Dead Man Walking
Based on the non-fiction book by Helen Prejean and directed by Tim Robbins, a nun who works with the poor becomes the spiritual advisor of a convicted rapist and murderer who is on death row.
Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon) walks through a poor neighborhood and enters Hope House. She goes into a classroom and hands out new composition books. Sister Colleen (Margo Martindale) tells her about a resident council meeting tomorrow, and she shows her a copy of her poems that got smudged. The African-American Henry (Dennis Neal) says he got another letter from a man on death row at Angola, and he asks Helen if she would write to him. She says she will.
Helen is reading the letter, and Henry says he and others are trying to find attorneys to represent them. She says they want those who work for free, and he says the petitions take many hours to prepare. She looks at the address of the prisoner on an envelope.
She sits on her bed and reads a letter from Matthew who writes how he spends 23 hours a day in his cell because they don’t work. He had a dream that he was going to be fried in his cell, and a guard came in and rolled him in breadcrumbs, licking his chops. He says his mind does strange things when you are locked up surrounded by people who want to kill you.
Helen drives into the Louisiana State Penitentiary. She goes through a security search. She meets Chaplain Farley (Scott Wilson) in his office. He looks at a paper and asks if she has been in a prison before. She says no except she once sang “Kumbaya” in a juvenile detention center. He is wearing a clerical collar and asks where her habit is. She says their sisters have not worn a habit for twenty years. He asks if she is aware of the papal request regarding nuns’ garments. She replies that the requirement is for “distinctive clothing.” He is sure she will interpret it in a way that is convenient. He remembers that Matthew Poncelet and another fellow shot two children on lovers lane, raped a girl, and then stabbed her several times. He asks if she knows what she is getting into. He asks if she is doing it out of “morbid fascination” or “bleeding-heart sympathy.” She says he wrote her and asked her to come. He warns her that they are all con men and will take advantage of her every way they can. He says she must be very careful. These men do not see many females. He says her scorning authority by not wearing the habit will only encourage them to do the same.
Helen walks with a guard to the death row section of the prison. She is told where to wait, and she can hear shouting. Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn) comes to the mesh metal barrier between them, and she says she made it. He sits down and says he never thought he would be visited by a nun. He lights a cigarette. She says she is there to listen to whatever he wants to talk about. He says she sounds very sincere and assumes she has never done this before and asks if she has ever been this close to a murderer before. She says not that she knows of. When he saw the name “Helen,” he almost ripped it up because that was his old lady’s name, and she turned him in by calling the cops, making his kid an orphan. She asks if it is a girl or boy and what the name is. He says it is a girl and that she asks a lot of questions. She says she does not know him. He refers to her letter that said she works with poor people and that her daddy was a lawyer. He asks if she comes from money, and she admits she does. He thinks she must be crazy to live in the St. Thomas projects, a slum, and she says she lives where she works. She asks about him. He says he lives here. She asks if he was brought up poor, and he says no one with money is on death row. She says they have something in common, living with the poor. He asks if she is going to ask him what he did, and she says the chaplain filled her in. He says Farley is very religious. He says he did not kill anyone. Carl Vitello went crazy on him, and he should be sitting there. He says Carl made him hold the kids down. They were loaded on downs, acid, and booze when this happened. He had not slept for two nights and was out of his head, and he says he did not kill them. He swears to God. He shows her a photo of his daughter and says her name is Ali. She says she is cute. He says she is eleven and was born when he was in prison the first time. He saw her only once when she was three. She asks if he writes to her, and he says he does not know her address; she is in Texas with foster parents. The guard opens the door and tells her to finish up, and he closes the door. Matthew says they are about to go on a killing spree here. He says they are going to zap Tobias tonight, and guards are taking bets on who is next. He says the odds are even money that he is next. He sees two chances for himself—the pardon board and the federal appeals court. He wrote the motion on the appeal, but he needs somebody to file it. He asks if she can help with that. She says he knows how to write a motion. He says when your back is against the wall, you learn the law fast. He has been on death row for six years and says he has studied every law book he can get his hands on. He has all his legal papers and transcripts of trials. He hopes that she can get help on his case real fast to find a lawyer who could file an appeal. He says she is not coming back, but she asks if those are his only copies. He says he has his own copy, but they are hard to come by. So if she is not going to help him, he does not want to waste any. She says she will do her best, and she appreciates his trust. He says he does not trust anyone in here.
