, get tough on lenient parole boards, get tough on judges who pass light sentences.” There are the convicts’ families, marginalized as a result of their brothers’ and sons’ acts, particularly if they refuse to condemn them publicly. (“Now I’m famous,” Poncelet’s mother comments bitterly on the dubious celebrity status she has attained as a result of a TV show about Matt. “A regular Ma Barker!”) And there is the death penalty itself, shown in all its chilling, graphic, clinical detail, here in its allegedly most humane form: lethal injections, which tranquilize the muscles while the poison reaches the convict’s lungs and heart – “his face goes to sleep while his inside organs are going through Armageddon,” Poncelet’s attorney says at his pardon board hearing. “It was important to us to show all sides of the issue,” explains director Tim Robbins on the DVD’s commentary track, “not to be satisfied with soundbites, and to present the reality … Ultimately, the question is not who deserves to die, but who has the right to kill.”

At the heart of the story are two radically different individuals: Sister Helen, who has grown up in an affluent, loving family; and Matthew Poncelet, the convicted killer. And their portrayal is this movie’s other great strength: without either of them, this film would not have been half as compelling. Both Sarandon and Penn deliver Academy Award-worthy performances. (Sarandon did win her long overdue Oscar, Penn lost to Nicolas Cage for Leaving Las Vegas – this would have been an occasion where I would have favored a split award.) Gradually, very gradually we see them get to know each other; and as they do, the visual layers separating them in the prison visiting room are peeled away. Yet, even after he has learned to accept Sister Helen as a human being (not without attempting to come on to her as if she were not a nun – director Tim Robbins’s way of dispelling the notion that they might fall in love, as is so often the case in the more clichéd versions of this type of story), Poncelet insists that his participation was limited to holding one of the victims down, but that it was his accomplice who raped and killed them both. And even days before his execution, he is still looking for “loopholes” in the bible, as Sister Helen admonishes him, seeing redemption as a free ticket into heaven instead of a means of owning up to his responsibility. (“I like that,” he comments when she quotes Jesus’s “the truth shall make you free.” “So I pass that lie detector test, I’m home free.”) Only in his final hour, he slowly, gradually gives up the protective layers of his bravado and lays bare his raw nerve and innermost anguish. And while he speaks, finally, in a complete flashback, we, the viewers, see what really happened that dark and lonely night in the woods, and what all the previous partial flashbacks have not revealed.

“It is easy to kill a monster, but hard to kill a human being,” Poncelet’s attorney explains on one occasion; and Tim Robbins echoes that sentiment on the commentary track. Yet, this movie is not about romanticizing a brutal killer, any more than it is about demonizing his victims. It is, first and foremost, an attempt to bring a complete perspective to one of contemporary America’s most pressing problems, and to find a way past sorrow and hate and move towards the future. And even if you’re still for the death penalty after having watched it – don’t claim ignorance as to what is involved.

 

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: PolyGram (1995)
  • Director: Tim Robbins
  • Executive Producers: Tim Bevan & Eric Fellner
  • Producers: Tim Robbins / John Kilik / Rudd Simmons
  • Screenplay: Tim Robbins
  • Based on a nonfiction account by: Sister Helen Prejean C.S.J.
  • Music: David Robbins
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Roger Deakins
Cast
  • Susan Sarandon: Sister Helen Prejean
  • Sean Penn: Matthew Poncelet
  • Robert Prosky: Hilton Barber
  • Margo Martindale: Sister Colleen
  • Raymond J. Barry: Earl Delacroix
  • Peter Sarsgaard: Walter Delacroix
  • R. Lee Ermey: Clyde Percy
  • Celia Weston: Mary Beth Percy
  • Missy Yager: Hope Percy
  • Jenny Krochmal: Emily Percy
  • Roberta Maxwell: Lucille Poncelet
  • Jack Black: Craig Poncelet
  • Jon Abrahams: Sonny Poncelet
  • Arthur Bridgers: Troy Poncelet
  • Lois Smith: Helen’s Mother
  • Steve Carlisle: Helen’s Brother
  • Helen Hester: Helen’s Sister
  • Michael Cullen: Carl Vitello
  • Scott Wilson: Chaplain Farley
  • Barton Heyman: Captain Beliveau
  • Steve Boles: Sergeant Neal Trapp
  • Nesbitt Blaisdell: Warden Hartman
  • Ray Aranha: Luis Montoya
  • Larry Pine: Guy Gilardi
  • Kevin Cooney: Governor Benedict
  • Gil Robbins: Bishop Norwich
  • Adele Robbins: Nurse
  • Mary Robbins: Aide to Governor Benedict
  • Miles Robbins: Boy in Church
  • Jack Henry Robbins: Opossum Kid
  • Helen Prejean: Woman at Vigil (uncredited)

 

Major Awards and Honors

Academy Awards (1996)
  • Best Actress in a Leading Role: Susan Sarandon
Screen Actors Guild of America Awards (1996)
  • Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role: Susan Sarandon
National Society of Film Critics Awards (1996)
  • 2nd Place, Best Actor: Sean Penn
American Political Film Society Awards (1996)
  • Exposé Award
Humanitas Prize (USA) (1996)
  • Feature Film Category: Tim Robbins
Independent Spirit Awards (1996)
  • Best Male Lead: Sean Penn
Blockbuster Entertainment Awards ( 1997)
  • Favorite Actress, Drama: Susan Sarandon
Online Film & Television Association (1997)
  • OFTA Film Hall of Fame: Motion Picture
Chlotrudis Society for Independent Film Awards (1996)
  • Best Movie
  • Best Actor: Sean Penn
  • Best Actress: Susan Sarandon
Berlin International Film Festival (1996)
  • Prize of the Ecumenical Jury (Competition): Tim Robbins
  • Prize of the Guild of German Art House Cinemas: Tim Robbins
  • Reader Jury of the “Berliner Morgenpost” Daily Newspaper: Tim Robbins
  • Silver Berlin Bear (Best Actor): Sean Penn
David di Donatello Awards (Italy) (1996)
  • Migliore Attrice Straniera (Best Foreign Actress) – “Dead Man Walking”

