'Dead Man' has no easy answers

January 30, 1996|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

MIAMI -- Until her brother was shot in the head for walking down the street, my wife was ambivalent about the death penalty. After Ted was killed, something hardened in Marilyn and she could have executed the killer herself. Instead, he was plea-bargained down to a three- to six-year sentence. Marilyn was an angry woman, so consumed that sometimes I thought rage would burn her alive. She could not mention her brother without tears.

So I wondered how she would feel about ''Dead Man Walking,'' the new movie about a nun who becomes spiritual adviser to a Death Row inmate.

As Sister Helen Prejean, Susan Sarandon is a good woman too naive for the mission she undertakes; you are pained for her as she goes unprepared into the moral morass of capital punishment. As Matthew Poncelet, Sean Penn is repulsive -- a murderer, rapist, racist, cowardly little weasel strutting around under a ridiculous pompadour. You wonder, as do the characters in the film and, eventually, Sister Helen herself, why she wastes time with this damned and worthless ''thing.''

The redemption business

But Sister Helen is in the redemption business, the every-life-is-sacred business, and the miracle is that we end up rooting for her and re-examining our own beliefs. Indeed, as the credits rolled, the audience sat in a fog of silence, hands to mouths, eyes drifting inward, some crying. It was a long time before they began gravitating toward the door.

As we drove away, I asked Marilyn if the movie made her think about Ted. ''This makes me think about Ted,'' she said, gesturing toward the radio, where some singer was vowing his love in a high, girlish voice that strained toward heaven. We laughed. Ted always did have a thing for songs from the era of giant Afros and powder-blue suits. ''He'd try to sing along,'' Marilyn said, ''but'' -- and here, we spoke simultaneously -- ''he couldn't sing a lick.''

I remembered the victims' parents in the movies, faces strained, voices choked with unleavened rage, lives forever stuck in the moment the awful thing happened. It seemed strange to talk of Ted with laughter.

I've long opposed the death penalty, and if you'd asked why, I'd have given you what I consider the three most irrefutable arguments: It is capricious -- and racist -- in its application; it does not deter capital crimes; it cannot be rescinded in the case of the innocent person wrongly accused.

But I would have kept my truest reason to myself as if shamed by it: I oppose capital punishment because it's wrong. It lowers us to the level of that which we abhor.

What about the victims?

And yet, having said that, what do you then say to the families of the victims? What closure can you otherwise offer? What justice? What peace? I suspect those things are beyond our ability to grant, in any event. And I suspect there's little true solace in seeing a killer killed.

The film steers clear of polemics and pretends to no easy conclusions. Rather, it draws authority from its willingness to confront, square on and without sentiment, those unanswerable questions.

You look into Matthew Poncelet's eyes and find yourself wondering by what series of events a human being loses his humanity. You look at Sister Helen and ponder the mix of nobility and naivete that motivates her on doom's eve to help him win it back. You ask, how can you love the unlovable, Sister?

And why?

''Dead Man Walking'' is about what life-taking does, not just to its victims, but also to us. On the periphery of the film, politicians bray platitudes about getting tough on crime. But everyone else -- Sister Helen, Poncelet, the victims' parents -- winds up closeted in his or her own conscience, grappling with complex issues of action and consequence, cruelty and love, life and death. It's to the film's credit that neither they nor we get off unscathed.

But ''Dead Man'' is also about the journey to humanity. And the tougher one, to healing. I'll never know what the execution of her brother's killer might have done for my wife. But the point has become academic. I count it a sign of healing that she speaks of Ted without tears.

F: Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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