Helen leaves and drives home thinking about other things he said. She is stopped by a state trooper who says she was going 75 miles an hour. He asks if she is a nun, and she says yes. He says he gave a ticket to a guy from the IRS one time, and he got audited the next year. He says he will let this one slide and tells her to keep her speed down. She says she will.
In her room Helen is reading the legal documents and news clippings about the crimes.
Television news reports on the crimes and the trial.
Helen tells Henry that Poncelet claimed that Vitello did the killing. He chuckles and says they both said the other did the killing; somebody is lying. He says they both were there. She asks why one got life and the other death. He says the state had a stronger case against Poncelet, and Vitello had a better lawyer who created a reasonable doubt in the jury’s minds. He says the lawyer Hilton Barber is aware of the case, but he said no. He says maybe she could change his mind. She asks if the aim is getting him a new trial and getting him out. She is not sure she wants to run into this guy on the street. Henry says he could never get off because he was there and an accomplice; that alone gets one a life sentence. In Louisiana that is real. He says they are just trying to stop the state from killing him. He asks if she wants out and says she would not have to go back there.
Helen and Colleen are watching on TV a politician who says they have to get tough on lenient parole boards and judges who give light sentences. Helen answers the phone. Matthew says they are going to kill him and have set a date on the 13th. He says he did not know that he had to have a lawyer to get a hearing. They told him no lawyer, no hearing. He says he has not heard from her lately and asks if she is fading out on him. She says she will get him a lawyer and tells him to try not to worry. He says all right and hangs up. The news shows Clyde Percy (R. Lee Ermey) saying he would rather see him fry, and the newscaster says that barring appeals Poncelet will die by lethal injection. Helen calls Luis and asks for the name of the lawyer he wanted her to talk to.
Helen is driving her car, and Hilton Barber (Robert Prosky) asks how long she has been counseling death-row inmates. She says she met him only once. He asks her impression, and she says she does not know if she likes him; but he needs help, and she figures the best thing she can do is bring him a lawyer. He says he will do his best. He says courts do not want to hear death-penalty cases. Even if you have new evidence, the court won’t hear the case. He says they are the pariahs.
Poncelet tells Barber and Helen that just before Governor Benedict started running for re-election they set a date for his execution to show how tough he is on crime. Barber agrees it is a political issue; but he advises him that the pardon board is not the place to bring this up because it is full of political appointees. He says they should present him as a human being and convince them to spare his life. Poncelet says they have to prove he is innocent. Barber explains they will get to that when they apply to the federal court and the Supreme Court. He says the pardon board does not care whether he pulled the trigger or not. He says they will be thinking of him as a killer and a monster. It is easy to kill a monster but hard to kill a human being. That is why they need people who know him like his mama to speak on his behalf at this hearing. Poncelet says he does not want her there because she will bust out crying and won’t be able to say anything. He says she will have to hear Delacroix, the Percys, and the D. A. Helen interrupts and says he is right that it will be upsetting for his mother; but she is his mama and should have the opportunity to speak for her child if she wants to. Poncelet says she will only blubber her head off. She says she has the right to do that. She asks what if he dies, and she had no chance to speak for him. She asks if it will hard for her wondering if she could have saved him. He says he will think about it, but he wants them to know that he has his pride. He is not going to kiss ass in front of these people.
Helen and Colleen are singing and clapping at a crowded church service.
