This is an extremely useful info-graphic from the Criminal Justice Degrees Guide that not only gives a history of the death penalty, but also gives a brief list of its pros and cons. It also gives information about the race of the victims, the exonerations of convicted criminals with the introduction of DNA testing into the legal system, and examples of wrongful convictions that have landed people on death row. For the purposes of this research project, this source mostly just provided background about capital punishment and its reception in the United States. However, in terms of “Dead Man Walking,” the item from the con list, “many defendants have been proven innocent after execution” is interesting to consider because Matthew Poncelet is absolutely guilty in the film. One would expect an anti-capital punishment film to make their convict ultimately innocent, but Tim Robbins does not do this. I would be interested in using this discrepancy as a point of research in trying to establish what stance the movie is taking on capital punishment: is it for or against it?
Once again, this article from the Death Penalty Information Center gives a historical account of the death penalty and its use in the United States. Its section “Recent Developments in Capital Punishment” is perhaps the most useful part of the site, with its discussion of capital punishment reform from 1988 and onward. Notably, in 1994, one year before the release of “Dead Man Walking,” President Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, an act that expanded the federal death penalty to over 60 different types of crimes, including espionage, treason, and drug trafficking in large amounts – the last three not having anything to do with murder. This act is especially interesting to consider because of its timeliness with the release of “Dead Man Walking,” and also in its expansion of capital punishment to crimes outside of killing. So much pro-capital punishment support comes from the belief that if one kills, they deserve to die; yet this is not the case with espionage, treason, or drug trafficking. These are federal offenses, yes, but they do not involve killing. To execute these criminals would be to kill just to send a message about the extent of federal power. I think that the idea of using criminals to “set an example” and a threat for other potential future criminals would be an interesting one to consider in an analysis of “Dead Man Walking” because, while Poncelet is clearly guilty, he is also in many ways a sympathetic character. By making Poncelet such a dynamic character, Robbins leaves his audience to question how much of Poncelet was truly evil and how much of his character was villainized by the government in order to legitimize their decision to execute him. Poncelet himself even refers to this in the film – he says that the current governor is using him as a pawn to show his followers just how “tough on punishment” he really is.
This article from the Western Journal of Communication discusses the “competing rhetoric” of the film “Dead Man Walking.” It cites Tim Robbins as stating that this film was indeed meant to cultivate conversation about capital punishment, but was not meant to have its own beliefs showcased; it was intended to remain objective. Author George Dionisopoulos further cites what Rasmussen and Downey call “dialectical disorientation”: a particular way of responding to the tension generated by the interaction of irreconcilable perspectives – in this case, pro and anti- capital punishment. It is a “prima facie” case because it is upfront in its assertion that there are no easy answers when it comes to capital punishment. The film’s constant push and pull between pro- and anti- sentiments is its most obvious way of showing that capital punishment is not an easily reconcilable issue. It is hotly debated because it is such a multifaceted issue; murder is a complicated issue, and its punishment even more complicated. By utilizing competing narratives and perspectives throughout the film, director Tim Robbins was able to give voice to both sides of the capital punishment argument, remaining a surprising impartial creator in this film.
Dionisopoulos concludes then that Robbins’ greatest intention was to get his audience thinking about their preconceived notions of capital punishment and realize that it is not an easy, cut and dry issue. If viewers were able to see the complications of the capital punishment argument, perhaps they could also be more sympathetic to their opposition. For my research, I will certainly look at the way the film interacts with its audience and the kind of message it tries to send to viewers. I think that considering the narrative as interactive and influential on audiences is a very unique and valid approach to analyzing “Dead Man Walking,” one I will try to utilize in my own research. I would also like to analyze how Robbins battle these preconceived notions about the death penalty and see just how equally he is able to give a voice to both sides of the capital punishment argument.
This one is pretty self-explanatory: it’s an article that sums up the death penalty and some of its most important historical bases. It is from AlterNet, an alternative news website since 1998 that publishes independent news stories to the public about contemporary world issues. As the article’s tagline says: “Debates about the death penalty are as old as the nation itself”; as such, the conversation about capital punishment and penal reform is one that is always in fashion. In terms of “Dead Man Walking,” the article’s point that “Death penalty fervor was stoked by an explosion of sensational mass media” is probably one of the most relevant. Arguably, the film “Dead Man Walking” is a form of mass media in and of itself: it is a publicized account of an historical event that has been creatively manufactured to incite both shock and sympathy in its audiences. I think it would be interesting to explore what was going on in penal reform and in the media during the production of this film and its release in 1998. The article claims that much support for capital punishment comes from a communal fear that violence is on the rise in the United States. It would be interesting to see how this argument relates to actual cases in the 90s and how this argument is represented, if at all, in the film. Certainly the violent scenes in the movie seem to support this argument that violence is on the rise and that there has to be some way to shut it down – the question is, what is the right way of doing it? Also notable is the article’s fourth point that “Capital punishment's strongest supporters justified executions as acts of biblical retribution.” Once again, in terms of Sister Helen Prejean, it would be worthwhile to analyze the role that religion plays in “Dead Man Walking” and the ways in which Sister Helen both follows and goes against traditional biblical ideologies about justifiably killing those who kill.
