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Is Responsibility Enough?
Rising in popularity, the Death Penalty has remained a hotly debated, controversial topic that is consistently spurring numerous moral and ethical arguments. Seen as a straightforward concept, a black and white situation, the death penalty has clearly partitioned the world in two divisions. One division holds the belief that it is a threat to human life and dignity, that it should be illegal. While the other supports the legitimacy of capital punishment and believes in the good it can bring. Regardless of the differing views, Dead Man Walking illustrates the doubled sided coin that is the death penalty to assert the value of human life and the toll it takes on an individual. Highlighting the importance of personal responsibility allows Helen Prejean to reveal the moral cost of capital punishment and the emotional brutality that results from it. Backed by Michael Ryan and David Bruck yet countered by Ernest Van den Haag and Ed Koch, Helen’s debate insinuates itself into the spotlight to reveal a paradoxical society focused on a crime becoming a punishment.
From its origination in Fifth Century B.C. Roman Law, to its relocation across seas, capital punishment has always found itself interlaced in the legal doctrine established by the people. Although its tribulations are not as well known “at the writing of the constitution” as they are today, history proven by John Bessler reveals that “the death penalty was more controversial at the [drafting] than it is assumed today” with abolitionist roots dating back to colonial times (Books- Constitution Day: "The Birth of American Law"). Yet it wasn’t until the early Twentieth Century that the abolitionist movement picked up momentum with the dissolution of capital punishment in some states. As the years have passed, an increasing amount of arguments and cases against capital punishment have been brought to trial resulting in an increase in termination of this punishment in many states. Six years ago, a forum regarding the effectiveness of capital punishment seen through the eyes of leaders, both internationally and locally, was brought before the public with similar results to that of its origins in this country. Capital punishment was originally viewed as beneficial in regards to its “deterrence, closure to victims’ families, and costs as compared to alternative sentences” yet the perspectives these officials bring question, like Prejean, if a simpler, more solitary solution would be better because, as Police Chief James Abbott of West Orange, New Jersey states, “I ... know that in practice, [the death penalty] does more harm than good” (“Fighting Crime in the U.S. and Internationally: Is the Death Penalty Necessary?”). Although considered a good idea for former times, as our founding fathers viewed it, this forum reveals that times have changed and our law practices need to adjust with them. Though capital punishment may have its benefits, according to the forum, it only is effective in severe cases when no other option presents itself, otherwise, it appears as if more success was found, though not yet statistically proven, in Prejean’s ways, both morally and in the community.
Every individual is responsible for his or her own actions, regardless of circumstances that influence the outcome. According to Prejean, taking responsibility for one’s actions is the first step towards atonement, yet through the vocalization of Ryan she questions if any further steps beyond “[sitting] in a room with all the people...harmed by [the] crime” are truly necessary (Ryan 232). When presenting Matthew Poncelet in Dead Man Walking, he is initially portrayed as a cold heartless killer, a bigot who “is not a person [but]... an animal” (Dead Man Walking). But through the progression of the film, he becomes pitiable, finally reaching full escalation when recognizing responsibility for his role in the crime. By arranging her piece so the climax is his confession, Prejean is able to create a sympathetic atmosphere among her audience, while entwining reminders of what led to this position. This mood is created through the belief that he has suffered enough for his crimes and she resolves the situation through his acknowledgement of his wrongs to the families of the victims. Prejean presents her case against capital punishment citing “killing is wrong, no matter who does it” and that personal responsibility is the only appropriate punishment for these “monsters” (DMW). While Prejean argues this, Van den Haag counters with “the criminal volunteered to assume the risk of receiving a legal punishment… [and] the punishment he suffers is the punishment he voluntarily risks” (van den Haag). But through this citation, van den Haag unknowingly contributes to the heart of Prejean’s argument: the state’s death penalty policies themselves have to change. Her portrayal of Poncelet and the tribulations he encounters on his process towards acceptance of responsibility subliminally encourages her audience towards the conclusion that to counteract a murder, you don’t resort to violence but turn to rehabilitation through personal responsibility.
To every pro there is a con, the trouble lies in deciding which outweighs the other. For society, the struggle between their aspirations to be moral and just and the greater, more abstract moral cost they pay every time they condone a state-sanctioned murder is a never ending battle. No one wishes to be the person who “heard her cries for help but did nothing while an attacker stabbed her to death”, no one wants that on their conscience (Bruck 581). In order to compensate for this occurrence, they try to reconcile themselves by exerting the harshest punishment known upon the perpetrator while distancing themselves from the act. With this first instinct of “an eye for an eye”, capital punishment made its debut with the thought “the advantages, moral or material, outweigh [the cost]” that would be exerted unto themselves (DMW, van den Haag). In the film, Prejean battles this preconception with the claim that the moral cost society pays far outweighs any benefits it poses. She and Hilton Barber, Poncelet’s lawyer, initiate with the goal of making Poncelet’s humanity obvious to the court, employing the logic “it’s easy to kill a monster, but it’s harder to kill a human being” (DMW). Through the disillusion of Poncelet’s barbarity, a greater toll is taken on the morality of those who condemn him therefore lessening the impact of their justifications. By showing the humanity of a convict, it removes any detachment formed through the belief that they are a monster and instead reveals a fellow human being. This in turn causes their reaction to the death to be greatened and the moral cost increased because they are forced to recognize each individual role they play in the convict’s death and accept their personal responsibility.
Society doles out punishment based upon the severity of the crime, yet many people question who endowed that power unto them. The power to take a life is an ability that many argue is God’s alone and in this film, Prejean utilizes this belief as one of her predominant themes that she indirectly vocalizes through Poncelet in his ending quote summarizing that killing is wrong no matter who does it. By declaring the importance of personal responsibility, Prejean is able to point out the moral cost and emotional brutality capital punishment has upon all involved, not just the murderer, and elucidate her belief in a better justice system.
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"BOOKS - CONSTITUTION DAY: "The Birth of American Law" Death Penalty Information Center. BOOKS. Web. 08 Apr. 2016.
Bruck, David. “The Death Penalty.” Current Issues and Enduring Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking and Argument with Readings. 9th ed. Ed. Sylvan Barnet and Hugo Bedau. Boston/New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011.580-584. Print.
Dead Man Walking. Dir. Tim Robbins. Perf. Sean Penn, Susan Sarandon. Gramercy Pictures, 1995. DVD.
"International Police Forum on the Death Penalty." International Police Forum on the Death Penalty. Death Penalty Information Center. Web. 08 Apr. 2016.
Last edited by emsr2d2; 28-Jul-2016 at 19:59. Reason: Removed hyperlinks and enlarged font to make post readable
When will you submit this essay to your teacher?
One of the hyperlinks I removed (after "Sources") appeared to lead to a website which writes essays for people. Is that the case? Did you write this essay yourself or is an essay-writing website the actual source?
Remember - if you don't use correct capitalisation, punctuation and spacing, anything you write will be incorrect.
Linking to cheat sites is a straight ban. If this is a case of someone getting something from a cheat site then asking us to correct it, it is a first for me. However, cheat sites have been trying to promote themselves of late by trying to add some content before the link inevitably appears. Either way, you get kicked out.