Seniors React to Dead Man Walking

September 23, 2016

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Credit: Anna Padron/Achona Online

Mary Kate Urbanski shares, “It made me see the emotional and human side of men on death row. I had never considered this before.”

Every year Academy seniors are required to take one semester of Social Justice. This class focuses on how the church believes justice should be obtained. Innovative teacher, Megan Dubee is teaching the class a little differently than usual.Following each lesson, Dubee shows her classes a movie that exemplifies the topic at hand. So far the class has watched a film about the El Salvadoran Civil War called Romero and a movie about Catholic Social Worker Dorothy Day called Entertaining Angels. Most recently, students watched controversial film, Dead Man Walking, which has challenged everything the students know concerning the death penalty.

Dead Man Walking follows Matthew Poncelet, a man on death row, who was convicted of rape and murder.. Two families hold him responsible for their children’s death and they want nothing more than for him to die for what he did to their children. Even the local prison priest has given up on him. In desperation, Poncelet writes to Sister Helen Prejean and much to everyone’s dismay she agrees to be his spiritual counselor. A sister defending a rapist and murderer? Yes, that is correct;the Catholic church teaches that all people, no matter what they have done in their life, deserve forgiveness and dignity. Now, she was not fighting to get him out of jail and onto the streets, she was simply fighting for his right to live even if it is in prison.  The movie presents the death penalty in a different light.

Dubee chose to show this movie to her class because “the movie gives you a fair portrayal of both sides and it allows you to see both perspectives of the parties”

The death penalty is often not seen as a real thing to many people because it is something that is not frequently discussed or publicized. The people being put to death are often seen as monsters instead of people.

Senior Caitlyn Chandler confesses, “I think before, I didn’t really see people being put to death as people. Now I feel a lot more empathetic towards them.”

After getting to know Poncelet and see him with his mom and his little brothers the audience cannot help but feel empathetic towards him. Instead of viewing him as a monster, the audience views him as a person. The movie actually shows Poncelet being put to death after he is forgiven by the Catholic church. Many girls found the execution particularly difficult to stomach.

Bruni Neufeld shares, “This movie affected me a lot. After I watched the movie I could not stop shaking. Basically, it just made me realize what actually happens it made it much more real what happens when someone is on death row. The one thing that really resonated with me was how someone said it was the most calculating type of murder.”

After the class finished a movie, they had a presentation put on by their classmates with more of the history of the death penalty. Proceeding the presentation was a class discussion led by some other students. In the discussion, the true meaning of dignity was discussed. For Teresa Toranzo, the discussion is what really changed her views.

Toranzo explains, “I wouldn’t say that I was changed by the movie itself but the class discussion really opened my eyes. It shows that people on death row still have a family and people that care about them. It makes you more aware of the issue that is going on in our country with the thousands of people being put to death.”

At the time it was released, Dead Man Walking was the cause of a lot of controversy surrounding the death penalty.
Credit: Keri Kelly/Achona Online
At the time it was released, Dead Man Walking was the cause of a lot of controversy surrounding the death penalty.

For many students, this movie did not change their mind but strengthen their preexisting beliefs. After watching the movie Senior Haley Schuman was unchanged.

She shares, “The movie was interesting but it didn’t change my view. I still believe the death penalty is warranted in some cases. They took away someone else’s dignity so do they really deserve dignity?”

Similar to Schuman, senior Lindsay Calka’s position on the issue was strengthened.

She explains, “It didn’t change my view. If anything it affirmed it and made me more thoughtful. The biggest takeaway I had was when I realized that it was a true story, the fact that it happens was really weird to me to think about, this happens every day.”

Regardless of the effect, this movie had on the seniors, there is one commonality: this movie challenged students to look at a controversial issue from a whole different side. Seeing a nun take someone who society shuns due to their horrific actions under her wing redefines dignity for everyone. Want to experience the controversy firsthand, watch the movie here.

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