One hundred twenty-five miles up the Mississippi River from New Orleans, a lonely country road winds through cypress and pine and dead ends into Louisiana's maximum security prison at Angola. Nearly fifteen years ago now, I drove that road with my radical Baptist preacher friend Will Campbell who had been asked by a death-row inmate named Robert Collins to serve as his spiritual counselor. I was fresh out of graduate school then and a long way from a tenure decision, so I had the kind of time and inclination to involve myself with causes and people that it regrettably seems I possess no longer.
Will had flown from his home near Nashville, Tennessee, and asked me if I'd be his chauffeur for the day. We drove up Highway 61 through the antebellum plantation town of St. Francisville and off on state road 66 which curled past unpainted shacks through pecan orchards and fields of cotton. A heavyset black woman, clad in a blue denim dress, her head wrapped in a red bandana, walked barefoot down the dusty roadside, a cane fishing pole balanced on her shoulder. It was as if we'd driven into a Walker Evans photograph.
We stopped for refreshments at a country store in the little burg of Turnbull. Three men in overalls sitting in rockers on the porch stopped talking as we clattered up the worn wooden steps, though one returned a "howdy" when Will greeted them. The inside of the store was dimly lit with naked light bulbs, and I squinted to locate a counter and a proprietor chatting with a white-aproned clerk stacking tin cans onto a shelf. The floor was gritty with sawdust, and the whole store smelled of flour and seed and raw cloth.
"Where y'all from?" the proprietor asked as he rang up two Cokes, a cellophane of salted peanuts for me and a bag of Red Man chewing tobacco for Will. "New Orleans," I replied. "Long way," he said, "if you're planning on getting back tonight." He presumably understood that we were headed on to Angola, though, of course, there's no way he could know the precise purpose of our journey. Staring at the rusted tin Jax Beer sign nailed above the store's door as I climbed back behind the wheel of the little red Horizon I drove in those days, I asked Will just when it was we'd crossed out of West Feliciana Parish and into Yaknapatawpha County. He stuck a pinch of Red Man in his jaw and said, "Let's get on up there before they cook the poor bastard."
The prison officials wouldn't let me through the main gate with Will, so I sat in the car in a small parking lot and read Newsweek for a couple of hours while Will visited with the condemned man. On the way home Will had little to say, which was unusual since he loves to find something we can argue about. Robert Collins wasn't going to live much longer before being marched to the electric chair, and Will was heavy with that fact and uncharacteristically somber. Another day he'd have tried to spark a disagreement about sports or fundamentalist Christians or abortion, try to force some blanket statement out of me so that we could arm wrestle over the particulars. But he wouldn't have tried to provoke an argument about capital punishment, since my presence with him that day presumed our shared opposition to the death penalty.
And indeed we did share an opposition to the death penalty in 1981. I had first formed my opposition as a college student in the 1960s when I read George Orwell's deft "A Hanging" and Albert Camus' ardent "Reflections on the Guillotine." And it's important to recall that in the 1960s a majority of Americans opposed capital punishment. We were an optimistic country in those days, and I was one of the country's millions of young idealists. Some folks whose personal philosophies were forged in those heady times have remained true to their ideals. Some folks, like Will, who came of age in the 1940s and were our heroes in the 1960s have never wavered in their understanding of our obligations to one another. But as time has passed these last thirty years, we've become less hopeful as a people, and in matters of public policy, anyway, less generous too. Rising crime rates and a national obsession with firearm ownership, and, of course, the pure ravages of aging have left many who came of age in the era of civil rights fearful and resentful in a way we couldn't even imagine ourselves becoming thirty years ago. And what seemed so clear to our fresh intellects in the 1960s we find ourselves viscerally questioning in the 1990s. I speak with certainty about this change because I am one of the afflicted.
I grew up in New Orleans and have resided here most of my adult life. During my adulthood the city has become one of the most violent places in America. Over the last three years, New Orleans, with a population under 500,000, has averaged slightly more than one murder per day. And in New Orleans, as elsewhere in urban America, crime and race have become psychically as well as statistically intertwined. The vast majority of murders in New Orleans are committed by African Americans (who are the vast majority of victims as well). This climate of crime has frightened the mobile portion of the population, most of which is white, and as a result, there is a resurgence of white flight (middle-class blacks are relocating to the suburbs as well). Many of my colleagues at the University of New Orleans, for instance, are moving north of Lake Pontchartrain even though the commute across the causeway takes an hour and longer.
