[Deathpenalty]death penalty news-----TEXAS
rhalperi at mail.smu.edu
Thu Mar 10 10:01:10 CST 2005
Play offers lessons on dying----'Dead Man Walking' pushes Jesuit Prep
students beyond performing, into an evaluation of death penalty
Tim Robbins figures that good theater can pull some kids away from malls
and video games and into serious thinking.
At one Dallas high school this week, he's being proven right.
Days before the Texas premiere of Mr. Robbins' new play, Dead Man Walking,
members of the high school cast were discussing capital punishment.
"When I started the play, I wasn't necessarily opposed," said Kelly
O'Neill, 16. "Now, I just see it as just a form of lynching people."
Jesuit College Preparatory opens a 4-show run of the Tim Robbins-written
Dead Man Walking, which features Tom Thorpe, tonight. Kelly has the role
of death penalty opponent Sister Helen Prejean. The nun's book inspired
the 1995 movie that Mr. Robbins directed - and that he's rewritten as this
new play. The show opens tonight for a 4-performance run at Jesuit College
Anna Rossini, 15, plays Hope. Her character is raped and murdered. Before
starting rehearsals, she opposed capital punishment. The show has tipped
her thinking - but maybe not in the direction you'd expect.
After playing a victim and after watching the pain of her "family" in the
drama, "I'm not as, 'No, no, no' about it as I was before," she said. "Now
I'm more for it than against."
For Mr. Robbins, the students' talk is as much the point as the show. An
Oscar nominee for directing the movie, Mr. Robbins wrote the play at
Sister Helen's urging. And, at her suggestion, he's made it available only
to student productions - principally, at Jesuit schools such as the one in
"The important thing is that they are immersed in it," said the actor, who
was raised Catholic and opposes capital punishment. "The problem right now
is that most people who support the death penalty do it without really
thinking about it."
It's not a simple play for high-schoolers - it has 38 parts, Mr. Robbins
provided minimal staging instructions and the cast members all carry the
usual load of classes and teenage angst.
It's also pretty sophisticated for a young cast. Despite Sister Helen's
and Mr. Robbins' famous opposition to the death penalty, the play is not
easy propaganda: This is not the story of an unfairly accused man; the
murderer whose story drives the play is guilty of a brutal crime.
Dead Man Walking will be staged at Jesuit College Preparatory School,
12345 Inwood Road, at 8 p.m. today, Friday and Saturday; and at 2 p.m.
Sunday. Tickets are $7. Call 972-387-8700, ext. 459.
Plus, there's this extra bit of opening-night pressure:
Sister Helen is scheduled to attend, assuming she makes it back to this
hemisphere in time from an Australian speaking tour.
The Rev. Gene Sessa, a teacher at Jesuit, is the play's director and the
person ultimately responsible for particulars as varied as ticket sales,
lighting angles and program wording.
"Right now I've got to have rehearsals; otherwise, we won't have any show
to have a program for," he told a student Monday afternoon. That morning,
with a dozen of the older students, he had gone to Huntsville to tour the
state's death chamber.
Dead Man Walking is based on Sister Helen's best-selling memoir about her
work with Louisiana death row inmates. Susan Sarandon won the Best Actress
Oscar for her portrayal of Sister Helen in the film.
So why a play, 10 years after a successful movie? The short answer, Mr.
Robbins said, is that Sister Helen prodded him into writing it. She felt a
play - which can be produced many times and in many places - could bring
the issue continually to new audiences. Mr. Robbins doesn't rule out
eventually taking it to Broadway.
But once the script was finished, Sister Helen suggested that it be made
available almost exclusively to Jesuit high schools and colleges. She has
friends who are Jesuits, and the order has a long history of social
Of the 80 Jesuit schools in the United States, 33 decided to take it on.
The first production, at Jesuit High School in New Orleans, was last
October. About 20 other schools have already done their versions.
The Dallas show was almost a foregone conclusion: Father Sessa served on a
national committee of Jesuit school officials who planned distribution of
the play last year.
The show comes with some unusual requirements: Any profits must be donated
to charity. Discussion of capital punishment must be incorporated
somewhere into the school curriculum. (At Jesuit, the entire junior class
is reading the book Dead Man Walking.) And the cast must send Mr. Robbins
its critique with suggestions on how to improve the show.
Tom Thorpe agreed with capital punishment when he first got involved with
Jesuit College Preparatory's production. 'Now, I'm questioning it a lot
more,' he says.
The play is gritty, particularly for a high school production. It's the
story of a nave nun's education and a brutal killer's deceit, followed by
contrition. Murder, rape and coarse language are all written in. (The
Dallas show makes only one change in the script: an F-word to "Damn.")
