The Constitutionality of the US death penalty is something that has continuously been called into question for years. In 1972, the Supreme Court deemed the practice as it was currently administered to be unconstitutional, namely because of the fact that death sentences were handed down to defendants inconsistently. In the face of public and state disapproval, the Court changed its mind, and, in 1976, allowed States to decide the issue for themselves (so long as they met certain criteria). Since then, there has been an increasing number of states that have abolished the death penalty, others that have it on the books but don’t actually ever execute death row members, and still others that continue to employ it as form of punishment. Recently, Connecticut became the 17th state to abolish the death penalty altogether.
In my classroom experience at Amherst, I’ve come to understand that there are generally two types of arguments regarding the death penalty: one that appeals to morals/ethics (i.e., killing somebody is wrong, or putting a murderer to death is acceptable because they get what they deserve) and procedural arguments (i.e. the way the death penalty works, or the way people are sentenced, is (un)constitutional). This article, though, is about neither: I’m not going to talk about whether I think the death penalty is good or bad, constitutional or unconstitutional. Instead, I’m writing about a death penalty movie, in fact a particular scene, that has haunted me since watching it.
The movie I watched shows the experience of a man who is ultimately executed after living years on death row. It’s about the man’s life, his pain, and his death. It’s about his experience knowing that he will be killed; his experience knowing the exact amount of time he has left to live, and what his last meal will be. The movie, in other words, is about something I know little about, and understand even less. On the surface, it’s about death; but, more than anything else, the movie is about knowing when life ends. Fittingly, the film is titled Dead Man Walking.
The scene that continues to bother me, then, is a scene that takes place near the end of the movie. In the scene, the main character, Matthew (played by Sean Penn), is allowed a few precious hours to spend time with his family before his final meal and ultimate walk to the execution chamber. Both he and his family understand that later that day Matthew will be dead, yet they realize that they have to make the most of the situation because it is the last time they will ever be together. The conversation between Matthew and his family over the course of the hours jumps around; at times it is awkward, and at others particularly sad as they reminisce about the past. The camera frequently turns to the clock everybody meticulously watches that hangs on the wall nearby, powerfully emphasizing the importance of time as the seconds melt away in Matthew’s life.
As I watched, I found myself thinking, “how can they manage to hold a conversation while dealing with this sort of pain?” I could feel a tangible tension growing within me as I tried to fathom the agonizing experience of, over the course of hours, saying goodbye to a loved one. What would I say? How would I, in that final second, say goodbye?
Finally, Matthew’s family is told they have to leave. “Little early, [isn’t] it?” asks Matthew, pointing out that there are still twelve minutes before the 6:45 deadline. Not caring, a guard demands that Matthew stand up, saying “y’all say goodbye now,” effectively marking the final goodbye. As they stand up to say goodbye to one another, an uncomfortable moment of silence ensues as they stare at the ground at their feet, or look forlornly into each others’ eyes. Breaking the silence, Matt’s brother says, “see you later, Matt,” and his mother then adds, “I love you, Matty.” As she moves to give him a last hug, the guards immediately stop her, citing security reasons. “They won’t even let her hug him goodbye…” I thought to myself. Moments later as she is led out of the room, Matthew’s mother comments that “if I’d put my arms around my boy, I’d never have let go.”
Of course, the film is a fictional portrayal of death, so the dynamics of the final goodbye are not necessarily reflective of what actually happens. Nevertheless, the scene terrified me because I can’t help but think that there is a fundamental truth in the scene’s message in that it is an impossibly complicated, painful, and destructive situation to have to knowingly say goodbye as a result of impending, and unwilling, death. Today, the questions raised within me by the “goodbye scene,” questions about family, death and saying goodbye, are still haunting. What would I say to my family if I knew I would never see them again? How would I cope with knowing exactly when I would die?
I haven’t reached any comforting or satisfying conclusions, and thus I still can’t help but mull these things over now and then. But, I’ve begun to think that maybe any words I can articulate simply aren’t appropriate for understanding this circumstance. Maybe a situation like this is simply beyond my grasp—beyond my capability of understanding. Maybe we aren’t supposed to know when we’ll die because we aren’t able to deal with the emotions and feelings it necessarily entails. Maybe this is just too much.
Picture from: http://deathpenaltynews.blogspot.com/2011/04/cinema-and-death-penalty.html