New Orleans did not become a black majority city until the late 1970s, but less than twenty years later the city's African American population has reached seventy percent. In my adult years we have seen a complete reversal of the city's public racial image. Where once all officials were white, today the mayor is black, five of seven city council members are black, the police chief is black. Critically, for the purposes of our concerns here, the jury system is now dominated by African Americans. Black majority juries are the rule. Entirely black juries are not at all uncommon. And for the two decades that blacks have been in the majority, Orleans Parish juries have been notably reluctant to return recommendations for the death penalty.
As we witnessed in the O.J. Simpson case, our nation's black citizens are far more suspicious of the criminal justice system than are its white citizens. African Americans are acutely conscious of the long history of overt racism by white law enforcement officials and in white-dominated courts. Proceeding from that, black juries have judged even those they deem guilty of capital crimes still in some regard themselves victims, thus the jurors' reluctance to accompany guilty verdicts with recommendations for capital punishment. There is little doubt by greater New Orleans citizens of whatever race that a defendant is far more likely to be sentenced to death if he is tried in a suburban parish court than if he is tried in the city itself.
That fact has been the ironic cause of racial resentment even among those stubborn white residents of the city who believe in racial equality and have historically themselves opposed the death penalty. This past December Juan Smith was convicted of smashing his way into a house and coldbloodedly gunning down five people. But a black jury refused to return a recommendation for the death penalty against Smith even after hearing testimony in the sentencing phase of his trial that he had bragged about murdering three other people, including a three-year-old child.
If several court decisions in the last year represent the beginning of a new trend, however, the reluctance of black juries to recommend capital punishment may be in the process of changing. Black majority juries have recently returned death recommendations in three highly publicized murder cases. In separate trials Antoinette Frank and her accomplice Rogers Lacaze were sent to death row for murdering three employees of a Vietnamese restaurant, two of whom (both devout Catholics) fell to their knees and prayed for mercy before being executed. Then a week ago Shareef Cousin was sentenced to die for shooting a man in the face as he left a French Quarter restaurant. Many whites in our city have found these three decisions encouraging as a sign that our city's long racial rift might finally be narrowing. I am deeply troubled to admit this, but I am one of them.
I took my city's recent crisis of crime and my own eroded opposition to the death penalty with me to see Tim Robbins' Dead Man Walking. I knew beforehand that it was a picture about capital punishment made by and about people deeply opposed to the death penalty. I went hoping to be rejuvenated in my youthful idealism. But Robbins understood from the beginning of this project what I perhaps only glimpse after seeing his completed film: Opposition to the death penalty can be embraced by the intellect, but the intellect is easily defeated by a fearful and angry heart. In the end, the only abiding opposition to the death penalty must be located in the spirit.
Near the beginning of Dead Man Walking, a New Orleans nun named Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon) sets off a metal detector as she attempts to enter the death house at Angola, the same death house where Sister Prejean's friend Will Campbell met with Robert Collins fifteen years ago. In the film, Sister Prejean is both confused and frightened as guards swoop around her, squeeze her in tight fists and begin waving hand-held detectors up and down her body. She has come to visit with a death-row inmate named Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn), and she has, of course, not come armed. But for the briefest moment, as the guards buzz around her, she is a suspect, the object of intense scrutiny by people whose job it is to keep men locked away for the rest of their lives, lives that once were ended with a jolt of electricity, today by a poisoned needle. Eventually, the guards determine that Sister Prejean has tripped their alarm with her metal crucifix. And thereby Robbins establishes his central metaphor. Sister Prejean is armed after all, armed with the incredible power of her faith. And with that faith she has indeed come to Angola to set Matthew Poncelet free.
Scripted by Robbins and based on the real Helen Prejean's memoir, Dead Man Walking is a dramatization of a nun's spiritual journey. Sister Prejean leaves her middle-class girlhood for a life working with the poor and residing in New Orleans' violent St. Thomas Housing Project. Without seeking the role, she becomes a counselor to the condemned and an outspoken opponent of the death penalty. Ultimately she comes to understand that her opposition to capital punishment must be accompanied by an involvement in the lives of the unseen victims, the surviving loved ones of the slain. Matthew Poncelet is a composite of two convicted killers, Robert Lee Willie and Elmo Sonnier, that Helen Prejean counseled as they awaited execution. In the film, Poncelet has been convicted of the brutal rape of a young woman from suburban New Orleans and the subsequent pitiless murder of both the woman and her fiance. Poncelet admits he committed the rape, but claims an accomplice did the actual killing.
Dead Man Walking strives to do several very imposing things. First, it urges a belief in the possibility of redemption. Matthew Poncelet's initial motives for summoning Sister Prejean to his cell may be limited to his desire to have her file motions on his behalf for a new trial. But Sister Prejean continues to involve herself with him right up until the moment of his death in a desperate determination to save his soul. And that means a continuing attempt to get Poncelet to accept responsibility for his actions and to understand and acknowledge the evil nature of what he's done.