Helen with a pie comes to a poor house and says happy Easter to Craig Poncelet (Jack Black) who is working on a car in the front yard. She knocks, and a woman asks who it is. She says she is Sister Helen Prejean and that she knows her son Matthew. Lucille Poncelet (Roberta Maxwell) opens the door a few inches and asks if she is sure that she is a sister. She makes sure she is not from the TV. Helen says she visited him in prison. Lucille lets her in and asks what she wants. Helen says they set the execution date. Lucille says they asked her if she has death insurance. She laughs and says she does not even have food money. Helen says his pardon board hearing is on Wednesday, and his lawyer thinks it would be good if she was there. She asks what Mattie thinks, and Helen says he is worried. Lucille says it is a little late because the show “Inside Crime” did a thing on Mattie. She tried to help him, and now she is famous as a kind of Ma Barker. She tells how she was in a store, and she heard a lady say that she can’t wait to hear that they have executed that murderer Matthew Poncelet. Lucille says her boys are having a hard time at school because other kids are picking on them, beating them up, and calling them names. Someone put a dead squirrel inside Troy’s locker, and he came home crying. She asks what he ever did to anyone. Lucille says she is trying to figure out what she did wrong.
At a dinner table Helen tells her family that these people were plowed over by life. He started getting in trouble when he was fifteen. His dad was never around. Her brother says that most of the kids in the projects are brought up in single-parent families, and they are not raping and killing. He says she is being suckered. He asks about the parents. Helen’s mother (Lois Smith) asks if she is helping the people in her neighborhood, and Helen says she is still working with them. She says she is wasting her energy and resources trying to help end-of-the-line murderers. She could be keeping other children from going to prison and death row. Her sister tells Helen that her name was in the paper with Poncelet’s name. Her mother asks what has drawn her to this, and Helen says she feels more caught than drawn. She says the man is in trouble, and she is the only one he trusts. Her mother says her heart is in the right place but that it should not follow an empty head, and her brother adds nor an empty stomach. Helen throws her napkin at her brother. They laugh. Her mother says Helen was always trying to bring home stray dogs and cats; if they had taken them in, they would not have had money to feed the children. She says Helen’s heart is large and advises her to be careful that others do not take advantage of it. Helen says all right.
Matthew Poncelet tells Helen that when he was twelve, his dad took him to a bar and told him to pick his whiskey. They got drunk that night. He says his dad was a good man and a hard worker. He left when he was fourteen. He asks why she is a nun, and she says she was drawn to it. She says that is hard to answer, like why he is a con. He says bad luck. She says she was raised by a good family and wants to give some of it back. He asks if she misses not having a man. She says she has men and women who are friends. She has never experienced sexual intimacy, but there are other ways of being close; sharing your dreams, thoughts, and feelings can be intimate too. He says they have intimacy right now. She says she went to see his mother, and she said she would speak to the pardon board hearing if he wants her to. He says he likes being alone with her, and she is looking real good to him. She says death is breathing down his neck while he is playing little man-on-the-make games. She is not there for his amusement and asks him to show some respect. He asks if he should respect her because she is a nun and has a little cross around her neck. She says she is a person, and a person deserves respect. She asks what his answer is to his mother.
At the pardon board hearing Lucille is sitting at a table next to Matthew and says he had a hard life, but he was a good boy. She cries and sobs, and Helen gets up and helps her to leave the room. Barber says they must be honest and admit that they are not going to find rich people on death row; Matthew is there because he is poor and had no money for a lawyer. The state gave him a tax lawyer who had never tried a capital case before. Jury selection took four hours, and the trial lasted five days. In the entire trial the lawyer raised only one objection. If Matthew had money, he could have hired a team of excellent lawyers who would have hired skilled investigators and experts, a psychologist to advise them on jury selection, and they could be sure that he would not be sitting there before him asking for his life. Barber stands up and says the death penalty has been with them for centuries, and he lists various forms of execution; but now they have developed the most humane of all, lethal injection. We strap the guy up and anesthetize him with the first shot. The second shot implodes his lungs, and the third shot stops his heart. He says we put him to death like an old horse. He says the first shot relaxes the muscles so that we do not have to see the horror show while this human’s organs writhe, twist, and contort. We nod our heads and say justice has been done.
