Nun who inspired ‘Dead Man Walking’ talks about dignity, redemption

By Marcela Creps


Reuben Walker plays Joseph De Rocher in IU Opera's production of "Dead Man Walking." The real SIster Helen Prejean will be in Bloomington Sunday to lecture of capital punishment. Indiana University | Courtesy photo

Reuben Walker plays Joseph De Rocher in IU Opera’s production of “Dead Man Walking.” The real SIster Helen Prejean will be in Bloomington Sunday to lecture of capital punishment. Indiana University | Courtesy photo

Sister Helen Prejean has an extremely busy schedule.

The Louisiana-based nun, who wrote the book “Dead Man Walking” and is an advocate for the abolition of the death penalty, will be in Bloomington Sunday for a lecture as part of activities surrounding IU Opera’s presentation of an opera based on the book.

In the days prior to her visit, she was or will be in Texas, New York, Iowa and Illinois. Although she joked that hearing her schedule would make her tired, she seems to have endless energy.

“You just live in the present moment,” she said. “When you do each of these events, the energy comes up to you. It comes back to you.”

Her advocacy means she hears often from death row inmates who are hoping she can intervene or help with their situation. Prejean has an assistant who responds to each request.

“I have a list of their names, which I keep with me, and have with me at home to pray for them by name, just to hold them in some way,” Prejean said. She knows that for most, she can’t directly help them. “That’s a hard thing for me, because the needs are real.”

One recent case has gotten Prejean’s help. In Oklahoma, she mobilized her supporters in the case of Richard Glossip. In 1997, Glossip was implicated in the murder of the owner of the motel where he was manager. The killer, Justin Sneed, implicated Glossip as the mastermind behind the killing. Sneed testified against Glossip and received a life sentence. Glossip was sentenced to death.

Prejean said the problem with the case is multifaceted. There was no evidence implicating Glossip. By Oklahoma law, someone can be sentenced to death for orchestrating a murder if there is something connecting him to the crime, such as DNA or fingerprints. No evidence was found to support the death penalty sentence.

Glossip wrote to Prejean asking her to be present at his execution, but the nun had to do more.

“He’s innocent, so that just means I’ve got to resist this and not just accompany this man to death. I have to do whatever it is within my power to prevent this,” she said.

As of now, Glossip’s execution — and all executions in Oklahoma — are on hold. A public records request by an Oklahoma newspaper found that the last death row inmate who was executed was injected with the wrong drug. Oklahoma’s governor issued an indefinite stay to allows for an investigation into the errors.

“All this stuff just starts to come pouring out on all the shenanigans they were doing,” she said.

Prejean said there is a veil of secrecy when it comes to executions.

“There is no transparency. There is no supervision,” she said.

Although there have been death row inmates freed through various innocence projects, Prejean said that even with prisoners who are guilty, the inmates are defenseless when they are killed, and she considers the execution is “the practice of torture.”

The opera based on her book opens with a killing. She said it is a terrible killing of two innocent people, and it is common for people to think the killer should die for his crime.

“He did an unspeakably terrible thing, but the death penalty is really about us and how we’re going to respond. That’s the heart of it,” she said.

Prejean said the Catholic church is often focused on innocent lives, but she questions whether believers should only consider themselves with the dignity of the innocent.

“Dignity must not be taken. There is nothing with dignity with this death,” she said.

When it came to turning Prejean’s book into an opera, the nun said she had to trust the creators.

“I don’t know boot scat about opera,” she said.

But she was clear that she wanted to make sure the opera had a theme of redemption. In the opera, there are lots of people who go through redemption, including Sister Prejean.

“My redemption is in there, too, because I made a mistake by not reaching out to the victim’s family,” she said.

Prejean said the “genius” of the opera is that it does bring out the pain of the mother of Joseph De Rocher, the man in the opera who is to be executed. Prejean said the play powerfully recounts how the family feels about seeing their loved one for the last time juxtaposed with De Rocher’s mother talking about seeing her child slip through her fingers and commit such a heinous crime.

“When Jake (Heggie) wrote that part of the opera, he called me and said, ‘Helen, I think this going to be the heart of the opera, because everyone is singing the same pain,’” she said.

With such heavy subjects all around, Prejean said that being from Louisiana and being Cajun gives her a “joie de vivre” that helps her cope.

“The way I see it is, I do my part. I know my part is to awaken people. I’m still rejoicing that Richard is alive, because he most certainly would have been dead. I have good friends, and the sisterhood is strong,” she said.

Prejean said she vomited when she witnessed her first execution. It was a horror, the sharing of which she hopes will awaken people to the issue. By seeing the movie or opera or by reading the book, Prejean hopes others will discuss the idea of the death penalty and reflect on their thoughts on the subject.

“Execution is wrong, and it just highlights to us, as a society, that we are imitating the worst crime a person can do,” she said.

© Herald Times 2015

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