In addition, Dead Man Walking illustrates the agony of those who lose their loved ones to a killer's misdirected rage and cold indifference. The parents of one of the victims become so obsessed by their daughter's death that they seem able to talk of nothing else; the parents of the other separate, their emptiness and sorrow driving a stake into their own love. Grief over the murder of a child is so shattering, we learn, that seventy percent of victims' parents separate in the aftermath of their loss.
Most prominently, Dead Man Walking seeks to raise searching questions about the death penalty. And in this regard the picture plays uncommonly fair. Among the traditional reasons for opposing the death penalty is concern over the possibility of executing an innocent person. But Matthew Poncelet isn't innocent. We don't believe even his claims not to have pulled the trigger, and indeed, as he finally admits, we are correct not to. Moreover, Poncelet himself gives us little reason to feel sympathy for him. He is infuriatingly illogical in his determination to blame any and all but himself for his crimes. His primary attitudes are those of disdain and defiance. He makes racist proclamations about his solidarity with the Aryan Brotherhood. And rather than showing Sister Prejean his gratitude, he sneers at her with insulting sexual innuendo. Then in the film's closing passage, given its intentions, Robbins does something strikingly honest and therefore brave: He intercuts Poncelet's last moments, strapped to a gurney and awaiting the drip of the lethal liquid, with the specific, heinous events of his crimes. Matthew Poncelet does not come to his end, in other words, by accident. He is guilty, and in the directives of Exodus 21 he deserves to surrender his own life in payment for the lives he has taken.
But without citing the textual references, Robbins invokes a Biblical imperative that for Christians supersedes Exodus 21, namely the teachings of Jesus who beseeched us to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies, to forgive those who would harm us not once or even seven times only, but seventy times seven, who warned us that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. The Sister Prejean we meet in Dead Man Walking is not a woman for making speeches or, unless pushed, even one much for quoting scripture. But she is a woman of tenacious faith who explains her actions quite simply as "trying to follow the example of Jesus." It is her premise that however evil his actions and however fierce his defenses, Matthew Poncelet is still a human being and therefore the possessor of an immortal soul. And where there is life, there is hope for redemption. Oppose the death penalty though she does, Sister Prejean never believes that she can save Poncelet's life, and that's why she feels such urgency to save his soul.
Sister Prejean knows, of course, that she cannot save Poncelet but can only offer him assistance in saving himself, a salvation that must begin with his facing the truth of his guilt. As the film plays out the last thirty minutes in the murderer's life in something approximating real time, Poncelet finally confesses to killing and at Sister Prejean's urging prepares a statement which he hopes will provide at least a modicum of comfort to the survivors of his victims. And yet it remains unclear, as no doubt it should, whether Poncelet has been freed by such truth as he's finally embraced or has only cracked under the pressure of facing the imminence of his death. Still, the harrowing nature of this closing half hour has an enduring impact as the minutes at once rush and crawl by. In the final sequence Poncelet is strapped to the gurney and pricked with the needle before he is craned to an upright position to make his final statement. Whatever his unspeakable crimes, in that moment his circumstance of helplessness and humiliation is chilling.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus warned us to 'Judge not, that ye be not judged." And Robbins seems to have taken that counsel seriously, but in two ways rather than only the most obvious one, for he has not judged those who cry out for justice even when their understanding of justice is different from his own. Both families of Poncelet's victims want to see the murderer executed, and Robbins never undercuts the power of their feelings. Indeed, as we witness first the horror of Poncelet's crimes, next the unrepentant hardness of his nature and finally the unending suffering of those who loved his victims, we understand their desire for vengeance. And this fact gives to the end of Dead Man Walking a profound feeling of discomfort. At the sold-out afternoon screening I attended in New Orleans, a distraught viewer leapt from his seat in the film's final minutes and demanded in a loud, anguished voice a movie that was sympathetic with the victims. Oddly enough, I think the viewer became so upset precisely because the film is so sympathetic with the victims and yet even in the fullest illustration of its sympathy cries out for mercy for Poncelet, not because he deserves it by any measure apprehensible by the human mind, but because Jesus demands it of us in his name.
In thinking about Dead Man Walking, it is critical to notice the strategy of the film's underlying argument. It merely brushes at the Constitutional debate about "cruel and unusual punishment." Robbins' careful rendering of Matthew Poncelet's last tormented minutes documents that the death penalty is cruel. But many might respond that the state's cruelty to the condemned man is nothing compared to the condemned man's cruelty to his victims. The fact that the poor (who are disproportionately people of color) are sentenced to die far more often than the rich (as the Simpson trial again illustrates) argues powerfully that the death penalty is legally unusual. So does the fact that the mere place one commits a capital crime dramatically influences the chances of a death sentence, a fact on which all suburban and urban New Orleanians would readily agree. But proponents of the death penalty would argue that this problem could be solved by executing killers more often and more routinely.