Guy Gilardi (Larry Pine) says it has been six years since the brutal murders of Hope Percy and Walt Delacroix, and justice is long overdue. Matt Poncelet has had a retrial for sentencing, numerous appeals, and successive petitions filed by Mr. Barber. He says there has never been any doubt about who committed the murders. He says Matt Poncelet is not a good boy; he is a cruel murderer. He says Poncelet shot Percy in the back of the head and raped Hope Percy many times before shooting her in the head. He says their parents will never see them experience many things, and there will be no grandchildren. He says they are asking for simple justice for their unbearable loss. He asks them to steel their spines and proceed with the execution.
Barber walks with Helen and says it is always a good sign when you have to wait. She says he did great. He says the best thing would be if they realized their own culpability in the death of a man. Henry takes Barber aside. Earl Delacroix (Raymond J. Barry) walks over to Helen and tells her he is Delacroix’s father. She says she is sorry about his son. He says he is a Catholic and asks her how she can sit by Poncelet’s side without ever having visited him or his wife. She says she did not think he wanted to talk to her. Delacroix introduces her to Mary Beth Percy (Celia Weston) and Clyde Percy. She says she is sorry about their daughter, and Clyde says they are too and excuses himself. Delacroix tells Helen that she has seen a side of Poncelet he has shown her to get her sympathy; but he says he is an evil man who abducted children and raped and killed them. He says he robbed him of his only son. He says his name will die with him. She says she cares about him and his family, and she gives him her number so that he can call her if there is anything they need. He asks her to think about how arrogant it is for her to ask him to call her. He excuses himself and walks away. Barber asks if she is all right and says they have to go in.
A woman on the board announces that clemency is denied and that the execution will be carried out in one week. Barber tells Poncelet that they still can appeal to a judge in the Fifth Circuit to put a stop to it, and after that they have the Supreme Court. He will also try to get a private meeting with the Governor. Poncelet stands up, and two guards take ahold of him. He tells Helen that she is all he has. He can choose his spiritual advisor and asks if she will do it. She says yes, and he tells her to ride into the sunset with him. The guards take him away.
Outside Barber tells her that she will have to spend several hours with him every day, and on the execution date she will be with him all day. He says it is not an easy job. He says it is usually a chaplain or a priest. He tells her they have about a one in one thousand chance that things might go their way.
Helen teaches a black boy how to play checkers.
Helen is driving while listening to people talking about the execution on the radio. She turns it off.
Helen rings a doorbell, and Delacroix asks what she wants. She has been calling him, but there was no answer. She asks if she may please speak with him, and he says sure but does not unlatch the screen door. She talks to him through the screen and says she is sorry she did not come to visit them before this. She has never been involved in this kind of thing before. He says the truth is that she is scared. She says yes. He says he would be too, and he opens the door for her to come in. Inside he asks if she is a Communist, and she says no. Some people said that, but he did not think so. He tells her to sit down and gets some coffee for her. He says he had a fight with his wife after she took Walter’s clothes and put them in boxes for the Goodwill. She wants to put the past behind her and move on with her life. He picks up a chair and sits near her. He says his wife is not herself, and Helen says it must be hard. He says that at first she had him take her to Walter’s grave every morning for months. He looked for some key to change her and says it tears him up. He says they used to have fun and laugh. He shows her a photo of the boy and talks about his childhood. He says when you lose a child, the memories get sealed like a shrine.
Chaplain Farley notes that Helen put in a request to be Poncelet’s spiritual advisor. She says he asked her, and he says it is very unusual. She asks why, and he says she would be the first woman to do it. He says this situation requires someone with experience. This boy is going to be executed in six days and is in dire need of redemption. He asks if she is up to this. She hopes that she is, and she has been praying for guidance. He says she can save this boy by getting him to receive the sacraments of the Church before he dies; that is her job. He says if she needs any help, he hopes she will call on him. She thanks him.
