Sister Helen Prejean fights the death penalty with opera

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Standing outside the Angola State Penitentiary after witnessing the execution of Patrick Sonnier, Sister Helen Prejean struggled to wrap her head around what she had just seen. After all, in the United States, executions are hidden from the public, and few people ever witness the state killing a person -- much less deal with the complexity of advocating for a murderer who's about to be executed at the same time they're trying to support the victims' families. As one of the nation's leading advocates in the fight to abolish the death penalty, Sister Prejean faces these tensions daily and uses the power of story to advance a nationwide dialogue about the immorality of capital punishment. The memoir of her work on death row, Dead Man Walking, was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film and, most recently, an opera, written by Terrence McNally and Jake Heggie. Sister Prejean will be in Denver for a screening and book signing on Wednesday, March 12, and a death-penalty symposium on Thursday, March 13, as part of Central City Opera's Prisons, Compassion and Redemption Project, a series of public events leading up to the July performance of Dead Man Walking. In advance of those appearances, Westword spoke with Sister Prejean about the opera, the death penalty and the role of art in addressing social issues.

Westword: Talk about your work. Sister Helen Prejean: My work has been, for the last 25 years, to awaken the American people so we can abolish the death penalty. I've accompanied six people to execution, and I've worked closely with victims' families in their healing. I write books. I give talks. I'm interested in bringing people to the reality of what it means when we say we're going to give the state the power to kill human beings who've done crimes. It's all about story. It's all about bringing people close, personalizing the reality and then letting them sort it out for themselves. That's what art does in any form; it could be an opera, a movie or a book. It brings the reader or the audience into a reality to present the suffering on both sides. The audience looks at the reality of it and sorts it out for themselves. Their reflection is crucial.

How did this opera come into being?

The book Dead Man Walking came out in '93. By the end of '95, we had the film. The wide showing of it was '96. I got a call from my literary agent telling me that they wanted to do an opera. My instinct was to say, "Yeah, let's do an opera," because you can really bring people on the journey not only with drama, but also with music. These incredibly good, creative people came to me. Terrence McNally had seen the film Dead Man Walking -- he and Jake Heggie, who had never composed an opera. Lotfollah Mansouri (former general director of the San Francisco Opera) wanted an opera for the new millennium. He put these two guys together in a Petri dish and said, "Let's see what you come up with." It didn't go anywhere. So they broke apart for six months, and meanwhile, Terrence McNally had seen the movie, and he said, "I'm going to put Dead Man Walking out there. If Jake doesn't want Dead Man Walking, I'm not doing it. That's my only choice." As soon as Terrence McNally said Dead Man Walking, Jake said, "The hair stood up on the back of my neck, and I began to hear the music: the clanging of bars and the harshness of it and the gentleness of it as well." They wrote it all seamlessly. I think the first act was written in six weeks. They gave us Dead Man Walking. It had power to it, and it still does.

What was it like when you first saw it?

I hadn't seen many operas. I had been talking to Jake, and all I said was: "Get these two things straight: It's about redemption, and the journey to redemption is for everybody; the music must be sing-able, not that atonal stuff, where people are going to dissociate rather than connect. By the time we leave, we'd better be able to hum a tune."

When I saw it, I saw the fidelity of it. I saw me, absolutely true to form, thrown in way over my head and trying to make my way. The opera has strength in it that none of the other art forms have. First of all, they show the murder in the prologue, so you're not using any of your moral or creative energy asking, "Did you do it or not?" In the film, that's really left till the end. So we all see the murder, we know who did it, we don't like him at all because he's not taken responsibility for it, so there is a part of everybody's heart that says, "This guy deserves to get it. He deserves to die, so bring it on." The opera takes us through the whole journey of it, including the conflict with the victims' families.

Keep reading for more on Sister Prejean's advocacy against the death penalty.


I'll tell you, I did it all wrong before I did it right. The first guy I was with on death row, Pat Sonnier, he and his brother had killed an innocent teenage couple. It was horrible. At first, I didn't know what to do with the victims' family, so I stayed away from them and didn't meet them till we went into a pardon board hearing, and then it couldn't have been more polarized, because when you go into a pardon board hearing, which is a public hearing, you actually sign the book with which side you're on: Do you want the person to live or die? That's when I met the victims' family. So they've received nothing from me, and then they see me showing up at the pardon board meeting to ask that this person not be executed. How could they not see me as an enemy?