The classrooms of Jesuit Prep, on Inwood Road just south of LBJ Freeway,
are anything but gritty. The affluent private school has about 1,000 boys,
more than 80 percent of them Catholic. (The girls in the cast come from
Ursuline Academy, a nearby Catholic school for girls.) The boys and girls
show up to rehearsals well-groomed and uniformed - boys in ties, girls in
It's a long way from the bayous and squalor of Louisiana's backcountry and
Even Mr. Robbins, whose 15-year-old son with Ms. Sarandon is the same age
as some Jesuit cast members, is a bit uncomfortable with the idea of
high-schoolers staging the play. But there's a real value in students
trying their hands at a show this ambitious, he said.
"Theater and support of theater is more than simply musicals and benign
comedies," he said.
And Jesuit Prep has a history of doing sophisticated theater. Last year,
it produced Boxcar, based on a 1987 West Texas case involving the
suffocation of 18 illegal immigrants in a sealed railroad car.
"When kids are stretched, they can do amazing things," Father Sessa said.
"They surprise even themselves."
Dead Man Walking, the play, has already been so successful that Mr.
Robbins and Sister Helen have recently decided to offer it - same strings
attached - to any school that wants it, Catholic or otherwise. Letters
will be sent in the next few weeks to colleges and universities with
strong drama departments. Word of mouth alone has been enough to line up
about 50 new schools that want to produce the show. A play based on the
life of a death penalty opponent is a natural fit for a Catholic school.
The official Catholic position on capital punishment has evolved in the
last decade from a qualified support to almost total opposition.
As recently as 1992, the catechism said that the state had the right "to
punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of
the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty."
But in 1995, Pope John Paul II said capital punishment should be reserved
to cases of "absolute necessity" - and that such cases are "very rare, if
not practically nonexistent."
But the play, like the movie, isn't simply a screed against the death
penalty. The pain of the victims' families and their desire that the
murderer be executed are central to the story. That balance is necessary
for good drama, Mr. Robbins said. "I think that storytelling is
storytelling," he said. "It's not a lecture."
That means his show - and the Jesuit production - leave room for
disagreement and discussion. Even for the cast members.
Matt Clark, 18, plays Mitch, brother to the killer in the production. He
was among the cast members who spent Monday in Huntsville.
He returned to Dallas with uncomfortable memories of the dark cells and
the disinfectant smell of the execution room - and with a newfound
ambivalence. He's still against capital punishment. But prison officials
had recounted stories of convicted murderers assaulting guards and other
"I wouldn't want them hurting anybody else," he said.
Tom Thorpe, 18, plays Matthew Poncelet, the murderer central to the story.
(Sean Penn starred in the role in the film.) When Tom started the show, he
leaned toward supporting the death penalty, he said last week.
"Now, I'm honestly not sure. Now, I'm questioning it a lot more.
"I hope to decide," he said, "by the end of the play."
DID YOU KNOW
The Rev. Gene Sessa, the Jesuit teacher directing the play, is under even
more pressure than the cast. The production is his thesis for a master's
degree from Roosevelt University's College of Performing Arts. His adviser
will be here to grade the play.
Sister Helen Prejean, author of the book Dead Man Walking, got the idea
for the play after reading a story in The New Yorker about Arthur Miller's
Death of a Salesman. The story said Mr. Miller's play was being produced
somewhere in the world every day. A play, she concluded, was a way to keep
people talking about her cause.
As part of their preparation, the Jesuit cast members listened to taped
interviews with death row inmates.
Directing a high school play is sometimes like herding noisy, friendly
cats. While Father Sessa admitted in private that this show was
particularly challenging for such a young cast, he cut them no slack in
public: "Be quiet! It's not that hard! Show some discipline!"
Tim Robbins said he was drawn to theater as a child after watching 2
relatively obscure plays: Pericles, Prince of Tyre -- not one of
Shakespeare's best known -- and Agamemnon, by Aeschylus.
Mr. Robbins makes a careful separation between his role as an advocate --
opposing the death penalty -- and his role as a director or playwright.
"When I was doing (the movie), it was very clear I wanted to give absolute
respect to the parents of the victims and I think that comes across in the
play," he said. "I wanted to be honest with it ... My answer is always if
I were in that moment, I would probably want to kill the person ... The
question becomes 'Should we ask the state to do it?' Ultimately, I'm
against the death penalty because I don't think there will ever be a rich
person on death row."
The movie featured searing performances by Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn.
