Sister Helen Prejean: ‘The death penalty is about us’

Post by IU Newsroom intern Annie Brackemyre:

Following the New York Times bestselling book “Dead Man Walking” and the subsequent movie and opera adaptations of the same name, Sister Helen Prejean’s anti-capital punishment advocacy has permeated religious, legal, cultural and social debates.

Prejean is visiting the IU campus to talk about the power of art performances in the anti-capital-punishment movement. Her visit comes in the middle of the four “Dead Man Walking” opera performances at the Musical Arts Center.

Sister Helen Prejean

Sister Helen Prejean

Prejean told a crowd Sunday evening that she was from Louisiana, and “We’re storytellers in Baton Rouge. You won’t be getting any lecture from me.” She proceeded to unveil her journey as a spiritual advisor to convicted murderers, an experience she never expected nor sought. The similar story is told in the opera.

“I grew up in a privileged white household and in the Jim Crow days down in Louisiana,” she said. “I never questioned (racism) because that’s what culture tells us to ignore.”

Her “awakening” came in 1981 when she became the spiritual advisor to Patrick Sonnier and recorded her experiences as an eyewitness to an execution in “Dead Man Walking. “

“I was in over my head,” Prejean repeated continually. She struggled to balance the needs of the convict and the victims’ families. Despite her staunch disapproval of capital punishment, she never blamed the families of the victims for any thirst for the ultimate punishment.

“There is that ambivalence in each one of our hearts,” Prejean said. “What would we do if it was our child who was killed? What would we want then?”

The book version of “Dead Man Walking” is full of statistics painting the brokenness of the criminal justice system in the U.S. But the opera brings viewers on an emotional and visceral journey, Prejean said, one that they most likely could not experience otherwise.

“The death penalty is a secret ritual,” Prejean said. “It happens behind prison walls. And we rely on art, like the opera and movies, to take us there.”

Prejean applauded the opera for not being propaganda and for presenting, in art form, all sides of the debate. It allows a space for understanding the pain of all parties involved, she said. Art, unlike statistics alone, “takes us on a journey,” Prejean said.

“The heart of it all is this moral question: What about the guilty?” she said. “I know people do unspeakable crimes. But the death penalty is about us. How will we respond?”

A panel discussion on social justice and the death penalty will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Musical Arts Center and a video interview with composer Jake Heggie will take place at 7 p.m. Wednesday in Sweeney Hall. Performances of the “Dead Man Walking” opera will be at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Musical Arts Center.


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