Tim Robbins' effectiveness both at portraying the suffering of those who mourn the loss of murdered loved ones and at making us understand the fury survivors feel toward their loved ones' killers does not mean, of course, that suffering is eased or fury extinguished by a killer's execution. Still, a consideration for the survivors raises important questions for those who oppose the death penalty. Foremost among them is how a sense of justice may be achieved.
I think that's the exact dilemma that plagues those of us seemingly caught in the contemporary urban crossfire. I have never had a loved one murdered, thank God. But I have known urban crime quite personally. I have had a car stolen; more traumatically, my wife has been held up at gun point. And I know the sense of outrage I have felt in the aftermath of these events. So at least in some small measure I can feel the anger of a murder victim's survivors. In a very real way, every violent crime robs all of us who live in urban America of a feeling of security in our daily activities that ought to be our birthright. The outrage of the citizen whose sense of fundamental physical security has been violated now manifests itself in the nation's overwhelming support for capital punishment, though hardly all who support the death penalty believe that it can be made to play a significant role in reducing violent crime. In short, as a people we have come to endorse capital punishment because we so desire a sense of justice that seems absent from our daily experience.
But perhaps this need not be. What we crave is a maximal accounting with those who have murdered our loved ones and destroyed our peace of mind. And perhaps indeed such a maximal accounting need not require state administered execution. If the death penalty were not available under the law in this state, then we would not have to endure the agony of watching a convicted man and his supporters demand and so often receive from troubled juries a mercy the killer has not shown his own victims. But a harsh sentence, short of death, is requisite. There is no justice without genuine punishment. And the aggrieved, indirect as well as direct, have a right to the satisfaction that justice has been done. In this regard the implications of Dead Man Walking must be applied to all society. As Sister Prejean must counsel the family of the killer's victims, those who oppose the death penalty must marry to their own crusade an equivalent demand for a system of justice in which punishment becomes the result of crime.
But whatever the merits of these complicated reflections, they proceed from the mind rather than the heart. As I write these words, another high profile murder case is >being tried in an Orleans Parish courtroom. Percy Hawthorne and Leon Burton are on trial for killing a seventy-year-old crippled artist named Phil Thomasson. Though each blames the other for pulling the trigger, in their taped confessions Hawthorne and Burton agree that they carjacked Thomasson's van, put him out in a dark vacant lot, and as he supported himself on his cane and pleaded for his life, shot him in the head. I presume that an Orleans Parish jury will find Hawthorne and Burton guilty. And when they do, I hope the jurors will return as well a recommendation for capital punishment.
And yet, I wish I didn't feel that way at all. Though my angry heart demands they be condemned, remembering the last awful moments of Matthew Poncelet, I can't honestly say that I hope Hawthorne and Burton someday find themselves strapped to the gurney. What I really wish is that I was still that younger, more idealistic man. I wish my life had not been tarnished by frustration and fear. I wish my conscience on this matter were clear in a way that it most certainly isn't. I wish I could still ride along through the verdant Louisiana countryside on a mission of mercy with a man like Will Campbell.
I had intended to conclude these reflections by offering a single criticism of Dead Man Walking, a criticism I felt quite strongly while watching the film. As Poncelet lies on the injection table in the very last moments of his life, Sister Prejean stretches out her hand toward him and mouths words he cannot hear but perhaps can understand coming from her lips. "I love you," she says. I struggled against this scene at the time I witnessed it because Poncelet is so thoroughly unlovable. Even at the end when he has finally done some tiny thing we might judge as right, as perhaps redemptive, he is still almost utterly despicable. How could she conceivably love him, I thought. Better, truer, I thought, shouldn't she say, "God loves you." But upon reflection, what I originally thought as inappropriate is simply a measure of the difference between Helen Prejean and Will Campbell and me. Sustained by their profound religious faith, Sister Prejean and Will know without question that the death penalty is wrong and have found in their hearts the astonishing grace to love their enemies. I once shared the ideals of Helen Prejean and Will Campbell, but my beliefs were housed in the intellect, the flimsiest of vessels. And would that it were otherwise, my faith lacks their certainty. I am imprisoned by the battle between what I think and what I feel. So today I pray that the spiritual truth of Helen Prejean and Will Campbell's example, the example of Jesus, will someday set me free.