Dead Man Walking & Capital Punishment

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Before I get into it I need to make something clear: I believe that evil and wickedness do exist in our world. I do not mean this in a supernatural way. Some people are born wicked; some learn it. Both are functions of human psychology. There are crimes committed that will never be understood by good people. That these crimes occur is all I need to know. For the purpose of this article, there are politics I do not care to get into. This is not a debate of incarceration versus Capital Punishment, but rather a commentary on the lengths we must stretch ourselves to carry out the latter.

I recently revisited the film Dead Man Walking*, a true story, in which Matthew Poncelet is a man guilty of rape and murder. At the film’s end he is executed by lethal injection for these crimes. It stands to reason that I should have rejoiced that he was removed from our world.

But, feelings of loss and fear are what took me. A question came: can we really eradicate wickedness by removing those that carry it out? It seems to me we bring more evil into the world by summoning the audacity to believe we are right in killing when we are so swift to condemn the act otherwise. It is not simply the execution, but rather the justification thereof, that feels wicked. In killing even for the sake of justice we are saying “this is right.”

Then there is the other side of things. When I think of the parents of the victims watching Matthew Poncelet receive his sentence, my heart swings in their favor. In that regard, justice isn’t up to me. I don’t stand to gain or lose anything by Poncelet’s death, and I will sleep just the same either way. I cannot blame someone for wanting justice for their children, and I hope that in receiving it the parents began to breathe with a calmness closer to a time when Matthew Poncelet was a name they’d never heard.

What then is this feeling of loss? As much as I may believe the world is better off without Matthew Poncelet, the role our society played in his departure troubles me. Perhaps the loss I feel is our own courage and humanity. It can be argued that it takes courage to stand up and proclaim one’s self righteous enough to condemn another to death in the name of goodness and justice, in the name of God. But that does not change the fact that it is killing for the sake of death. I would argue that it chips away at our reverence for life. In extinguishing a human being -- no matter how bad the person, and how much better the world may be without them -- we cloud our sense of humanity. We cloud our sense of morals and desensitize our perception of the value of life.

The fear I mentioned is for the direction we are headed due to believing we have the right to take life. We do not. No one does. This is true for the wicked as well as the good. As I said, I will not condemn those that want justice for loved ones -- it’s not my place to make that call, and more so: I have no control over it. All I can say is that if it were me, and it were my loved ones that fell victim to something so horrible, I would hope that I have the courage to endorse clemency over death. Not for the sake of the wicked, but for the sake of the good.

*This is a great film for reasons other than the debate on Capital Punishment. From a strict filmmaking standpoint it stands brilliant and thought-provoking, technically and perfectly simple, with wonderful performances.

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