In the opera, you see this terrible conflict between me and the victim's family. You see how I'm getting to know Joseph De Rocher [a fictional character based on several of the men Sister Prejean has worked with], and his mother is also suffering, and I'm caught between the two. When Jake wrote the part, it's this kind of medley where the victim's family is singing, "You don't know what it's like," and then the mother of Joseph De Rocher is saying, "You don't know what it's like to see a child slip through your hands. You don't know what it's like. You don't know what it's like." I'm in the middle, and I don't know what it's like. When he got that part, he called me. He said, "Helen, I think we have the heart of the opera." He began to play it in the background on the piano. He was singing the words. He sent me a little tape, because he was so happy when he came to that.

You see, one of the sustaining forces of the argument for the death penalty is that it's what we have to do for the victims' families. It's the only justice. If somebody takes the life of someone we love, what justice really means, has to mean, is that the perpetrator loses their life in this incredibly bizarre way. What's offered to the victim's family is that they get to send a representative to watch as the state kills the one who killed their child. That's the unconscious sustaining thing. It is the struggle in most of us, including myself, with this. If somebody killed somebody I loved, I know there would be a part of me that would want to see them die. I just know it's there. It's in all of us.

The way the opera does this is incredible. It has every kind of music in it. It has the arias; it has the duets back and forth; it has the chorus. When you actually come to the execution so justice will be done, it has this procession singing the Our Father, all the words of the Our Father, without any irony. "Thy will be done, and forgive us as we forgive," and he's led in to the gurney and all you hear are the sounds of the machines. All you hear is the mechanical carrying out of the execution.

Pelham G. Pearce Jr., the general director of Central City Opera, said that they are taking a neutral stance on the issue. The opera is not neutral, and certainly, you are not neutral. What is it like to be doing advocacy work within the context of a cultural world that opts not to take a stand?

I'm not sure that "neutral" is a word that holds what art does. In the sense that when you go to the film and when you go to the opera, which side are we on? What's the position of the opera? Tim Robbins explained to me the difference between propaganda and art. In propaganda, you have a point of view and you shape and frame the narrative in a way that you are going to make it very clear what your point of view is. The way you would shape that in drama is that the crime would be earlier on, the suffering of the victim would be fuzzy and you move to sympathy for the one who's being executed, his mother, his little brothers and his family. But when you keep juxtaposing the suffering of the victims' families and the perpetrator all the way to the end and keep bringing the audience there, that's something else. We know he committed the murder. We see justice happening. It's done in silence and carried out. Then the song that comes afterwards that the Sister Helen character sings is pointing toward the direction that God will gather us around and that we are meant to be one with each other as brothers and sisters. How that gathering happens, what we can do with that is left to the audience to sort out.

I'm an advocate, clearly, but what you do in art, narrative and story is that you bring the audience with you into the journey, which they alone have to make. You present yourself and say, here's what happened to me. Here are both sides of this.

When they first did the opera in San Francisco, they didn't know if they were going to have people protesting it, saying, "This is against the death penalty." They didn't know what to expect. So they were very clear. They said, "We're just doing art. This is an art form, and we're going to bring people into the issue." As it's been done, the opera companies have me out, and I tell them, "We're going to bring you into this story, and you've got to put it together for yourself."

Keep reading for more on Dead Man Walking.

Talk about the impact of your advocacy work?

Listen, I've been in it 25 years from the time I came out of the execution chamber, when the first man, Patrick Sonnier, was executed. It was early morning, April 5, 1984, I was standing there in the dark, having watched a man be executed in the electric chair. I was throwing up and saying to myself, "You know people are never going to get close to this because it's a secret ritual. Any efforts to make executions public have all failed, and I think whatever the reasons are for why it's kept from view, the only way we are ever going to end it will be to bring people close so they can see what it means to get out of the rhetoric of 'he deserves to die' and personalize it. That's how my approach began, and I've seen tremendous change happen.

