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Dead Man Walking (1995) - Plot Summary Poster

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Summaries

  • A nun, while comforting a convicted killer on death row, empathizes with both the killer and his victim's families.

  • A convicted murderer on Death Row and the nun who befriends him. Through the portrayal of finely drawn characters and their interactions as the days, hours, and minutes tick down to the condemned man's execution, powerful emotions are unleashed. While Matthew Poncelet and Sister Prejean desperately try to gain a stay of execution from the governor or the courts, scenes are intercut from the brutal crime, gradually revealing the truth about the events that transpired. In addition to her temporal help, the nun also tries to reach out spiritually and assist as a guide to salvation.

  • Sister Helen Prejean as she visits with the convicted murderer, Matthew Poncelet, during the final week before his state-ordered execution. Through her ministries as a nun, Sister Prejean works in the poor African-American St. Thomas Projects of New Orleans and first comes into contact with Poncelet through his letters sent to her order. She responds to Poncelet's letter, which leads her to visit Poncelet in jail. Though inexperienced in criminal chaplaincy, Sister Prejean becomes Poncelet's spiritual counselor and connects Poncelet with lawyer Hilton Barber, who helps Poncelet appeal his conviction with the State Board of Capital Punishment, Governor Benedict of Louisianna, and the State of Louisianna Supreme Court without success. After Mr. Delecroix, one of the victims' father, scolds Sister Prejean on helping Poncelet, Sister Prejean visits the victims' families and listens, teary-eyed, to their stories of pain, suffering, and anguish. Comforted with a tidal wave of opposition and criticism, Sister Prejean helps Matthew Poncelet come to terms with the responsibility of the murders and rape he committed. She sings hymns, reads the Bible, and rests a loving hand on Matt's shoulder as he walks to his death by lethal injection.

  • A caring nun receives a desperate letter from a death row inmate trying to find help to avoid execution for murder. Over the course of the time to the convict's death, the nun begins to show empathy, not only with the pathetic man, but also with the victims and their families. In the end, that nun must decide how she will deal with the paradox of caring for that condemned man while understanding the heinousness of his crimes.


Spoilers

The synopsis below may give away important plot points.

Synopsis

  • A public housing project in New Orleans, LA. Kids are playing, running, jumping rope. Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon) walks through the complex and enters Hope House, a Christian community outreach center.

    A co-worker, Luis (Ray Aranha), tells Sister Helen they've received another letter from a death-row inmate at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. 'My lawyer seems to have disappeared. I could use some help on the legal end. If you can't do that, I'd take a kind word or visit. It gets real quiet here sometimes.' Death row inmates can't afford lawyers for appeals.

    Sister Helen arrives at the prison. She is searched then interviewed by the chaplain, Father Farley (Scott Wilson). The chaplain provides background on the inmate: 'Matthew Poncelet shot two children in the back of the head in a lovers' lane. Raped the girl, stabbed her several times. Do you know what you're getting into?' 'He wrote me and asked me to come.' 'They are all con men. They will take advantage of you any way they can. You must be very, very careful. Do you understand?' 'Yes, Father.'

    Flashback to the night of the murder. A car in a secluded wooded area. A gunshot. A knife glinting in the moonlight.

    Present day. Sister Helen meets with Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn). 'I didn't kill nobody. I swear I didn't.' It was the other guy, his accomplice, Carl Vitello. Vitello got life; Poncelet, death. Poncelet says he's written a motion to appeal and asks Sister Helen to help him file it. He's got a stack of papers, information on his case.

    Driving away from the penitentiary, Sister Helen is stopped by the police. She was driving seventy-five miles an hour.

    Back at her apartment in the housing project Sister Helen reads Poncelet's file. Clips of media coverage of the murder, Poncelet's arrest, his conviction and sentencing. The reporter describes Poncelet 'smirking when the jury found him guilty.'

    The staff at the community center strategize to stop the execution. Sister Helen says she wouldn't want to meet this guy on the street. 'He'll still get life, he was an accomplice,' says Luis.