Poncelet tells Helen that he does not want to be buried here. He asks her to call his mother about the funeral arrangements because he is afraid she will fall apart on it. She asks if he ever reads the Bible, and he says he has picked it up from time to time; but he is not much of a reader. She tells how in a movie W. C. Fields says he is reading the Bible because he is looking for a loophole. He laughs and says he is not looking for a loophole. He says the rain is a bad sign. He says they executed one black and will do another tonight. Now it is time for a white. He says the Governor is under pressure to get a white, and that is him. He hopes they will clean that thing before they put him on it. She asks if his daddy was a racist, and he asks what kind of question is that. She says you have to teach a child to hate. He says he does not like “niggers.” She asks if he has ever known any. He says he lived around them but never played with them. He says he and his cousin were jumped by them once. He says they threw rocks at them, and they tore up their bikes. He says slavery is long over, but they are still complaining about it. He says they are all victims, but she says she knows some cool people in her neighborhood. He knows a lot of lazy coloreds on welfare sucking up the tax dollars. She says he sounds like a politician. She asks if he has ever been the object of prejudice, and he says no. She asks what people think about people on death row, and he says he does not know. He asks her to tell him. She says they think they are all monsters. He admits he likes Martin Luther King because he was not lazy. She says he does not like lazy people, and he asks to talk about something else.
At night outside the prison Percy, Delacroix, and others are demonstrating on one side of the street while those opposed to the death penalty are on the other side. Police keep them apart. Helen and other sisters are praying while holding candles. Percy tells a TV reporter that this is the only way they can be sure they will not kill again. He says they are mad dogs.
Helen leaves with Colleen and talks to her as she drives. She says they have to get a funeral home and a place to bury him. Colleen says maybe the sisters can donate a burial plot. They talk about getting him a suit, and Colleen asks how tall he is. They laugh about a nun shopping for a man’s suit.
In their home Mary Beth Percy and Clyde tell Helen about Hope. She was about to be inducted into the military. She had a date with Walter, and they talk about their last memories of her. Mary Beth cries and wishes she could have told her that she loves her. They thought maybe they ran off to get married. He filled out a missing person’s form at the police station. Three days later they formed a search party. Some kids found the purse and clothing. They found the bodies six days later. She says her vagina was all tore up. Her class pin was embedded in her body by the stabbing. They describe the gruesome details of her mutilated body. Clyde says that Mary Beth’s brother was against the death penalty; but after he had to identify her body, he changed his mind. Mary Beth says she had to be sure it was Hope. Helen meets their daughter Emily. Clyde tells how he saw Poncelet and said he will be glad to see him fry. He thought how he could grab a sheriff’s gun and kill him. He wishes he had because he would be happier today. Mary Beth asks Helen what made her change her mind and come around to their side. Helen says she just wanted to see if she could help them and pray with them; but he asked her to be his spiritual advisor and be with him when he dies. She said she would. Clyde says they thought she had changed her mind, and that is why she is here. She says no. The Percys both ask how she can do that. Helen says she is trying to follow the example of Jesus who said that every person is worth more than their worst act. Clyde says this is not a person but God’s mistake, and she wants to hold the murderer’s hand and comfort him when he dies. He says no one was there to comfort Hope in the woods. Helen says she wants to help him take responsibility for what he did. She says he said he did not kill anybody. Clyde says she is in way over her head, and Mary Beth says she does not know what it is like to carry a child. Clyde says his parents raised him to respect the religious, but he wants her to leave this house right now. Helen says she is sorry and gets up to go. He follows her and says she can’t have it both ways; she cannot expect to comfort that murderer and be their friend too. Mary Beth says she brought their enemy into their house.
Helen is crying as she drives.
At home Helen and Colleen are watching an interview of Poncelet on TV. He says he had a good family, and his other family is the one in prison; they are his white family, the Aryan brotherhood. He admits he admires Hitler and Castro because they both got things done. Helen asks what she is doing with this guy; she must be crazy. He grants that Hitler got carried away with killing. He says the Aryan master race was the right track. He doubts the killing of six million Jews as unproved. He says they tried to assassinate Castro, Allende, and the Sandinistas. He says the government should not have the power to execute anyone. Helen answers the phone and is told to come in for a strategy meeting.
In an office people are working at tables. Barber asks Henry how close they are to getting on the Supreme Court docket. Henry says a couple days. Barber asks what he has been doing, and Henry says he had to take his kid to the dentist.
