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Dead Man Walking

September 23, 2015

DMWI still remember vividly the afternoon that I saw this film and the long and heated discussion about the death penalty that ensued in the pub afterwards.

There is nothing to like about the murderer so you aren’t manipulated emotionally. Te cool, ‘scientific’ carrying out of the penalty is what might convince people of its barbarity.

Matthew Poncelet is on Death Row for his part in the murder of a teenage couple, and has also been convicted of rape.

Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun working in a New Orleans slum, receives a letter from Matthew asking her to help him in his appeal for a pardon. At this stage he maintains his innocence.

As the film unfolds the relationship between Helen and Matthew intensifies. Helen searches for the humanity in Matthew and in Helen Matthew sees a face of love perhaps for the first time in his life. The parents of the murdered teenagers understandably find Sister Helen’s involvement with Matthew difficult and feel their own pain is being overlooked. Forgiveness is far from their minds.

Eventually, all of Matthew’s appeals are used up and the stark reality of his impending execution dawns upon him. For the first time, he acknowledges to Helen his guilt, and in the death chamber he asks the parents of the slain teenagers – there to witness his death – for their forgiveness. After Matthew’s funeral there is a hint that the slain boy’s father Earl struggles to find forgiveness in his heart as he kneels side by side with Helen in a church.

The costly nature of forgiveness – how can the parents of Walter and Hope be expected to forgive their children’s killer?

The relationship between forgiveness and remorse – almost until the very end, Matthew refuses to acknowledge his guilt.

Forgiveness and justice – Matthew’s imprisonment is not in question; it is his execution that is challenged.


Hilton Barber: [at Matthew Poncelet’s appeals hearing] The death penalty. It’s nothin’ new; it’s been with us for centuries. We’ve buried people alive; lopped off their heads with an axe; burned them alive at a public square… gruesome spectacles. In this century, we kept searchin’ for more and more *humane* ways… of killin’ people that we didn’t like. We’ve shot ’em with firing squads; suffocated ’em, in the gas chamber. But now… Now we have developed a device that is the most humane of all. Lethal injection. We strap the guy up. We anesthetize him with shot number one; then we give him shot number two, and that implodes his lungs, and shot number three stops… his heart. We put ’em to death just like an old horse. His face just, goes to sleep, while, inside, his organs are going through armageddon. The muscles of his face would twist, and contort, and pull, but you see, shot number one relaxes all those muscles so we don’t have to see any horror show… We don’t have to taste the blood of revenge on our lips, while this, human being’s organs writhe, and twist, and contort… We just sit there, quietly. Nod our heads, and say: ‘Justice has been done.’

Sister Helen Prejean: I want the last face you see in this world to be the face of love, so you look at me when they do this thing. I’ll be the face of love for you.

Sister Helen Prejean: You are a son of God.

Matthew Poncelet: [in tears] Thank you. I’ve never been called a son of God before. [laughs slightly] I’ve been called a son of a you-know-what plenty of times, but I’ve never been called a son of God.

Sister Helen Prejean: Show me some respect, Matthew.

Matthew Poncelet: Why? ‘Cause you’re a nun?

Sister Helen Prejean: Because I’m a person.

Prison guard: Tell me something sister, what is nun doing in a place like this. Shouldn’t you be teaching children? Didn’t you know what this man has done? How he killed them kids?

Sister Helen Prejean: What he was involved with was evil. I don’t condone it. I just don’t see the sense of killing people to say that killing people’s wrong.

Prison guard: You know what the Bible say, ‘An eye for an eye’.

Sister Helen Prejean: You know what else the Bible ask for death as a punishment? For adultery, prostitution, homosexuality, trespass upon sacred grounds, profane in a sabbath and contempt to parents.

Prison guard: I ain’t gonna get no Bible quote from no nun cause I’m gonna lose.

Matthew Poncelet: I just wanna say I think killin’ is wrong, no matter who does it, whether it’s me or y’all or your government.

Matthew: Thank you for loving me.

Sister Colleen: If Matt dies, guess who he’ll be buried next to?

Sister Helen Prejean: Who’s the last person to die?

Sister Colleen: Sister Celestine.

Sister Helen Prejean: Oh Lord.

Sister Colleen: You remember when that sweet little girl in the convent came after her wedding day to introduce her husband to us?

Sister Helen Prejean: Sister Celestine said, “I’m glad I never had to share my bed with a man.”

Sister Colleen: She loved her celibacy so much.

Sister Helen Prejean: I know. She’s gonna be lying next to a man for all eternity.

Prison guard: Do you have any last words, Poncelet?

Matthew Poncelet: Yes, I do. [pauses] Mr. Delacroix, I don’t wanna leave this world with any hate in my heart. I ask your forgiveness for what I done. It was a terrible thing I done, taking your son away from you.

Clyde Percy: [Softly to his wife] How about us?

Matthew Poncelet: Mr. and Mrs. Percy, I hope my death gives you some relief.

Sister Helen Prejean: Look at you. Death is looking down your neck, and you’re playing your little male come-on games.

Helen’s Mother: A mother’s arms are strong when her child is in danger.

Earl Delacroix: My wife filed for divorce this afternoon. We just have different ways to deal with our son’s death. Until death do us part.

Sister Helen Prejean: It’s not faith, it’s work.

Matthew Poncelet: It’s quiet. Only three days left. Plenty of time to read my Bible and look for a loophole.

Matthew Poncelet: Hitler got things done!

Matthew Poncelet: I like rebels. Some blacks is ok. Martin Luther King, he led his people all the way to DC and kicked the white man’s butt.

Sister Helen Prejean: You respect Martin Luther King?

Matthew Poncelet: He put up a fight. He wasn’t lazy.

Sister Helen Prejean: What about lazy whites?

Matthew Poncelet: Don’t like ’em.

Sister Helen Prejean: So it’s lazy people you don’t like?

Clyde Percy: How can you stand next to him?

Sister Helen Prejean: Mr. Percy, I’m just trying to follow the example of Jesus, who said that a person is not as bad as his worst deed.

Clyde Percy: This is not a person. This is an animal.

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