Support for the death penalty in the United States is at 60 percent. It's the lowest it's been since 1957. When you ask the question, which do you prefer, the death penalty or life without parole, over 50 percent of people prefer life without parole. People don't see any appreciable difference in crime or murder if you have the death penalty in your state or if you don't. And then more and more has come out about the 143 innocent people wrongfully convicted who have gotten off of death row. It's not just guilty people on death row, but hundreds of people who were wrongly put in prison. We don't have a fail-safe way of coming to absolute proof where it really matters, especially when you have to decide if you're going to kill a person or not.

And then all the states are in these budget crises, and they see how enormously expensive it is to have the death penalty. They don't see any appreciable difference in stopping crime. One of the things that has come into place is that life without parole sentences are for real. People now know that these people are not going to get out, and safety is an entirely different moral issue from wanting to repeat the violence and saying we have to kill those who kill other people. As long as they know they can be safe, that's enough for most people.

What governs this debate is that first people are removed from the act itself of what it means to kill. Also, more and more stories are coming out about the guards and the people involved in doing the killing. You know, you have this guy Jerry Givens from Virginia. About a year and-a-half ago, he did this two-page spread in Newsweek. He's the one who got the credit for the title of the article, and it's titled, "I Committed Murder." Jerry Givens, in Virginia, killed 62 people. It was all legal. He was the executioner. In the interview, he talks about how the people who were executed were killed like a child. He said, "I gave them the juice, and would say 'Boy, I rejoice. We got him.'" He'd go home and get a beer afterward. Then he just kept doing it. Then stories were appearing about how, with some of his executions, there was the possibility of innocence. He would be talking to the warden and saying, "What about these guys?" The warden's saying, "Jerry, Jerry, you've just got to do your job. We can't get into this. The courts have to settle this. Just stay in your role, Jerry. Just do your job." After the 62nd person, he had to quit, and then he had to confess. He confessed to the whole nation. He said, "I know I committed murder."

The heart of it is that you see how defenseless the person is who is being taken out and killed. It's a very intentional killing. I have been with people in the hospital who died. I've been with some of the older Sisters who have died. When people are dying, you know they're dying. They're fading. They're not eating. They're not talking. But to be with somebody who is fully alive, having a cup of coffee, smoking a cigarette, talking to you the way you have been talking to each other for two years, and the only way you know they're going to die is with your mind and your watch, it's terrifying. It's absolutely terrifying.

It's death by script: Now they're strapping him in a chair; now he's looking at me; now I'm putting out my hand to him; now everybody's out of the room; now the warden's nodding his head to get the signal; now they pull the switch; now electricity is going through his body; now he's being killed. At the end you just kind of break, and you say, did I just see that? It's a scripted death. What has your experience been advocating on this issue within the context of the church?

I really do know that if you bring the people close, they get it. We have begun to see that. In my own church, in 1984, the archbishop of New Orleans was all for the death penalty, because he had been in the military, and that framed his thinking: "We have to protect ourselves against these terrorists." He was saying that in the early '80s. That's the only language they understand.

In my second book, The Death of Innocence, I talk about the dialogue that brought me into a direct conversation with Pope John Paul. He is the one who helped shift the church away from the death penalty. My question to the Pope was since Catholics only believe in the dignity of innocent life, when I'm walking with a man to execution and he's chained hand and foot, surrounded by guards and he's completely defenseless and says to me, "Sister, please pray that God holds up my legs while I make this walk," where is the dignity in this death? The Catholic Church teaching has always been that to defend life we are justified in killing: Only for defense of life. Well, where is the defense of life?

These people are completely defenseless. They could be in prison with life without parole. How is the death penalty defending anyone? I think that's what got to the Pope.

See Sister Prejean at the screening and book signing of Dead Man Walking from 6 to 9 p.m. Wednesday, March 12, at the Wolf Theatre at the Jewish Community Center. On Thursday, March 13, join her, opera composer Jake Heggie, Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler, defense mitigation specialist Greta Lindecrantz and survivor Dana Sampson for the Death Penalty Symposium from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. at the Assumption Greek Orthodox Church, 4610 East Alameda Avenue. For more information about these events and the rest of Central City Opera's Prisons, Compassion and Redemption Project, go to centralcityopera.org or call 303-292-6500.

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