 

Links

Barry Scheck / Peter Neufeld / Jim Dwyer: Actual Innocence – When Justice Goes Wrong and How to Make It Right

Actual Innocence - Barry Scheck, Jim Dwyer, Peter NeufeldA scathing Verdict on the U.S. Criminal Justice System

“Our procedure has been always haunted by the ghost of the innocent man convicted.” – U.S. v. Garsson, D.C., 291 F. 646, 649 (1923) (Judge Learned Hand)

While you may find “Actual Innocence” in the “true crime” section of your bookstore, this is not your typical fare of a more or less well-written and soon-to-be-TV-movie account of a harrowing crime, or series of crimes. And while the book undeniably shows the hands of two lawyers who know how to craft a closing argument, and a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, this is at heart, as the authors point out – and disturbingly so – a “work of nonfiction.”

“Actual Innocence” (which was originally subtitled Five Days to Execution and Other Dispatches from the Wrongly Convicted) is an account of the work of Scheck’s and Neufeld’s “Innocence Project,” describing some of the Project’s most prominent and successful cases, and a scathing condemnation of the shortcomings of the American system of criminal justice – particularly, under the Supreme Court’s holding in Herrera v. Collins, 506 U.S. 390, 404 (1993) (Rehnquist, C.J.) that “a claim of ‘actual innocence’ is not itself a constitutional claim.” Under Herrera and the cases following it, a federal court can reject a defendant’s petition for relief even if it is based on proof of innocence, even if that proof is, as in the cases represented by the Innocence Project, of a scientific nature (DNA evidence showing that the defendant cannot have committed the crime he has been convicted of), and even if the deadlines for submitting that proof are so short that it is virtually impossible for a defendant to present evidence obtained post-conviction in time for a consideration at least in the state court system, which review has to precede a review by the federal courts.

In Herrera, the Supreme Court upheld a Texas death sentence after the defendant had missed the state law’s 30-day deadline to get a new trial based on new evidence. And while that particular case involved questions of the reliability of circumstantial evidence, admissions of guilt and eyewitness identifications (briefly, at night and without live testimony by one of the witnesses), these exclusionary rules apply regardless of the type of evidence presented. In the cases that Scheck, Neufeld and Dwyer describe here, this sometimes meant that DNA evidence which, due to scientific advances, had only become available years after the conviction, was not admitted, even if it conclusively proved that the wrong person had been convicted. The defendants were left to petition for executive clemency, which is discretionary and, more often than not, depends on the amount of political pressure exercised.

It is often argued, particularly by proponents of the death penalty, that the criminal justice system functions well, and that even in the best system, regrettable errors cannot be prevented. The authors of “Actual Innocence” make a compelling case for the contrary. Even if a lawyer’s shortcomings in the representation of his client may, in theory, lead to the reversal of a conviction, the bar here is almost as high as that for the presentation of proof of innocence. In Texas, e.g., not even a lawyer sleeping during the trial or showing up drunk is considered ineffective and, like in other states, most mistakes made out of inexperience with the handling of murder/felony trials will not be enough to support a reversal, either. Moreover, scientific evidence, such as a “DNA fingerprint,” is often not available to indigent defendants, who are most likely to be hurt by inefficient trial attorneys because they lack the means to hire counsel experienced and sophisticated enough to handle a trial of that nature. These more often than not are the ingredients of a cocktail which, without timely and forceful intervention, can be as lethal as the death penalty itself; even if there is not, in addition, abuse on the prosecutorial side – failure to fully investigate and/or disclose the evidence available in the case (including exculpatory evidence), racial bias in the jury selection, misconduct by scientists acting as the government’s experts, etc.

American TV again and again broadcasts reports on persons released from prison, sometimes only days before their execution, based on belated proof of their innocence. All of these cases expose, in differing ways, the inherent weaknesses of the U.S. criminal justice system. While I did not practice in the U.S. long enough to feel comfortable echoing unreservedly the verdict handed down by the Scheck, Neufeld and Dwyer, who declare the country’s criminal justice system “a shambles,” many facts recounted by them ring true to me, too. I also stop to consider if not only a Democratic president (Clinton) imposes a moratorium on the death penalty but a Republican governor, a one-time declared proponent of capital punishment, takes the same action and orders an investigation because “since the reestablishment of the death penalty in Illinois in 1977, there have been persistent problems in the administration of the death penalty as illustrated by the thirteen individuals on death row who have had their death sentences and convictions vacated by the courts” and “the number of death sentences and criminal convictions being vacated or overturned has raised serious concerns with respect to the process by which the death penalty is imposed.” (Former Illinois Governor H. Ryan, Executive Order Creating The Governor’s Commission On Capital Punishment, May 4, 2000).

Of course, not every claim of innocence is justified. But any criminal justice system should be able to allow for the presentation of conclusive proof of innocence, regardless how belatedly. And while the question of guilt or innocence may not have dominated the discussion on the case of executed Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh – to many people, even those otherwise opposed to the death penalty, the poster child for its application – I am not exactly comfortable with the assessment by former President George W. Bush, who in 6 years as governor of Texas oversaw more than 150 executions, that McVeigh was “lucky to be an American. This is a country that will bend over backwards to make sure that his constitutional rights are guaranteed, as opposed to rushing his fate.” (New York Times, May 12, 2001.)