At this time in the U.S., the validity and true fairness of our justice system has become a very controversial topic. For example, with innovative strides made in areas such as DNA testing, people have begun to fight against the death penalty for some death row inmates who may actually be innocent if evidence were tested with this new method. Another common issue with the justice system is the problem of actually putting those deserving of punishment away instead of those who have not been proven guilty without a reasonable doubt. As the American people have begun to question the judicial system frequently over the years, many directors have made these issues of justice central themes to their own movies. In Tim Robbin’s Dead Man Walking and Gary Gray’s Law-Abiding Citizen, both directors use similar scene set ups and shots for death row inmates in the midst of their executions in order to convey two differing themes. In these two films, directors Tim Robbins and Gary Gray use scenes of death row inmates to convey their themes regarding the controversial aspects of the American justice system.
In Dead Man Walking, Tim Robbins uses this final execution scene to highlight the controversial issues of the Death Penalty for inmates who arguably deserve a second chance or a punishment less harsh. The leading character Matthew Poncelet is a convict rightfully charged with the sexual assault of a teenage girl as well as the murder of her teenage boyfriend. Poncelet consistently denies these charges, claiming he did not kill or rape anyone, until the day of his execution when he emotionally comes to terms with his sin while talking to Sister Helen. As his time to live winds down and he begins to be prepared for execution, the viewer gets a view of Poncelet from Sister Helen’s point of view.
This view of Poncelet delivers an empathetic perception of this convict which the viewer, similar to Sister Helen, has watched grow and change as a person throughout the movie. Poncelet’s face in the scene gives off a feeling of solemn regret and deep sorrow towards the actions he has played a part in to receive such punishment. More importantly, the viewer gets a deep look at the true guilt Poncelet feels for the mistakes he has previously made. This push for empathy from the viewer helps to question the use of the death penalty as punishment for inmates. The movie serves to show that people can change, and Matthew Poncelet’s situation forces the viewer to decide whether a “changed” convict should still receive the severe punishment of death by lethal injection.
In Law-Abiding Citizen, Gary Gray’s scene regarding a man’s execution lightly plays with the topic of wrongly accused persons within the judicial system. In this execution the scene is displayed almost identical to that of Tim Robbin’s ending scene in Dead Man Walking, with the point of view coming from that of the main character, Nick Rice. The difference in this scene is that empathetic feelings toward the man facing execution are relatively nonexistent; the character’s only visible involvement within the story is a brief apprehension while taking part in the robbery and murder of the Shelton family ten years before the execution. His story bares some similar comparisons to Matthew Poncelet’s in Tim Robbin’s film by being part of a crime he did not necessarily want to be involved with. Aside from their stories, this man on the execution table also strikingly resembles the scene in Dead Man Walking.
The man’s face carries the same sorrowful and regretful expression as Poncelet’s, but in this case both the viewer and Nick Rice do not know about the innocence or potential changed emotions of this man. While the man actually did not participate in the murders of the Shelton family, he still finds himself punished by death with no one sympathizing for him. Gary Gray plays with the topic of the death penalty and judicial system by showing members of this justice system’s ability to completely disregard the cruelty of killing a man for questionable charges. The lawyer, Nick Rice, treats this execution as another common day on the job rather than actually looking at the real “rights” and “wrongs” of this present situation, a theme that becomes a bigger focal point as the movie progresses. In the end, Gary Gray’s clever use of Tim Robbin’s death row inmate scene helps to illuminate the opposite, unsympathetic side of the Death Penalty controversy.