Why Are Death Penalty Movies Sympathetic to Killers?

One night when my wife was out of the house, I came upon the movie The Green Mile, which according to the website Screen Junkies is the third best movie about the death penalty ever made.  I tend to disagree because it is really a pseudo-horror movie.  It is a based on a book written by Steven King, for crying out loud.  However, the movie got me to thinking about the death penalty.  Admittedly, I had sympathy for the tall black dude sentenced to death in the movie.  Not because he was sentenced to death wrongly, but because he just seemed like a nice fellow.  He was a tall, cuddly, chocolate teddy bear who cried sometimes.  I also found myself cheering for the Tom Hanks character.  I gather that when people saw the movie in the theaters, they were likely hoping the black guy would be spared.

This movie underscores a fact about Hollywood and the death penalty.  Could it be that everyone on death row deserves the sympathy of the moguls and directors who put out these movies and those who fork over $11 a pop to see these productions on the big screen?  Could there be that many innocent people in the United States sentenced to death?

For all its faults, juries generally get it right.  A few years ago, some magazine like Time or something showed on their cover the pictures of people sentenced to death who were later exonerated by DNA evidence.  Not shown were the stories that some of them were exonerated not because of DNA, but because evidence was mishandled shedding some doubt on the conviction and a jury must convict beyond a reasonable doubt.  Inject some reasonable doubt in there and they cannot find the person guilty.

This reminds me of the story of the guy from Maryland who was arrested for some other crime and they took a DNA sample.  That DNA happened to match with the DNA found in some unsolved rape cases.  Hence, although arrested for something else, they now had the means to convict this guy on these other rapes.  His lawyer argued that because they failed to get a warrant for the DNA sample, the evidence against him had to be suppressed.  Likely, this guilty rapist would have ended up on the cover of Time if rape was a capital crime.

People often ask me how I could be pro-life and still support the death penalty.  They remind me that the Catholic Church is against capital punishment and I am Catholic.  Well, as a Catholic I do not necessarily form all by philosophical outlooks on life because of a Papal lecture.  After all, the Catholic Church made two major errors as far I am concerned: the folk mass and saying the mass in English, or the vernacular.  It was a whole lot better in Latin.  And as for a folk mass, I prefer the organ to three people strumming the guitar.  If I wanted to hear a “folk mass,” I’d purchase some Christian rock album.  And isn’t that an oxymoron- “Christian rock?”

Regardless, the answer to that question is simple: I am pro-innocent life.  The vast majority of people sentenced to death in this country are guilty as hell.  And an aborted baby is guilty of nothing.

But getting back to Hollywood and the death penalty, they always celebrate the accused.  First, not all of them are innocent.  Second, why isn’t there ever a movie about the victim of the person who sits on death row?  Or the families destroyed because someone decided to shoot up some meth one day, invade a home, tie up a family, rape the wife and kill the husband?  Actually, there was a movie like that- Death Wish with Charles Bronson.  In 1974 when the movie was released, it received some of the most negative reviews from the bastions of liberalism in New York and Hollywood.  Vincent Canby of the New York Times described it as an “immoral threat to society” and it encouraged antisocial behavior (as if rape is not “antisocial behavior”).

Compare this with the critical reviews for its polar opposite and one that is clearly anti-death penalty: Dead Man Walking.  The Washington Post said this: “What this intelligent, balanced, devastating movie puts before us is nothing less than a contest between good and evil.”  It even garnered four Academy Award nominations and Susan Sarandon won as Best Actress that year.  In fact, if you want to ensure a tear-jerker in favor of some killer cast Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and have Bruce Springsteen to do the musical score.  Even the movie Capote which is supposedly a biopic about Truman Capote was sympathetic to the killer.

The fact is that killers are just more interesting than the people they actually kill.  Hence, they garner the bulk of attention from movie makers.  But, that leaves their victims no less dead and the families no less decimated-  just as the guy who had his DNA sample taken as part of a jail intake procedure was no less guilty of at least two rapes.  One can be sure there is a movie waiting to be made where a rapist is depicted in a sympathetic light.