    An agitated Matthew Poncelet calls Sister Helen. A date has been set for his execution. You need a lawyer to get a pardon. Sister Helen says she knows of a lawyer who might be able to help. 'I'll do my best.'

    She contacts Hilton Barber (Robert Prosky). His strategy for a pardon is to present Poncelet as a human being, not a monster. 'It's easy to kill a monster, not so easy to kill a human being.' He'd like Poncelet's mother to be at the hearing. Poncelet disagrees. She's just going to blubber her head off, but, he'll think about it. He's got his pride. He 'ain't gonna kiss ass in front of these people. I ain't gonna kiss nobody's ass.'

    Sister Helen visits Poncelet's mother. Lucille Poncelet (Roberta Maxwell) is wary of outsiders. 'You sure you're not from the TV?' 'No.' Mrs. Poncelet says the penitentiary called. They've set the date for Mattie's execution. 'Yeah,' Sister Helen replies. 'His pardon board hearing is next Wednesday. His lawyer thinks it would be a good idea if you were there.' 'What does Mattie think?' 'He wants to protect you.' 'It's a little late for that.' Lucille Poncelet tells what life is like for her and her other sons. People can't wait to hear they've executed that monster Matthew Poncelet. Her sons are beaten up at school. Someone put a dead squirrel in one of their lockers.

    Sister Helen is having dinner with her family-elegant china and stemware, beautiful flowered centerpiece, family members smartly dressed. A white upper-middle-class household. Why is she getting involved with Poncelet? Sister Helen describes Poncelet's background-in trouble at fifteen; father was never around. 'Most kids in the projects are raised by single parents. They're not raping and killing people.' Sister Helen's mother (Lois Smith): 'Aren't there people in your neighborhood who need your help? Honest people? ... For all the energy you're putting into [murderers] you could be keeping other kids from going to prison and death row...I know you're heart's in the right place Helen, but a full heart shouldn't follow an empty head.'

    Sister Helen visits Poncelet again. His father died when Matthew was 14. Poncelet asks Sister Helen about herself. Don't you want to have a man, fall in love, have sex? Sister Helen is quiet. 'I've never experienced sexual intimacy, but there are other ways of being close...Sharing your thoughts, your dreams, your feelings. That's being intimate too.' 'We got intimacy right now, don't we, Sister?...I like being alone with you. You look real good to me.' 'I'm not here for your amusement, Matthew. Show some respect.' She tells him his mother will appear before the pardon board hearing.

    Lucille Poncelet appears at the hearing and breaks down during her testimony. Hilton Barber describes Poncelet's original trial to the pardon board, emphasizing Matthew's poverty, and his inexperienced lawyer-a tax attorney who 'never tried a capital case before.' If Poncelet had been rich he wouldn't be sitting before you today asking for his life.

    The lawyer for the state then argues for Poncelet's execution for his role in the murders of Hope Percy (Missy Yager) and Walter Delacroix (Peter Sarsgaard). Poncelet 'shot Delacroix two times in the back of the head, then raped Hope Percy and stabbed her seventeen times before shooting this sweet girl two times in the back of the head.'

    During a break in the hearing, outside the hearing room, Sister Helen is accosted by an angry Earl Delacroix (Raymond J. Barry), Walter Delacroix's father.

    Back at the hearing clemency is denied. The execution will proceed 'one week hence.' As he's led out, Poncelet asks Sister Helen if she'll be his spiritual adviser. She agrees. She'll have to spend several hours a day with him as his execution approaches, then all day on the day he's put to death.

    Sister Helen visits the Delacroix family. Earl Delacroix describes what it's been like for his wife and himself. He reminisces about his son as a child, shows Sister Helen a photograph of Walter as a toddler.

    Sister Helen puts in a request to the chaplain to be Poncelet's spiritual advisor. He replies: 'You can save this boy by getting him to receive the sacraments of the church before he dies. This is your job.'

