Dear Mr. Rosenbaum:
I generally agreed with your capsule review of Dead Man Walking, which describes the movie as honest and balanced in its handling of the controversy over capital punishment. But, after seeing the movie, I read the book of the same name upon which it was based. Then I wasn’t sure anymore about the movie’s honesty.
Unlike the Sean Penn character in the movie, neither of the two condemned convicts counseled by Sister Helen Prejean confessed just before going to the death chamber. In fact, both insisted up to the end that they had not personally committed the murders.
This wouldn’t be worth mentioning if the movie had been broadly fictionalized and had taken many liberties with the real-life story. But the movie was amazingly true to a composite of the facts of the two men’s cases. The confession was the only significant change from the book.
In my opinion, adding the last-minute confession made a big emotional difference to the movie audience. It gave people an easy out, knowing for certain that the executed man was guilty. What if the audience thought the man’s guilt was highly uncertain, which is often the case with people who are executed? That would have been much more troubling.
Perhaps director Tim Robbins thought that by removing any doubt of guilt, audience members would be forced to squarely face their feelings about the death penalty. But a major objection to the death penalty is that the judicial process is subject to error, particularly in the case of defendants too poor to hire good lawyers to ensure they get the fairest possible trial. You can’t address capital punishment honestly without recognizing that there’s often a lot of doubt about the guilt of convicts who are put to death.
The movie also left out the fact, reported in the book, that the chairman of the Louisiana clemency board which denied clemency for Sister Prejean’s two convicts later was convicted of taking bribes to grant clemency in other cases. He admitted he voted against clemency for several condemned convicts whose guilt he seriously doubted because his patronage position depended on sparing the governor from having to make the tough political decision to commute someone’s death sentence and risk appearing soft on crime.
So, how honest was the movie really?