'Dead Man Walking' hard for Morris to watch

Friday, September 25, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Watching Sean Penn in Deadman Walkingwas excruciating for Debbie Morris.

"The character that Sean Penn played looked and acted and talked exactly like Robert Willie, the one who kidnapped me," Mrs. Morris said.

Mr. Penn played a death row inmate befriended by Sister Helen Prejean (played by Susan Sarandon in the 1995 movie.)

"If people that run the Academy Awards had known the real Robert Willie, Sean Pean would have won the Academy Award." Mr. Penn was nominated for best actor, but lost to Nicolas Cage (Leaving Las Vegas).

The hardest thing to watch in the movie was when the condemned man's mother left the prison, knowing her child would be executed and without being able to put her arms around him. "I felt gut-wrenching pain for her," Mrs. Morris said.

"The main feeling I had when I left the movie was knowing I needed to get in touch with this woman (Mr. Willie's mother) and say, "I'm so sorry for your loss."' But, she learned later that day that Mr. Willie's mother had died of cancer.

Although the movie was factual, she said, the characters and crimes were a composite of two men and two crime sprees.

The character Mr. Penn played, Matthew Poncelet, was actually a composite of two death row felons: Mr. Willie and Patrick Sonnier. Sister Prejean was spiritual adviser to both men and wrote about both in her book.

Mrs. Morris and her husband, Brad, were upset by the movie's attempt to make Mr. Poncelet a sympathetic character and remorseful at the end. In truth, Mr. Willie showed no remorse for his crimes. Mr. Sonnier, however, did have a change of heart before his execution. Even though they knew the Poncelet character was a composite, they saw him only as Mr. Willie, so the remorse seemed dishonest.

The crimes the movie flashed back to more closely resembled Mr. Sonnier's crimes, Mrs. Morris said. Mr. Sonnier and his brother came across a young couple parking in an isolated area, forced them out of their car, raped the girl and murdered the couple.

There's nothing in the movie about the crimes against Mrs. Morris.

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