This article from Cineaste magazine details an interview with Tim Robbins, director and writer of the film “Dead Man Walking.” The interview is conducted with the intent of gaining deeper access in Robbins’ mind and his reasoning behind leaving the film politically inconclusive, and focusing its themes mostly on the social and ethical complications of capital punishment. Robbins says: “The film is directed beyond politics because I have no ambition to preach to the converted. It's not directed at Democrats or Republicans - it's directed at morality, which crosses political lines. To get into the specifics and the politics would be to alienate and to marginalize. There's so much of that in life - why do it in films?" With this in mind, I would love to watch “Dead Man Walking” again and see the ways in which Robbins attempts to remain impartial. There is certainly an ebb and flow to the film that makes it very hard for the audience to come to a definitive conclusion about where Robbins stands on capital punishment. Robbins speaks about being “morally corrupt” in his interview and the fear of moral corruption that plays into arguments over capital punishment. What is interesting about this is that the people who are pro- capital punishment think that not killing the murderers makes them morally corrupt, whereas the anti- capital punishment people think that it is this killing that creates moral corruption. In my research paper, I think it might be interesting to analyze the role of morals in the film and how personal beliefs play into the different characters’ understandings of the death penalty. In terms of his blurring of political lines, Robbins’ says: “If you can get under conservative skins at the same time you get under liberal skins, you must be doing something right.” With this assertion in mind, I would like to research the ways that “Dead Man Walking” fairly addresses both sides of the capital punishment argument.
A bill to repeal Delaware’s death penalty made major progress in the state legislature earlier this year and supporters believe the momentum will continue again in 2014 Delaware Repeal Project
shannon curley's insight:
News report on Sister Helen Prejean (the author of Dead Man Walking)'s speech for the Delaware Repeal Project which is working to get the death penalty repealed in Delaware. Briefly discusses the role of religion in Prejean's opinions on the abolition of capital punishment.
This article, from Literature Film Quarterly, discusses the adaptation of the “Dead Man Walking story” from real life, to novel, to film. It calls the film “persuasive fiction,” an adaptation of non-fiction events into a propagandizing, mostly fictional account. Like many other analyses of the film, this article concludes that “Dead Man Walking” does not wish to speak out against capital punishment, but rather works to show the emotional, social, and personal complexities of capital punishment. Perhaps most importantly, this article details the ways in which the novel and the film differ from one another. Most particularly, it stresses that because a film is not “real life,” it must always adapt some kind of view point, whether it means to or not. To this extent, “Dead Man Walking,” is often seen as taking a critical view of capital punishment, despite Tim Robbins’ insistence that the film was intended to be impartial. On the other hand, the novel was actively speaking out against capital punishment, just as Sister Helen Prejean continues to speak out against it in her real life today. Finally, the point that I may most seriously consider in my analysis, is the way in which the two different convicts, Sonnier and Willie, in the “Dead Man Walking” novel are melded into one in the film version. Where in the novel Sister Helen learns from both of her pen pals in different ways, in the film these lessons are learned from the same character. This creates Matthew Poncelot as a fabrication of real-life, once again relating back to the point that creative film cannot be as real as reality, nor as real as non-fiction. However, with this in mind, I would like to focus my research project on the ways in which the “non-real” or nonlinear aspects of the film expand upon the traditional narrative of the novel “Dead Man Walking.” I think these nonlinear scenes have a larger role in equalizing the arguments both for and against capital punishment, as opposed to the novel which is strictly against it.
Thirty years ago, a Catholic nun working in a poor neighborhood of New Orleans was asked if she would be a pen pal to a death-row prisoner. Sister Helen Prejean agreed, forever changing her life, as
shannon curley's insight:
The death penalty today and its treatment in society, as well as statistics about the death penalty including its costs and its most popular victims. Also makes reference to Sister Helen Prejean and her current work involving capital punishment, as well as her experience with writing "Dead Man Walking."
A question I continue to have through all of this is: Why did Sister Helen Prejean agree to have her book made into a movie, especially a movie that did not want to be specifically against capital punishment? Her novel was absolutely, through and through an anti-capital punishment piece, but the movie is not, despite the fact that she worked on the screenplay with Tim Robbins. Did she face criticism because she slackened her standpoint so much in allowing the film to be produced as so impartial?