    Sister Helen visits Poncelet. They talk about his upcoming execution. One black inmate has been recently executed, another tonight. 'That makes two blacks,' Poncelet says. The governor is under pressure to get a 'white.' 'That's me! Nigger on the gurney before me, sure hope they clean that thing before they put me on it.'That night the inmate is executed. Outside the prison Sister Helen joins a vigil opposed to the death penalty, holding candles, silently praying. A few yards away another crowd enthusiastically counts down to the execution and cheers as the count gets to zero, like ringing in the New Year.

    Sister Helen visits Hope Percy's parents, Clyde (R. Lee Ermey), and Mary Beth (Celia Weston). They share their daughter's story -her job, her dreams, and the last thing Hope's mother said to her. Then, her disappearance with Walter, and finally, finding her body, nude, genitals mutilated. Clyde Percy: 'The police wouldn't let us go down to the morgue and identify the body. They said it would be too traumatic.' Mary Beth's brother, a dentist, identified Hope through dental records.

    Clyde and Mary Beth Percy ask Sister Helen what made her change her mind, to come over to 'our side.' She tells them that she is his spiritual advisor, she's trying to follow the example of Jesus, that every person is more than their worst act. Clyde Percy responds that Poncelet is not a person, he's an animal. 'Matthew Poncelet is God's mistake, and you...want to comfort him when he dies.' He orders her out of the house. Sister Helen mumbles she's sorry and leaves. Clyde Percy follows her out. 'Wait a minute!...You want to see justice for our murdered child...You can't befriend that murderer and expect to be our friend too.' Mary Beth has tears streaming down her face: 'You brought the enemy into this house Sister, you gotta go.'

    Sister Helen watches old footage of Poncelet being interviewed. He proclaims his membership in the 'white' family, the Aryan Brotherhood, and his admiration of Adolf Hitler. Sister Helen mouths 'What am I doing with this guy? I must be nuts.' She receives more information--that if Poncelet had a chance he would have been a terrorist and blown up government buildings.

    Sister Helen confronts Poncelet on his views on Hitler and terrorism. 'You can leave,' Poncelet says. 'It's up to you. You want me to go, you say so,' Sister Helen replies. Poncelet insists that he's innocent. He wants to take a lie detector test. He wants his Mama to know he didn't kill them kids.

    Back at the community center, Sister Helen gets the silent treatment from her kids. Her colleague, Sister Colleen (Margo Martindale): 'There's talk in the neighborhood about Poncelet's racist comments.'

    Sister Helen visits a survivors' support group with Earl Delacroix. The participants share stories of their loved ones' murders. Afterwards Earl Delacroix informs Sister Helen that his wife filed for divorce-they have different ways of dealing with their son's death.

    Flashback to Poncelet's account of the night of the murders. Vitello ties the teenagers down, grabs a long gun from Poncelet, then the sound of two gunshots.

    Present day. Sister Helen visits Poncelet, who's been moved to a cell closer to the execution chamber. She asks him if he's read the Bible, if he'd read anything about Jesus. 'You say you like rebels, what do you think Jesus was? He was a dangerous man...His love changed things...He loved people nobody cared about. The prostitutes, the beggars, the poor finally had somebody who respected and loved them. Made them realize their own worth. They had dignity and they were becoming so powerful the guys at the top got real nervous so they had to kill Jesus.' 'Kinda like me.' 'No, Matt. Not at all like you. Jesus changed the world with his love. You watched while two kids were murdered.'

    Sister Helen asks the chaplain to play a hymn for Matthew before his execution. He opposes it but gives her permission to ask the warden. They have a disagreement about the death penalty. The chaplain quotes the Old Testament, Sister Helen counters with Jesus' council on 'grace and reconciliation'. In the middle of the exchange Sister Helen faints and is transported to the hospital. She says she needs some food. She was not allowed to eat while visiting with an inmate nearing execution. She requests Matt be told she is in the hospital. Chaplain Fraley says he'll take care of it. She's prohibited from seeing Poncelet for the remainder of the day.

