human rights / prison

How a Movie Changed My Life

by Joan Ruzsa

I originally wrote this piece for Avrum’s Blog, which led to a huge debate between myself and a death penalty advocate named Dudley Sharp.  If you want to see the whole lengthy raging argument in the comment thread, look for the Dead Man Walking Series at

While you’re there, check out the rest of Avrum’s blog.  It’s great. Thanks Avrum, for letting me repost this here.


Sometimes change creeps up on you. Sometimes it’s so subtle that you don’t even notice the shift until afterwards. Sometimes it’s about making a conscious choice to alter your existence. In my case, change walked up and punched me in the face in the form of a movie called “Dead Man Walking.”

The movie is based on the true story of a nun, Sister Helen Prejean, who became the spiritual advisor to a death-row prisoner name Matthew Poncelet. Poncelet had been convicted, along with another man, of the brutal murders of of a teenaged couple, Walter Delacroix and Hope Percy. When Prejean began visiting him, he was totally unremorseful about the crimes, and in fact claimed to have only been a witness to the murders, not a participant.

He was also a virulent racist, who spewed his hateful views at anyone who would listen. Despite these things, Prejean visited him regularly, and worked on an appeal to have Poncelet’s death sentence commuted to life.

Why would she do this? Because she believed that everyone is a child of God, no matter what they have done, and where others saw only a monster, she saw his inherent humanity. Also, because she saw all life as having value, she was opposed to the death penalty, a punishment which is exactly the same as the crime it condemns.

This movie really spun my head around, mostly because it asked me to look at and and question many of my previously-held assumptions: about crime, about personal responsibility, about morality and human nature and compassion.

I couldn’t understand why someone would choose to spend time with a murderer. My opinions about violent crime had all been informed by the media, in particular newspapers and TV shows like “Law and Order.” From these questionable sources, I had learned that people who commit serious crimes are different from “regular” people, that they are calculating, remorseless psychopaths who will kill you as soon as look at you.

Based on the kind of language that is used when talking about crime, I also internalized the idea that people are defined by their bad behaviour. Papers don’t say someone commits a murder, they call that person a “murderer”. Someone who commits a crime is a “criminal.”

This may sound like a semantic distinction, but it’s much more than that. These kind of labels take away depth and complexity, and they ignore the fact that whatever action a person is being condemned for is only one part of a whole life. I started thinking about trying to separate people from their actions, much like the concept of “Hate the sin. Love the sinner.” I wouldn’t want my whole existence to be defined by my worst action. Would you?

Critics of the prisoners’ rights movement often say that it doesn’t hold people to account for their actions, but Poncelet’s relationship with Prejean forced him to take personal responsibility in a way that just sitting alone in a cell never could. Prejean constantly challenged Poncelet on his bigoted views, and never stopped pushing him to admit his role in the murders.

Even though she vocally disagreed with and even despised many of his views, she still stuck with him, providing him with support and spiritual guidance up until the day of his death. Finally, on the morning of his execution, he admitted to killing the two teenagers, and he wept for the pain he had caused so many people.

As he stood in the lethal injection room, he used his last words to apologize to the parents of the victims, as they sat on the other side of a glass wall, waiting to witness his death. Many would say his remorse was too little too late, but to me, it was an incredibly moving example of the transformative power of love.

Sister Helen attempted to provide spiritual counsel to the families of the victims as well, which obviously was very challenging. The parents of Hope were furious and horrified that Prejean could work with Poncelet, and still expect to be invited into their home

This makes perfect sense. The man had raped and killed their teenaged daughter. But to Sister Helen, there was no contradiction. She had a genuine desire to provide support and guidance to both sides. This was such an intriguing concept to me, the idea that the victims’ side and the offenders’ side didn’t necessarily have to be completely separated and in opposition to one another.

This idea of bringing victims and offenders together is one of the fundamental principles behind restorative justice practices like mediation and sentencing circles.

I think the scene that had the greatest impact on me is the one in which Poncelet is being led, shackled and cuffed, down the hall to his execution. As they’re waiting for a gate to open, Sister Helen approaches Matthew and says:

“I want the last thing you see in this world to be the face of love. So look at me, and I will be the face of love for you.” This statement, and the spirit behind it, is profoundly beautiful to me.

Seeing this movie inspired me to go back to school, and to get involved in changing the justice system. For the part 10 years, I have been working for Rittenhouse, an agency that advocates for alternatives to incarceration like mediation and sentencing circles.

These practices bring together the victim, the offender and the community to come up with solutions to crime that are healing for everyone involved, instead of just punitive.

The underlying belief is that even terrible situations can bring about peaceful resolutions, and that human beings have a great capacity to change themselves, and society, for the better.


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