Dead Man Walking and Capital Punishment Essay

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This paper will examine the film Dead Man Walking as a means of discussing the greater issue of capital punishment. This paper will make the argument that while capital punishment is largely not beneficial for society, it does have a place in the justice system in certain occasions. These circumstances largely involve remorseless serial killers who are unable to be rehabilitated.

The 1995 film Dead Man Walking directed by Tim Robbins and based on the book by the nun who lived the story, Helen Prejean. The film has the truly difficult task of telling the story of the complexities of capital punishment in America. The film shows us the struggle that a nun has in attempting to comfort and help both a murderer on death row and the families of the victims he killed. The film was critically well-received and is able to strike a strong balance between the various arguments on capital punishment in a manner that is completely devoid of all preachy didactic qualities. The themes of the film are much subtler and still manage to create a very nuanced film about the unexpected friendship between two people.

Aside from the strong balance the filmmaker is able to strike, the strength of the film also lies in the fact that the actors give tremendously strong performances. Susan Sarandon portrays Sister Helen with a strong humanity, never acting like she’s some untouchable angel, but giving her character a reality and a strength that is compelling. Sean Pean plays Poncelet, who is indeed a cold-blooded killer, but still does so in a manner that helps the spectator feel sympathy for him. The bulk of the film is spent discussing the various sides of this heinous crime, however it is only at the end does the viewer bear witness to what happened, and fully understand the horrors of the crime. It is only at the end of the film does Poncelet take responsibility for his actions and engage in transformation and redemption. This is part of the reason why this is such a powerful film: the viewer sees the remorseless killer change over the course of the movie. We see that even though he behaved monstrously, we also learn to feel a certain amount of compassion for him, despite the fact he committed such evil deeds.

I have more complex views on the death penalty. For the most part, I disagree with it, as I object to the notion that human beings should be able to play God with others. All humans have the right to life, and there’s nothing in philosophy that necessarily dictates that humans have the right to seize that right from other humans. Furthermore, many of the ways that humans are put to death via capital punishment can actually be quite painful.

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There also hasn’t been adequate research that killing people actually deters others from engaging in criminal activity. If a punishment is decent, then it should actually have a positive impact on society. Capital punishment doesn’t teach anyone anything. As we saw with Tim Robbins’ film, some prisoners can in fact be rehabilitated, even ones that don’t seem to show any signs of remorse. Sometimes a lack of remorse is just a criminal’s defense mechanism as a result of the stress they’re under. The film Dead Man Walking showed us a prisoner who did eventually feel remorse and who did eventually want forgiveness—though it was too late. This is an example of a type of prisoner who could have been rehabilitated and who could have someday been a productive member of society. In this case, the film illustrates very well why and how the death penalty is such a travesty.

One of the often-cited reasons against capital punishment is the fact that human are not infallible. There are several noted times in life when human beings have incorrectly put people to death, and actually ended up serving the death penalty to someone innocent. This is an example of an extreme tragedy in connection with the death penalty and a travesty of justice, yet incidents such as this one do happen. By being against the death penalty, one is taking the strongest stance possible against murder. Many have argued that it is grotestquely hypocritical of our society to oppose murder by engaging in murder. A corollary to that argument is that a society that relies on the death penalty is a cruel society, and not one that is as civilized as it likes to think. Causing other people intense pain and suffering and calling it justice is entirely backwards.

However, there are times when I think capital punishment is appropriate and actually the only form of acceptable justice. I think there are certain criminals who have engaged in crimes so monstrous and unspeakable and who show no shred of respect for humanity, that putting them to death is the only answer. Serial killers like Ted Bundy, Peter Tobin, Jeffrey Dahmer, Peter Sutfliffe, and Clifford Olson and others, are all people who deserved the death sentences that they received. These men not only killed many people, but many of them tortured and mutilated their victims, causing unfathomable levels of suffering for them and their families. Through their actions, serial killers tell the world that they are not interested in being peaceful members of….....

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