Helen is walking around as she tells Poncelet that his interview made people think he is a nut talking about Hitler and terrorists blowing things up. He says he was talking about government buildings, not people. She asks how you can blow up a building without hurting people. He says he has no love for the government. She says he is a fool because he is making it so easy for them to kill him by coming across as a crazy Nazi-racist mad dog who deserves to die. He asks if that is what she thinks. She says he is making it so difficult to help him. He says she can leave, but she says she is staying. She asks if he wants her to go, but he says nothing. She asks how he would feel if someone killed his sister, and he says he would kill them. He says he wants to take a lie detector test so that his mama will know he did not kill anyone.
Helen comes home and talks with the black children. They leave, and Colleen tells her they read about Poncelet’s racist comments. They are wondering why she cares more about him than her clients. Colleen says she still loves her, and she shows her a suit they got at Goodwill. They can use one of their burial plots. They talk about a nun who said she would never share her bed with a man, and now she will be lying next to a man for all eternity. They laugh.
Helen sits next to Delacroix in a support group for relatives of victims as they tell their stories. He says his wife filed for divorce this afternoon because they have different ways of dealing with their son’s death. After the meeting Helen thanks him for inviting her.
Helen rides in a prison car and sees men working in the fields. She imagines Poncelet in the woods during the crime. In prison she is searched and is told to wait. Poncelet is brought to a glass window with little holes and asks her if she likes his new digs. He says he is special and has this place all to himself, but ten men are guarding him. Every fifteen minutes a guy checks to make sure he is not killing himself. He says he never had anyone caring so much what he was doing. He says he has three days of quiet to read his Bible to look for a loophole. She asks if he read about Jesus. He says he did good and was a holy man. She suggest passages about how he faced death. He says he and Jesus have different ways. She says Jesus was a rebel and a dangerous man. He asks what is dangerous about “love your brother.” She says his love changed things. All the people nobody cared about—the poor, beggars, and prostitutes found they had someone who respected and loved them. She says they were becoming so powerful that the guys at the top got nervous and had to kill Jesus. He asks if he was like him, but she says he changed the world with his love, not by murder. They hear a buzzer, and guards take Poncelet away. One tells her he will be about an hour.
Helen waits outside and talks with an officer who tells her he is on the strap-down team.
Chaplain Farley tells Helen that there are reasons for things. She wants to have a hymn played, but he says that stirs up emotions. She asks if he objects to her asking the warden; he says he opposes it, but she may ask. He learned that she was protesting the last execution and asks if she is familiar with the Old Testament where it says, “Thou shalt not kill. If anyone sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” She says yes and asks if he knows the New Testament where Jesus talks about grace and reconciliation. He says that if Poncelet accepts that Jesus died for his sins, then reconciliation is his. He says the death penalty is not the issue and refers to Romans that tells people to respect authority. He says those who oppose it will bring judgment on themselves. While hearing this Helen faints.
Helen is taken for emergency care and is put in a hospital bed. She tells a doctor that she is hungry. The woman thanks God they are off the electric chair because the needle is easier. Helen asks who puts the needle in, and the doctor says they are not allowed to disclose the specifics of execution. She wants to go back, but a guard tells her that the warden decided she is through for the day.
The next day Poncelet asks Helen why she did not come back. She says they would not let her. He complains he spent the whole day alone. She says she is sorry, and they sit down. He asks if she gets lonely, and she says yes. He says what he misses most there is women. He used to dance until three in the morning. He misses having sex with women. She says if she had a husband, she would not be there talking to him. She asks if he wants her to take a message to his daughter, and he tells her to let her be. He lights a cigarette, and she says those things will kill you. He says the waiting his hard, and he hopes his legs will hold up. She says she and Barber have an appointment with the Governor this evening. He gets angry at himself for having said all that shit about Hitler and being a terrorist; that was stupid. She says Warden Hartman said there would not be any more media interviews. He says that is good. She arranged a lie detector test for tomorrow morning, and he says that is good news. She says the operator doubts it will be accurate because he is under stress, and that is taken for dishonesty. He says he will take it. He says reading the Bible makes him want to sleep. He appreciates her efforts and says he got things squared away with Jesus. He knows Jesus died for his sin, and he is going to be there for him on judgment day. She says redemption is not a free ticket you get because Jesus paid the price. She says he has to participate in his own redemption. He may have some work to do, and she recommends he look at the Gospel of John chapter 8 where Jesus said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth will free you.” He says he likes that. He says if he passes the lie detector test, he is home free. She says as his friend she would like to see him die with dignity. To do that she says he has to own up to his part he played in Walter and Hope’s deaths.
