Every now and then, there comes a film that brings depth and focus on issues present in today’s society. One of these is the 1999 film “The Green Mile” by director Frank Darabont. If there was any film that could make people think twice about capital punishment and discrimination within the justice and social systems, “The Green Mile” would be at the top of the list. Set within the walls of the death row block of Louisiana’s Cold Water Penitentiary in 1935, the film details the experience of death row supervisor Paul Edgecombe (played by actor Tom Hanks) in his days of managing the penitentiary’s notorious E-block.
In the course of handling prisoners awaiting their date with the electric chair and how he was forced to re-assess his perspectives on life, justice and human decency with the arrival of condemned child rapist and murderer John Coffey (played by Michael Clarke Duncan), Edgecombe is faced with various ethical issues both personal and in the management of his crew particularly the sadistic prison guard Percy Wetmore (played by Doug Hutchison). ISSUES Wrongful conviction and the Death penalty.
Among all the arguments being raised against the death penalty, perhaps the most disturbing and persistent one is the question of possible innocence. As in the movie, John Coffey was innocent of the crime for which he was charged. If anything, it was just another case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. There were also other contributing factors to Coffey’s conviction. The two things that stand out are people’s immediate awe and fear at Coffey’s physical appearance as a huge Negro, and the second, the personal discrimination of his assigned defense counsel, Mr. Hammersmith who compares Negroes to a dog in his conversation with Edgecomb.
In Steiker and Steiker’s(1) article that appeared in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology in 2005, they cite the six major problems encountered in wrongful sentencing of death penalty. These are retributive gap, failure to find and punish the true offender, challenging the deterrent quality of capital punishment, lost legitimacy, the cruelty of undeserved punishment, and lastly but arguably the most significant of all, the irrevocability of death.
In Edgecomb’s conversation with Hammersmith regarding the possibility of Coffey’s innocence, there came into question Coffey’s past actions and history, if any of life and crime in the South. It is here that it is recalled that in the Depression Era, people were hopping from one place to another in search of employment. Despite the outstanding physical characteristics of Coffey, his lawyer Hammersmith points out that he can easily be missed among the rash of people passing through the South.
Coffey himself claims to be tired to being lonely, wandering from one place to another with neither home nor friend. This calls into question the theory of “social bond” proposed by sociologists in explaining why people commit crime. According to this theory, a person’s likelihood of committing and staying away from crime is predicated upon by his/her bond to society whether it be through attachment to others, commitment to community and shared moral values (Albanese 40)