Frank Lovece's article about the film "Dead...

Atlanta attorney Millard Farmer has represented scores of prisoners who were sentenced to death, including Pat Sonnier

Frank Lovece's article about the film "Dead Man Walking" neither asks nor answers two critical questions ("On Crime and Revenge of the People," Calendar, Jan. 2). Are the events portrayed in the movie true, and does the movie give accurate insights into the issues involved with the use of the death penalty?

The real-life Pat Sonnier was executed in 1984 for his participation in the murder of two teenagers, a crime of unimaginable brutality. Through his years on Louisiana's death row, Pat Sonnier had come to grips with the enormity of his crime. He was extremely remorseful and humble; he had purged himself of the false bravado of his youth. In seeking atonement for his acts and spiritual guidance for his remaining days, Pat Sonnier turned to a religious advisor, Sister Helen Prejean.

Sister Helen's relationship with Pat Sonnier in the final year of his life began as a pen pal, but soon developed into that of a spiritual advisor. In this most sacred relationship of trust and confidence, Pat Sonnier revealed to Sister Helen his worst acts.

Sister Helen documented her ministry with Pat Sonnier and another death-sentenced person, as well as her later ministry with families of murder victims, in her moving book, "Dead Man Walking."

Unfortunately, the book fell into the hands of a writer-director who could not bring the complexities of the book to the screen. In the new film, "Dead Man Walking," the Hollywood team of Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, with the full cooperation of Sister Helen, have transmogrified the remorseful, humbled, racially moderate Pat Sonnier into a fabricated arrogant, swaggering, Swastika-tattooed, racial-invective-spewing, white supremacist "Matthew Poncelet." In a trendy reference to the white militia movement, screenwriter-director Tim Robbins' 1990's "Matthew Poncelet" proclaims his lifetime dream to bomb federal buildings.

Sister Helen has stated that she promised Pat Sonnier in his last days that she would tell his story to try to bring meaning to an otherwise senseless tragedy. The vicious fabrication which is the film "Dead Man Walking' is the ultimate betrayal of their confidential relationship and that death-bed promise.

Sister Helen has further betrayed her work with the residents of the St. Thomas housing project in New Orleans in a scene in the film where she is ostracized by the project residents for her work with the fabricated racist "Matthew Poncelet." This incident never happened. Why would Sister Helen agree to this slur on the poverty-stricken St. Thomas residents, persons who have no voice in the Hollywood entertainment culture?

In the fabricated "Matthew Poncelet," Robbins and Sarandon not only steamroll the truth, they also ignore the racial politics of the death penalty with its gross over-representation of African American and Latino persons on the nation's death rows and, particularly, the outrageous over representation of African Americans on Louisiana's death row.

This is especially galling since Robbins and Sarandon purport to champion liberal political causes and claim a deep concern for social issues. Apparently, they believe that they can fulfill their commitment to social change with oh-so-courageous political statements at Academy Award programs and by mingling with fellow millionaires at tony fundraisers. Meanwhile, the racist monster whom they have fabricated from the real life Pat Sonnier will cause immeasurable hardship for persons in Amnesty International and other groups (whom Robbins and Sarandon profess to support), struggling with meager financial resources to stem society's appetite for more executions.

In a real life reenactment of his role in "The Player," producer-director Tim Robbins has given us no more than Hollywood sensationalism. The fabrications of the film "Dead Man Walking" expose Robbins' and Sarandon's lack of understanding of the political and social issues surrounding death as punishment.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World