Outside the building Helen introduces Bishop Norwich to Barber who says he understands that Governor Benedict is a reluctant supporter of capital punishment. He has the power to stop the execution and save his life. He says they need to appeal to him in a personal way, and that is why he asked for a private meeting.
With media and reporters all around Governor Benedict says his responsibility is to carry out the law. Barber tells Helen they still have the court.
Helen is resting on her bed and is called to dinner. She sees her mother waking her up. She says she has to be there at nine. Her mother asks if he has admitted anything. Helen says he does not trust anybody and is pushing her away. Her mother says she is in deep water and relates a past experience when she protected her.
Poncelet tells Helen he is looking death in the eye and is getting ready to go. She tells him that she respects his privacy if he wants to be alone or with his family today. He wants her to be there so he can talk to somebody to the end, and she says she will be there. He talks about what the dying will be like. The lungs go first, and he thinks it must hurt. The body does not move.
Helen talks about the Bible with Sergeant Neal Trapp (Steve Boles), but he says he is not going to argue with a nun because he is going to lose.
In a room Matthew is meeting with his mother and brothers. They joke about girls. Little Troy says he and his buddy put up a tent. At midnight some animal was there. Matthew asks if he went inside because mama told him to or because he was scared. His mother says some people were asking about his funeral, and she says she got angry and says he is not dead yet. No one is saying anything, and a man comes in and says it is time for the folks to be leaving. An officer brings in a bag, and Matthew says they can take his stuff home. The guard says they can say their goodbyes now while two guards are holding him. Guards do not allow his mother to come near him for security reasons. He tells her not to cry and says he will call her later. His mother says she loves him. Helen consoles her.
Poncelet says he never had shrimp before, and he likes them. She says the results of the lie detector test were inconclusive because his answers showed stress. He says he did not feel stress and cannot believe that it did not come out right. She suggests they talk about that night, but he says he does not want to.
Poncelet and Vitello tell Walter and Hope to get out of the car.
Poncelet tells Helen he is pissed off at the kids for being parked in the woods and at himself and others too. She asks if he wants his last words to be of hatred. He says Clyde Percy wants to kill him, and she says how angry he must be because he will never hold his daughter again. She says he has robbed these parents of their joy, and they have nothing left. She asks what possessed him to be in the woods, and he says he told her he was stoned out of his head. She says he was harassing girls for months before this. She asks if he looked up to Vitello and thought he was cool, or did he want to impress him. He says he went psycho on him. She tells him not to blame him or the government, drugs, the blacks, or the kids for being there. She asks what about Matthew Poncelet. She asks if he was a victim. He says no. Warden Hartman (Nesbit Blaisdell) comes in and tells Poncelet that the federal appeals court turned him down. He says he is sorry and walks out. A guard tells Helen to step into the corridor. She says she will be back.
Poncelet is talking on the phone and says justice failed him.
Helen goes to the restroom and prays for help.
