Join our Lenten Campaign 2024.
Twenty years after its release, Dead Man Walking remains a stunning achievement in moral filmmaking – and with the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev gripping the country, has never been more relevant.
Based on Sister Helen Prejean’s advocacy for a death row inmate in the early 80s, the film is a balanced look at one woman’s quest for mercy in a community thirsty for justice. Prejean, a meek and mild-mannered nun, unexpectedly finds herself visiting and counseling Matthew Poncelet, a man charged with the brutal rape and murder of two young teenagers. On the face of it, a narrative around a falsely accused man, a deeply repentant man, or at least a likable man would make a more effective commentary about ending the death penalty. But the fictionalized Poncelet is none of these things: he lauds Hitler, makes racially charged comments, and makes an aggressive sexual remark at the one person in the world trying to help him. Sister Prejean sits through the harrowing accounts of the victims’ parents, who describe the crimes committed against their children in gut-wrenching detail; but Poncelet rebukes her every attempt to make him shoulder any responsibility.
The debate on the death penalty has heated up in the weeks leading up to the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who along with his older brother Tamerlan was responsible for the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. Once again, Sister Helen Prejean came on the scene to advocate for life – and once again, the odds were stacked against her. There was overwhelming evidence that Tsarnaev committed this heinous act of terror. He didn’t appear to have the slightest bit of sorrow or repentance for what he had done and showed absolutely no emotion in court. Still, Sister Prejean met with Tsarnaev, testified on his behalf, and pleaded for his life.
Tsarnaev’s case, like Poncelet’s, is one of the toughest situations to stand athwart the rush toward execution. But the power of these cases lies in that contrast. Even though Prejean’s mission to rescue these men can look and sound naïve, quixotic, and even downright insane, through it all she remains by their side, fighting for their lives, both physically and spiritually. To see why is to see what Prejean’s principled opposition to the death penalty is all about.
In the end, it’s not an appeal to a criminal’s innocence or kindness; Tsarnaev, like the Poncelet character, has blood on his hands, and doesn’t appear to really understand or care about the consequences of what he did.
It’s not about honoring the memory of the victims. The parents of the youngest victim of the bombing, 8-year-old Martin Richard, pleaded with the Department of Justice to take the death penalty “off the table,” arguing that life in prison would avoid prolonging the case into years of appeals, needlessly keeping their son’s killer in the spotlight.
It’s not about the positive (or negative) social consequences that stem from capital punishment. William Campbell, whose daughter was killed in the bombing, hopes that “this decision will be a deterrent.” Others argue that with a violent ideology eager to recruit martyrs in the background, the decision could just as easily have the opposite effect. Whatever the outcome, there’s more to the decision than just the consequences.
What her opposition is finally about is a “seamless garment” ethic that always safeguards human dignity. Prejean, animated by her Catholic faith, believes that “all of life is sacred and must be protected.”
The Catholic Church, it’s often pointed out, is out of step with the American people on a great many issues. Percentages and polls are routinely trotted out to illustrate the Church’s archaic attitudes on sex, marriage, and religious liberty. What’s perhaps less known is that its position on the death penalty is one of them.
A 2013 Gallup Poll discovered that – even though two thirds of nations have abolished capital punishment in law or practice – two thirds of American Catholics still support it.
But the Catechism makes a very clear statement on the issue:
If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.
Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself –
the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.” [Emphasis added]
This last quotation comes from Saint John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”). Robert George summarizes this position well: “The state does not have the right to inflict capital punishment – no matter how grave the offense and no matter how clear the guilt of the accused – unless effective incarceration is impossible and execution is the only way to prevent this particular murderer from killing again.” The Pope’s successors have followed suit on this understanding. Benedict voiced encouragement for “political and legislate initiatives…to eliminate the death penalty,” while Francis went a step further, saying that capital punishment is “inadmissible,” “contradicts God’s plan for man and society,” and only “fosters vengeance.”
With these teachings in tow, the bishops of Massachusetts released a statement declaring: “The defendant in this case has been neutralized and will never again have the ability to cause harm…society can do better than the death penalty.” Other voices from the Church could also be heard: professor of moral theology Rev. James Bretzke expressed frustration that Catholics were “systemically excluded” from the jury for their beliefs, and cultural commentator Fr. Jim Martin tweeted: “The death penalty for #Tsarnaev, heinous as his crimes were, closes little, solves less.”
But the jury sweepingly rejected the defense’s arguments, and Tsarnaev was sentenced to death.
It was another defeat for Prejean – but throughout Dead Man Walking, defeat becomes another pathway to hope. Even as Poncelet’s appeals fail, she agrees to become his spiritual advisor, standing by his side and conversing with him about God and the afterlife. In the prison, a spiritual drama in the vein of
Even if he’d never confessed in this way, or spoken words of repentance to the families, I believe Prejean would’ve walked with him to his death, hand on his shoulder, whispering: “I want the last face you see in this world to be the face of love.”
Love in action, Dostoevsky said, is a dreadful thing compared to love in dreams. Opposition to the death penalty – especially in those cases where it’s easiest to support it – is just such a dreadful love. It loves the unlovable, and believes the unbelievable: that even the most depraved life has a sacred spark worth fighting for.
Matthew Becklo is a husband and father, amateur philosopher, and cultural commentator at Aleteia and Word on Fire. His writing has been featured in First Things, The Dish, and Real Clear Religion.