    The following day she visits Poncelet. It's the day before his execution. Poncelet is upset she didn't return the day before. No one told him anything about what happened. He thought she'd had a heart attack or something. She apologizes. He calms down. 'I'm glad you're here.' Sister Helen says that they'll soon know about the federal appeal, and she and the lawyer have an appointment with the governor. 'Fat chance the governor is going to do anything, risk his political butt for me. ' He wishes he hadn't 'said all that 'shit' about Hitler and being a terrorist. 'Stupid! '

    Sister Helen says she's arranged to have a lie detector test the following morning. That's good news, Poncelet says. He believes he's home free. Sister Helen again asks if he's been reading the Bible. He's tried to, but it makes him want to fall asleep. But he 'knows Jesus died on the cross for us. He's going to be there to take care of me when I appear before God on Judgement Day.' She tells him he doesn't get a free ticket into heaven just because Jesus paid the price. 'You've got to participate in your own redemption. You've got some work to do.' She asks him to read the Gospel of John, Chapter 8, where Jesus said, "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." 'I like that..."the truth will make you free"...So if I pass that lie detector test I'm home free.' 'Matt, if you do die, as your friend I want to help you die with dignity. I can't see how you can do that unless you own up to the part you played in Walter's and Hope's deaths. '

    The governor: 'I'll look carefully at this case, but unless there is clear, striking evidence for innocence, I will not interfere with the process.'

    The day of the execution. Sister Helen visits Poncelet. If he wants privacy, if he wants to be alone with his family, she'll understand. She won't be offended. 'You should be there, ma'am, if it won't put you out. I want someone to talk to, to be there to the end.' 'I'll be there.' He previews his death. 'The lungs go first...the body doesn't move....'

    Poncelet takes the lie detector test.

    Sister Helen is present when Poncelet's mother and brothers come to visit for the last time. There's laughter in the room as the brothers share stories about what's been happening in their lives. Then it's 4:10 PM and all is quiet in the meeting room. One of Poncelet's younger brothers paces the concrete floor. 6:33 PM. Poncelet's visitors are told they must leave. Poncelet: 'Rules say they can stay until 6:45.' They've got to leave. Poncelet has one of his brothers take all his belongings, which can fit in two pillowcases. The guards pull Poncelet to his feet. 'Ya'll can say your goodbyes now.' His mother approaches to hug her son but is stopped by the guards. 'Security reasons.' As they take him away, Poncelet says 'Don't cry, Mama. I'll call you later.'

    8:30 PM. Poncelet's last meal. He enquires about the results of the lie detector test. As expected, the responses showed stress. Inconclusive. Sister Helen: 'Let's talk about what happened. Let's talk about that night.'

    Flashback to the night of the murders. The secluded wooded 'lovers' lane.' Hope and Walter are parked and are kissing. Poncelet and Vitello peer through the windows, laughing. 'You're trespassing. This is private property. Get out of the car!' The kids are led away, some distance from the car, and forced to kneel on the grass.

    Present day. Sister Helen challenges Poncelet. He's robbed the Delacroix and Percy families of their children. 'You have robbed these parents of so much, Matt. They have nothing in their lives but sorrow...That is what you've given them.' Poncelet blames everyone but himself. Sister Helen asks: 'Where's Matthew Poncelet? Is he just an innocent, a victim?' 'I ain't no victim.'

    The warden enters. The federal appeals court has turned down his appeal. Sister Helen hurries to the ladies' room and prays.

    Poncelet is in a cell next to the execution chamber. He gives Sister Helen his Bible. He's written his date and place of death in it. It's time for his last phone call. He calls his mother and brothers. Sister Helen overhears Poncelet crying on the phone.