In his cell Poncelet is shackled and chained. He tells Helen that they shaved the calf of his leg. She asks if getting the tattoos hurt. He says if she sees those, she will think he is a bad person. She says he has more color on his skin than she realized. He gives her his Bible and says he dated it himself. A guard tells her to step back from the cell, and Poncelet takes a phone call from his mother. He weeps and tells her not to cry. Helen sees it is 11:30. She looks at where he recorded the date of his death in the Bible. He tells his mother he loves her. He tells Helen that he hated saying goodbye. He says his mama said that it was Vitello that got him involved. He admits that he was a victim and a chicken. He tried to be as tough as he was. He told his mama that he was yellow. She kept saying it wasn’t him. Matt confesses he killed Walter. She asks about Hope, and he says no. She asks if he raped her, and he admits that he did. She asks if he takes responsibility for both of their deaths. He says yes. He says he kneeled down by his bunk and prayed for those kids. She says there are spaces of sorrow that only God can touch. He did a terrible thing; but he has the dignity now, and nobody can take that from him. She says he is a son of God. He cries and says no one ever called him that before. He hopes his death can give those parents some relief. Maybe it is the best he can give. He says he never had much love for himself. He never loved a woman nor anyone else much. He says it figures he would have to die to find love. He thanks her for loving him, and she cries. He sees it is 11:41 and says time is flying. He feels cold, and she calls for a jacket or something. He asks about the song she wanted to play, and she says they have a rule you cannot have music in the prison. He says she knows the words and could sing it. She says she can’t sing. He says that is okay and encourages her. She whispers the words of the hymn and begins to sing a little. “If you stand by the power of hell, and death is at your side, know that I will be there through it all. Be not afraid. I go before you always. Come follow me, and I will give you rest.” He thanks her. A guard tells her to step into the corridor. They smile at each other. As she goes, he cries.
As she comes out, guards go in. She sees the families of the victims and the chaplain. Poncelet shouts that he wants his boots. A grown man should not go to his death in slippers. He says he is done with all of this—no more bars, no more cells, no more being locked in a cage. He sees Helen, says he is going to die, and lets his legs collapse him to the floor. She kneels by him and says the truth frees him. He says that God knows the truth about him. He knows he is going to a better place, and he is not worried about anything. He asks if she is all right. She says she is okay and that Christ is here. She wants the last thing he sees in the world to be a face of love, and so she tells him to look at her when they do this thing. She will be the face of love for him, and he says yes. A guard tells him it is time to go. They lift him to his feet, and he asks if Helen may touch him. The warden says that she may. She follows behind him and puts her hand on his shoulder. Trapp announces it is a “dead man walking.” They escort him to the execution chamber as Helen reads to him from his Bible. The chaplain makes the sign of the cross. A guard says she cannot go on with him. He asks her to check on his mama for him, and she gives him her word. She steps into the room for the witnesses and sits next to Barber who takes her hand. She looks over at the Percys and Delacroix. It is 11:56.
Poncelet is strapped, and the woman doctor puts the needle into his arm. The curtain is opened, and the witnesses see him upright but strapped with his arms to the side. The warden asks if he has any last words, and he says he does. He asks Mr. Delacroix for forgiveness and says that it was a terrible thing he did taking away his son. He tells Mr. and Mrs. Percy that he hopes his death will give them some relief. He says that he believes that killing is wrong no matter who does it whether it is him, them, or their government. He is shaking, and his body is laid back again. He turns his head, looks at Helen, and says, “I love you.” She mouths the words back to him and reaches out with her hand. At 12:00 the warden nods, and after a moment the process begins. The first shot is given as the crime is seen. Poncelet closes his eyes, and Helen stops holding out her hand. Poncelet shoots Walter as the second shot is dispensed. Poncelet appears to be unconscious. The third shot brings death.
At the funeral Helen hugs his mother and brothers. She sees Delacroix and walks over to him. She says it is good to see him. He says he does not know why he is there because he has a lot of hate. He says he does not have her faith. She says it is not that easy; it is work. She says maybe they could help each other out of the hate. He does not think so and says he should go.
Helen arrives at her home and sees the children have put their art works on a wall to make her feel better.
In an old church Helen and Delacroix are praying next to each other.
This drama of a true story realistically portrays a deluded man who has raped and killed. He is helped by a woman who has dedicated her life to living the teachings of the Christ by loving everyone and helping the poor. Thus one of the worst members of society is helped by one of the best, and the vast difference in human morality is bridged by their common humanity and the truth that after death of the body every soul stands before God. She manages to get him to accept responsibility for his actions and to offer some reconciliation and healing to the parents of his victims.