Was someone you love murdered? Or did someone you love commit murder?
Unless you’re in one of those camps, the subject of the death penalty probably doesn’t come up often in conversation. But maybe it should.
Sister Helen Prejean, the author of the book Dead Man Walking, wants to get that conversation started here. Her book, which has been made into an Academy Award-winning movie, an opera and a play, has been selected as the Common Reading Experience at Fort Lewis College for the freshmen who will be arriving in droves at the end of August.
2014 is the 20th anniversary of the book’s publication, and to mark the occasion, it has been updated by Prejean and includes a new foreword by Nobel Peace Prize-recipient Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
On Tuesday, a group of people representing a wide variety of institutions and interests met at the home of Kim Martin and Steve Phillips to consider how to take advantage of Prejean’s scheduled visit to the campus in October to bring the community into the discussion. And boy, were the ideas flowing:
Broadcast the opera as the Community Concert Hall does the Metropolitan Opera. Stage a reading of the play. Create an art exhibit of photographs and art by death-row inmates. Show a mini-film festival about death-penalty cases. Give a lecture about death-row art. Organize a follow-up panel during the Professional Associates of Fort Lewis College’s Lifelong Learning Series. Encourage book clubs to not only read Dead Man Walking but other books on the subject. Perform a concert including music from the soundtrack. (Bruce Springsteen was nominated for an Academy Award for his “Dead Man Walkin.’”)
Dead Man Walking is the eighth selection in the Common Reading Experience. It provides an opportunity for the freshmen to come together as a class, for professors to design thought-provoking assignments regarding the subject matter and allows us, as a community, to become part of the discussion.
And that discussion starts, Prejean said, with outrage that an innocent life or lives have been taken. Then, she says, it continues on to grief and becomes a question of human rights, where spiritual beliefs, ethics and facts come into play.
Most people came away from watching the movie thinking of Prejean as the heroine, I think, but she says the most courageous person in the story is Lloyd LeBlanc, the father of David LeBlanc, one of the victims, who forgave his son’s killer, Elmo Patrick Sonnier.
“I’m just the narrator,” Prejean said.
She’s too modest. Prejean has received numerous honors and has been in the forefront of the discussion for the last 30 years or so. It’s never an easy task, enmeshed as the death penalty is in the arena where politics, religion and compassion intersect.
Perhaps most impressive is Prejean’s work with the victims’ families. And it’s the victims’ families, more than anyone else, who are advocating for abolition of the death penalty.
Martin gets that. Decades ago, a woman named Marietta Lane (Marietta Yeager at the time) spoke at a school assembly in California where Martin was teaching. As the mother of a 3-year-old who had been the victim of a horrendous kidnapping and murder, Lane had the moral authority to speak out against the death penalty, and it made a profound impression.
Lane’s story is even more amazing when you hear the details. A year to the day after her daughter’s murder, she received a call from the killer, who had not been caught. She taped the hourlong conversation, where she told the man that she did not believe in the death penalty, and how she knew he must be suffering for what he had done. The tape helped authorities find and arrest the killer, who later hanged himself in his cell.
Did Lane exult in his death? No, she went to the cell and knelt there to pray for him.
That didn’t mean Lane hadn’t felt the very human rage and need for revenge. She told Prejean that she had wanted to put her hands around the killer’s neck and strangle him, but she didn’t want the state to do it. And in the end, his death wouldn’t have made any difference in the depth of her grief.
Prejean recommends the website of the Death Penalty Information Center at www.deathpenaltyinfo.org for folks wanting to learn more about the history and facts regarding the death penalty.
The most compelling fact is that Innocence Projects have discovered and freed 143 wrongfully convicted death-row inmates, and no one wants an innocent man killed, Prejean said.
“Before I started this, I thought a wrongful conviction would be a real fluke,” she said. “Now, there are so many stories of prosecutorial misconduct, so many defendants relying on public defenders who don’t even meet them until 30 minutes before the trial starts.”
The other fact that tends to sway people is the bottom line – it costs from 40 percent to 600 percent more to give someone the death penalty instead of life without parole. The extra cost includes everything from the extended legal process to special housing in prisons.
One of the best parts of this gig is the access it gives me to some of the most interesting people who pass through this area. Sitting in Martin and Phillips’ living room for a one-on-one conversation with Prejean was one of the most compelling interviews I have enjoyed during my almost 14 years of writing Neighbors.
You probably won’t get a chance for that kind of contact, but there are several interviews with Prejean that are available online, including one on www.democracynow.org and another on PBS at www.pbs.org/wgbh.
And before I forget, save the date for the evening of Oct. 21. That’s when Prejean will give her lecture open to the public at FLC.
Celebrating quiet birthdays before the craziness that is Snowdown begins are Randy Swan, Terry Swan (the Bill Mashaw Volunteer of the Year award was a nice birthday gift), Aggie Owens, Liz Snow, Ian Phillips, Butch Keller, Jim Williams, Vivian Lowe, Scott Cheesewright, Alex Kolter, Leah Blackburn, Caroline Knight, Jerry Wood, Glenda Ehrig, Tracey Gillespie, Tom LaQuey, Camilla Potter, Katherine Campana, Alex Gnehm, Peryl Schaaf, Erin Williamson, William Albert, Chris Choate and Kitsy Williams.
Judith Reynolds’, Maureen May’s and my reign as Sweethearts of the Arts is coming to an end as the Durango Arts Center prepares to honor three well-deserving people for 2014 at an event on Feb. 8.
Carol Salomon, Scott Hagler and the Durango Friends of the Arts (the first organization thus honored) will be fêted Feb. 8 at the DAC in what is one of the great parties of the year, complete with great food and stellar performances.
Tickets are $60 – $50 is tax-deductible – and are available by calling Diane Panelli at 259-2606, ext. 19, or by going online to www.DurangoArts.Tix.com.
This is not an event where you just show up at the door, which a few of my friends discovered to their chagrin last year.
Reservations are due by Feb. 3 (the day after the Broncos win the Superbowl, fingers crossed). Seating is limited, and this event tends to sell out.
Jeff Wells has to be romantic twice in three weeks as he celebrates his anniversary with wife, Deborah, and Valentine’s Day. (Here’s a hint, diamonds can cover both!)
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