Every hair on the back of my neck stood up. Tears had already fallen unnoticed.
As the mother of a 9-year-old, that kind of reality check made my blood run cold. As my head started to clear all I could think was, "Dear God, is the whole project going to be this gut-wrenching?" Two years later in retrospect I can say, "Yes."
One of the reasons this project became such a personal journey for me was the decision I made to include both the victim's and death row inmate's families to mirror the emotions of the opera's characters and music. The depth of their common pain of losing a loved one, and the polarity of their circumstances is profoundly striking, as well as their perspectives on the issue of capital punishment. The debate is on going even within ourselves. The strongest message that I will take away from this experience is that capital punishment is not abstract. It is not black and white. "How would I feel if someone killed my daughter?" "How would I feel if my daughter killed someone?"
My own feelings changed dramatically several times during the course of the production. Each time I interviewed one of the participants or Sister Helen Prejean I completely identified with his or her point of view. None of them are wrong to feel the way they do.
What made it painfully clear to me how fluctuating and personal a stance can be were the events of two specific weeks.
Easter week, April 2000. My daughter and I visited my parents' home in a small town in Missouri that also happens to have the death row prison facility for that state. I had asked my father to drive me out to it so I could start getting a sense of that kind of environment.
That didn't happen because the day after we arrived he had to be rushed to a hospital in St. Louis. It was during his hospital stay the word finally came that I could go into Angola, the Louisiana State Prison that is the actual setting for Dead Man Walking. We wanted to film singer John Packard as he began his research for the role of Joe De Rocher.
I sat in that hospital room making the final travel arrangements to Angola on my cell phone. Within a few days I would see how similar a sterile, life-saving hospital room is to a death chamber.
I had braced myself for the experience of being a woman going into this infamous men's prison for the first time, but I was not prepared as my prison guide and myself walked into the death chamber unannounced.
Suddenly I was standing in this all-white, sterile room at the end of the manacled, black table of death. My blood ran cold again.
This place is the end result of a "Yes" vote on a state ballot by someone like myself. Who I am to sanction this kind of action? As Sister Helen Prejean would later say, "Who are we to do this God job?"
After lunch with the prisoners, eating only with our carefully numbered plastic forks, John Packard and I silently drove the long winding road out of Angola, convinced it was time that this country take a serious look at alternatives to the death penalty.
The next series of events took place in October 2000, the week the opera Dead
Man Walking made its world premiere here in San Francisco. We taped numerous interviews and rehearsals though out the week and I found myself constantly reevaluating where I stood on the death penalty issue.
When I heard the parents in the opera sing their laments for the first time with full orchestra, the music and message swayed me to the victim's side. Who could blame any parent of a murdered child for wanting the most extreme justice?
Two days later we would tape the interview with Bill Babbitt, the brother of an executed inmate. Despite the overhead roar of the Blue Angels, the whole crew was in tears by the end of Bill's interview. I moved back to the anti-death penalty side once more as we raced back to the opera house to videotape the opening night performance and the first public reactions.
It wasn't until the next day, after the taping of the performance was over and I could finally take a break, that the reality of the debate became very personal for me.
My family and I went to brunch in our San Francisco neighborhood. While strolling back, I went into a store thinking my husband Tim and our daughter had walked on ahead. Several minutes later Tim came into the store without our daughter.
We expected to find her in the next store engrossed in a book. She wasn't. Nor was she in any store within blocks. I stood on the sidewalk screaming her name at the top of my lungs. Others started to help us search. 20 minutes of paralyzing hell went by; I knew that if she had been kidnapped, they could be out of the city by that time. I called 911 and my husband started running towards our house. The police were there immediately. This was right after the kidnapping of an 8-year-old girl in Vallejo. I started to believe I was becoming a character in my own movie. The very thought was horrifying. I kept thinking, "If she is really gone, I will personally kill whoever took her!" But by the time the police had taken all the information, Tim called my cell phone saying he was at the other end of the neighborhood and he could see our daughter several blocks ahead. The police and I reached her by car as he ran up to her on foot. We were shaken and sobbing.
It had happened in an instant.
I thank God I didn't have to face the same grief as Betty Carlson, William
August and so many others. I wouldn't need to come to grips with Sister Helen's message of forgiveness. I believe the Universe brings us to experiences, good and bad, which teach us what we need to know at important times. I did not experience even the tip of the mountain of shock, pain, anger and sorrow that are inevitable for the families of victims and death row inmates. Yet it was certainly enough to give me the understanding I needed to make all the stories in the documentary as powerful as I could.
Creating this documentary has taken me through personal and professional experiences that will forever change me. I have no doubt that the death penalty debate will continue in this country and in myself for some time. My hope is that the stories we have woven with the music of the opera will add to the discussion in positive, sensitive ways. I believe Sister Helen has said it best, "Art helps us explore alternatives, to make new choices and brings us to that deeper place to do that."