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An interview with Sister Helen Prejean

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 15, 2011 - Sister Helen Prejean is pleased that the opera, "Dead Man Walking,"  does not take sides on the death penalty issue, she said. She talked to the Beacon about the opera in a telephone interview from Montana where she has been writing her third book, "River of Fire," due out in about 18 months.

"What is important about telling the story in art is that people have an immediate chance to examine an issue, feel the raw emotion and work that out," she said. "We don't preach in the opera, we don't take sides. It gives us a prism to think about the issues."

In several cities where the opera has played, religious leaders have gathered for discourses on the death penalty or Prejean has addressed the public at separate events. From the first when she heard that UAO was doing her story in a church with the backing of Union Avenue Christian Church, Prejean has been eager and pleased to see the work presented in a sanctuary. The core Christian mandate to forgive is important to this opera. Compassion should not just stop with the families of the murder victims, she said.

"People think that victims are just the survivors of the murdered person but the family of the murderer is also a victim of the crime," she said. "A big part of the opera is that you see the pain of the victims' families on one side but the broader story of the man on death row who did terrible things also has a mother in pain."

One of her favorite parts in the opera occurs when three mothers sing the same lyrics mourning their children's deaths, she said. One of those three is the mother of the executed man; the other two are the mothers of the teens who were raped and murdered.

"The opera uses the story of a man on death row going to his death to bring us into the deeper more universal need for our redemption," Prejean said.

"The people on the real journey in the opera are the audience," she said.

Prejean, 72, will attend the opening night performance Friday and sign her two books in the fellowship hall afterward. Thursday at 8 p.m., the night before the opera opens. Prejean will talk on the opera set about her ministry as a spiritual director to inmates and her work as an anti-death penalty advocate over the past three decades. Thursday night her talk "won't be a lecture, just story-telling," she said.

From San Francisco to Dresden her separate events draw good audiences. "Well, you can't meet Madame Butterfly," she said with a laugh.

In all she has "accompanied" six men as their spiritual adviser to their executions. At least two she believes were innocent. She wrote about them in her second book, the 2004 "The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions."

Prejean is a strong advocate for ending the death penalty worldwide and, with another nun of her order, runs an information project that includes touring the country giving talks called Ministries Against the Death Penalty. She has great faith in what she calls the goodness of the American people who can be "waken up" to look at the issue that innocent men may be killed in the citizens' name.

Now 16 states, including Illinois, have banned executions. Missouri continues to execute and has killed one man this year, and 68 since 1976 when the death was reinstated in the U.S. Prejean said she is encouraged by the drop in executions.

"In Texas, Harris County (which includes Houston) used to have as many as 40 executions a year, but last year two person were given death sentences," she said. "That means that juries are not handing out death sentences and that prosecutors are not seeking it the way they once did."

DNA and other new evidentiary proof that have shown that many on death row did not commit the crime they were convicted of have changed many Americans' stand on the death penalty, she said. More than 130 people, Prejean said, have been released from death row since 1973 because evidence has shown they were innocence of the capital crime.

She won several honors in the South for her decade-long prison spiritual "accompaniment" before her 1993 novel "Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States." Then, its success topping the New York Times non-fiction list for 31 weeks and the movie and opera have made her a go-to person for discussions on the death penalty at university forums and television news and talk shows.

The same year her first book was published, she was chairperson of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, whose board she served on for decades.

The work has not been without controversy, the parent of one of the rape-murder victims wrote her own book objecting to the nun's work in helping the convict appeal.

With help from many religious networks internationally, Prejean hopes to get the United Nations to have a moratorium on the death penalty. With an Amnesty International representative and Mario Marizziti of the Rome's religious St. Egidio community, Prejean presented a petition signed by 2.5 million individuals to then U.N. secretary General Kofi Annan. This spring she and the Dalai Lama spoke in Arkansas in a public session about public executions, which he also condemns.

Thursday, she might talk about her special concern that the drug long used in state execution chambers for lethal injection is no longer available, so state executors are using Nembutal, a sedative commonly used before surgery to induce sleep. A dose large enough to be lethal takes up four minutes to kill. The drug's Danish manufacturer has taken many steps to stop its use in executions, she said.

"I don't preach, she said, "it's story telling."

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer who has covered both religion and music.

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.

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