My husband and I recently attended the opera Dead Man Walking, based on the bestselling book by Sister Helen Prejean. It’s the story of the relationship between Sister Helen and Joe de Rocher, convicted of brutally killing two young people in rural Mississippi, as he awaited his execution on Death Row. She responded to his request for a pen pal, and then agreed to be his spiritual advisor, to help him prepare to die. As she walked into the world of the condemned for the first time, all of us in the audience went with her.
Upon entering the theatre we saw the set featuring a projected photographic image of a cell block, with silhouettes of guards on either side at second-story level. Startled to realize that the guards were real, we watched their shadowy figures pace back and forth, automatic rifles at the ready, pausing occasionally to look out at the audience. The effect was intimidating and chilling, and put us on edge, setting the mood for the rest of the performance. The Prologue was a choreographic simulation of the grisly crime, the rape and murder of a young couple. No one could disagree that it was horrific.
We accompanied Sister Helen on her first walk through a cell block to the room where she would meet with Joe. It was a nightmare. The walls were lined to the roof with raucously jeering and lewdly gesturing inmates. From Joe we learned that most prisoners held everyone else, especially each other, in contempt. When each in turn was walked to the execution chamber by the warden who announced, “Dead man walking!” they all watched for some sign of fear, for which they would taunt and ridicule the doomed man.
We met the families – Joe’s sorrowful mother and two bewildered younger siblings, and the angry parents of the two victims – at an Appeals Board hearing. Joe’s mother mourned the imminent death of her son, but also the loss of being able to give him a good life. Her speech in favor of Joe’s appeal and against the death penalty was compelling: How could one more death in any way make up for the two deaths that had already occurred? Could it bring either of the young people back, or restore happiness to their shattered families?
The parents of the young people demanded “justice,” i.e., execution. Although all of them were angry, and wanted the perpetrator “to pay for what he had done,” they came with different perspectives and motivations. For example, one was bent on evening the score, while another spoke of putting the episode behind them and moving on with their lives. Later one of the parent couples separated. Ironically, the remedy they expected to achieve closure or retribution would only exacerbate the damage to their families.
And there was Joe. On the eve of his execution, he was a concerned big brother, instructing his younger brothers to stay out of trouble and take care of their mother. Also a caring son, he asked his mother’s forgiveness. As he had from the beginning, Joe doggedly maintained his innocence until the last hour, but finally broke down when Sister Helen begged him once more to admit the truth. She convinced him that God forgives even reprehensible deeds like his. She promised to be there for him to look at as he died: the last face he saw would convey God’s love rather than human hatred.
In the course of this tale of tragedy, beginning and ending with death, we realized that all of the parties connected to the crime experienced further loss with the execution of Joe de Rocher. The third death only intensified the suffering from the first two. The exception was Joe, the only one to find redemption. He died with the assurance of God’s grace, thanks to a determined nun who took literally her commitment to be the face of Christ in the world. The moment before the lethal injection was given, Joe even found the strength to tell the victims’ parents that he hoped watching him die would bring them peace.
We were spellbound throughout the performance, and came away from it – to our surprise – shaken. It wasn’t that the story had changed our minds about capital punishment: we both remain firmly opposed to it, as we always have been. But the powerful operatic medium heightened our awareness of the terrible cost to our humanity that the death penalty exacts. Responding to killing with more killing is no answer at all: it resolves nothing and deters no one. It simply underscores the tragic truth that our society has consciously chosen to be vengeful rather than forgiving.
Jo Glasser is working on a book for publication by Blue Ear Books. She lives in La Crosse, Wisconsin.