This article explores the relationship between the film “Dead Man Walking” and capital punishment reform. Patricia Molloy makes the argument that “Dead Man Walking” is a deconstructive text that intentionally confuses the viewer as to what its central message about capital punishment truly is. She discusses the role of empathy and moral crises in anti capital punishment spheres as well as the idea of the “liminal criminal” – a criminal who we can only stay angry at for so long. Matthew Poncelet is surely one of these criminals because he realizes his mistakes and is repentant for them – even the parents of the Matthew’s victims are uncomfortable at his execution as they realize that what they are supporting is in many ways morally corrupt. Molloy also makes an interesting point about “imaginative reconstruction” of others’ feelings and its role on creating empathy; when we imagine how others must feel, we are more likely to feel sympathetic towards them. In “Dead Man Walking,” the use of Matthew’s family and his clear fear and uncertainty towards the end of the film both speak to this imaginative reconstruction and its role in creating empathy within its audience. Finally, Molloy’s argument, cited to Levinas, that “the political order of the state may have to be challenged in the name of our ethical responsibility to the other” is certainly important when considering Sister Helen Prejean’s role as spiritual advisor to Poncelet and how this goes against her religion’s traditional support of capital punishment as a system condoned by God. I would like to take this idea of deconstruction and blurred lines further in an analysis of “Dead Man Walking.” I would like to look at the ways that the film is both pro and anti-capital punishment and the ways in which these sentiments are expressed in narrative. I think would also be interesting to look at how the film plays on its audiences’ sympathies and forces them to constantly reevaluate their opinions of Poncelet.
An article from the Wednesday, January 31, 1996 issue of The Tech - MIT's oldest and largest newspaper and the first newspaper published on the Internet.
shannon curley's insight:
This article from MIT’s “The Tech” newspaper gives a powerful review of “Dead Man Walking.” Author Audrey Wu states: “What is an impressive feat, and far more difficult, is that Robbins puts forth the controversy without pretending that only one side is right.” This is consistent with other scholars’ evaluations of the film and of Robbins’ decisions as director and writer. The more interesting point that Wu makes is that the “emotional brutality” of the film is its most powerful driving force. By this term she means the harsh realities that the viewers are forced to acknowledge throughout the film: Matthew Poncelot’s childlike fear, his mother’s anguish, the injection of the lethal dose slowly and surely into his skin. It is these details, Wu argues, that force the audience to reconsider capital punishment, especially those audiences who are for it. I think Wu makes a valid point and it is one I will surely consider in researching the film further. How does Poncelot’s emotion work against the emotions of the victims’ families, and vise-versa? Who do we feel most sympathetic for in the end, and why?
This article, from BibleBelievers.com, is written by a devout Christian who sees capital punishment as the will of God. Thought its arguments are far from academic and are a bit outlandish, it is an interesting commentary on capital punishment from a radically conservative perspective; its citations of the Bible are also particularly compelling. In terms of “Dead Man Walking,” its relevance lies in its religious input. Obviously Sister Helen Prejean is a woman of the church, and this position complicates her role in the execution of Matthew Poncelot in the film. On the one hand, the Bible supposedly allows the execution of murderers, as Melton argues in his article; on the other, Sister Helen sees Matthew as a redeemable soul whose condemnation to death gets in the way of his journey to recovery and understanding of self. Most of the members of the church in the film seem to be for the death penalty, but Sister Helen seems to be against it – and this complicates the film’s interpretation as having either an anti- or pro- capital punishment agenda. I would be interested in further analyzing what role religion has in the film as well as the message that the film is trying to send about capital punishment, i.e. whether it is an effective system of punishment or not.
Capital punishment produces a strong deterrent effect that saves lives, and little evidence suggests that the death penalty treats minorities unfairly.
shannon curley's insight:
This article is from the Heritage Foundation, a national research and education institution, and is written by David B. Mulhausen who holds a doctorate in public policy as well as a bachelor degree in political science and justice studies. Mulhausen provides a solid analysis of capital punishment and why it is still in effect today. For the purposes of this project, his most useful conclusion is that “Americans support capital punishment for two good reasons. First, there is little evidence to suggest that minorities are treated unfairly. Second, capital punishment produces a strong deterrent effect that saves lives.” In fact, Mulhausen cites to statistics about capital punishment in the U.S., noting that as of 2006, support for capital punishment is 2:1 in favor. With this information in mind, I would like to no more about why people oppose the death penalty. I think if I understand the support and opposition better, I will be better able to understand the argument that director/writer Tim Robbins is making in “Dead Man Walking.”
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