    11:37 PM Sister Helen sits outside Poncelet's cell. Poncelet: 'I told my Mama I loved her. ..I told her if I get a chance I'll call just before I go. .' 'What, Matt? What is it.?' His mother always blamed Vitello, regretted that he got mixed up with him. 'I didn't want her thinking that...It's something you said. I could've walked away. I didn't...I was a fucking chicken. ..I was tryin' to be as tough as him. I didn't have the guts to stand up to him. My Mama kept sayin' "It wasn't you, Matt. It wasn't you." That boy. Walter...I killed him. ' 'And Hope?' 'No, ma'am.' 'Did you rape her?' 'Yes, ma'am.' 'Do you take responsibility for both of their deaths?' Poncelet, crying: 'Yes, ma'am.' He says he's prayed for them kids. He's never done that before. 'Oh, Matt. There're places of sorrow only God can touch. You did a terrible thing, Matt. A terrible thing. But you have a dignity now, and no one can take that from you. You are a son of God, Matthew Poncelet.' 'Nobody never called me no son of God before. Been called a son-of-a-you-know-what lots of times... I just hope my death can give them parents some relief. I really do...I never had no real love myself. I never loved a woman or anybody else...It figures, I'd have to die to find love...Thank you for loving me.' He asks her about the song she was supposed to play for him. 'The hymn?' They won't allow any music in the prison. 'Well you know the words. You can sing it.' 'I can't sing.' 'It's okay. Come on.' She sings 'If you pass through raging waters of the sea you shall not drown/ If you walk amid the burning flames thou shall not be harmed/ If you stand beside the power of hell (she pauses) and death is at your side/ And I will be there through it all/ Be not afraid I go before you always/ Come follow me and I will give you rest.' The guard calls her into the corridor. Poncelet manages a brief smile. She does the same. She leaves and Poncelet dissolves in tears.

    The Percy parents and Earl Delacroix are in the corridor on their way to view the execution. Poncelet is angry they won't let him wear his boots to his execution, soft slippers instead, and a diaper under his clothes. Sister Helen falls in by his side as he is led from his cell. She says: 'Christ is here.' 'I'm not worried about it,' Poncelet says. Sister Helen: 'I want the last thing you see in this world to be a face of love. So you look at me when they do this thing. You look at me. I'll the face of love for you.' Poncelet is led to the chamber surrounded by a number of guards. 'Can Sister Helen touch me?' The lead guard: 'Yes, she may.' Sister Helen holds on to his shoulder and follows him along the corridor. As they approach the death chamber the lead guard yells: 'Dead man walking!'

    With one hand on his shoulder Sister Helen reads from a Bible held in her other hand. 'Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed thee. I have called upon thy name. Thou art mine. Should thou pass through the sea, I shall be with thee. Should thee pass through the fire, thou shall not be scorched. I have received your soul in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.'

    Sister Helen takes her seat with the other witnesses. The Percy parents and Earl Delacroix are a few feet away and look at her in silence, then turn away and look at the window with the view of the death chamber.

    Poncelet is strapped in - his torso, legs, arms outstretched and buckled to the arms of the gurney. An IV is put into his right arm. From the witness room, the curtain is drawn back, revealing Poncelet on the gurney, vertical, his arms outstretched. Poncelet is asked if he has any last words. Yes, he does. What he did was a terrible thing. He asks Earl Delacroix for forgiveness. He hopes his death gives the Percy parents some relief. Finally, he believes killing is wrong, no matter who done it. 'Whether it's me, or you all, or your government.' The gurney reclines to a horizontal position. He turns and locks eyes with Sister Helen: 'I love you.' 'I love you,' she mouths back and stretches her hand towards him. At exactly midnight the drugs that will kill Poncelet start to flow. Intercut Walter's and Hope's killings with Poncelet's execution: Poncelet rapes Hope Percy and shoots Walter Delacroix lying on the grass at point blank range. Vitello repeatedly stabs Hope and shoots her. Poncelet lies on the gurney, and the images of a clean-cut Walter Delacroix and a pretty Hope Percy are super-imposed above his body.

    The drugs stop flowing. The EKG flatlines.

    Poncelet's funeral. Sister Helen hugs Lucille Poncelet and her sons. Earl Delacroix appears at a distance. Sister Helen approaches him. He says he doesn't know why he's here. He's got a lot of hate. He doesn't have her faith. She says it's not faith. It's work. Maybe they can help each other find a way out of the hate. 'I don't know,' says Delacroix. 'I don't think so.'

    The kids in the housing project forgive Sister Helen for befriending a blatant racist. Later, through a church window, we see Sister Helen and Earl Delacroix side by side in a pew, praying.

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