How do student actors avoid trying to imitate those performances, or being
so intimidated that they can't do their own acting? The principal players
in the Jesuit production avoided the problem by avoiding the movie. Most
of the cast hasn't seen it. "I was afraid I'd find myself in a 'Susan
Sarandon' pose onstage," said Kelly O'Neill, who plays Sister Helen in the
Other schools that have produced or will produce the play include the
University of Notre Dame, Gonzaga University, Loyola University of
Chicago, Xavier University and Fordham University. Mr. Robbins will see
his play staged live for the 1st time next month at Fordham.
Sister Helen is so popular in Australia, a nation that has no death
penalty, that she has made several trips to make speaking tours there. She
is scheduled to return from her latest trip to Australia in time for
opening night in Dallas.
Sister Helen has witnessed 6 executions. The character of Matthew
Poncelet, the murderer whose story drives Dead Man Walking, is a composite
of 2 men she worked with in Louisiana.
(source: Dallas Morning News)
Ballistics tests deal setback to death row inmate
Ballistics tests have confirmed that a pistol that a death row inmate hid
in a vacant house fired the shots that killed her husband and 2 children.
The findings by the Harris County Firearms Laboratory dealt a severe
setback to Frances Newton, who came within hours of execution in December.
Gov. Rick Perry granted a 120-day reprieve on Dec. 1 after questions were
raised regarding the evidence used to condemn her.
On Wednesday, a prosecutor said she will seek a new execution date as soon
as the reprieve expires. But Newton's attorneys said more tests are
Prosecutors say Newton killed her husband, 7-year-old son and 20-month-old
daughter to claim $100,000 in insurance money. Newton, now 39, blames the
1987 murders on a drug dealer she knew only as Charlie. She said her
husband owed him $500.
Newton told investigators that she found a pistol in her living room on
the day of the murders and hid it because she feared it was unsafe to keep
it in the home.
Defense attorneys had questioned ballistics tests conducted by the Houston
Police Department crime lab that were presented at Newton's 1988 trial.
Several divisions of the lab, including the ballistics division, have been
criticized in recent years for providing unreliable evidence.
But the recent lab tests concluded that the fatal shots were fired by the
pistol that Newton acknowledged stashing in a burnt-out home.
David Dow, an attorney with the Texas Innocence Network who also
represents Newton, questioned whether crime lab analysts tested the same
gun found in the vacant house.
Newton's attorneys also are seeking additional tests on other evidence
from the trial, including the dress she wore the night of the shootings.
Records show that original testing found traces of possible gunpowder on
the dress, but her attorneys say that may have been garden manure. That
substance, like gunpowder, has nitrates and can trigger a false-positive
Assistant District Attorney Roe Wilson opposes the retesting, saying the
dress was stored with other evidence from the trial and probably has been
Newton's attorneys also want to test bloodstained carpet fibers from the
crime scene, Dow said.
Attorneys are expected to return to court next week, when State District
Judge Jim Wallace could decide whether to permit the additional testing.
(source: Associated Press)
Survivor of Smuggling Attempt Testifies
Authorities who responded to the scene of the nation's deadliest human
smuggling attempt said they found half-naked bodies piled 4 feet high on
the floor of an abandoned tractor-trailer and bloody claw marks on its
The officials testified Wednesday in the trial of Tyrone Williams, who is
accused of abandoning the truck in south Texas and causing 19 immigrants
to die in May 2003.
"I'd never seen that many bodies before in one situation," said Rick
Streeter, a firefighter and paramedic with the Cold Creek Volunteer Fire
One of the survivors of the smuggling attempt testified Wednesday that he
and the other immigrants wanted desperately to get out of the airless
trailer but that Williams ignored their screaming and pounding on the
Craig Washington, Williams' lead attorney, has said his client couldn't
understand their pleas because he doesn't speak Spanish, but when Williams
found out what was happening, he tried to help by giving them water.
On a copy of a surveillance videotape that was played for jurors
Wednesday, Williams and a female passenger could be seen buying 55 bottles
of water at the truck stop where the trailer was abandoned.
Dr. Roberto Bayardo, the chief medical examiner for Travis County who
performed autopsies on the victims' bodies, said the immigrants needed air
-- not water -- to survive.
If the immigrants had been in a cooler environment, their chances of
survival would have been greater, he said. Prosecutors have previously
said the refrigeration unit on Williams' trailer was not turned on.
Williams, 34, a Jamaican citizen who lives in Schenectady, N.Y., is being
tried on 58 counts of harboring and transporting illegal immigrants. He
could get the death penalty because federal law allows capital punishment
in fatal smuggling cases.
Recording of 911 call played in truck driver's trial
With people dying around him, a Honduran immigrant who survived the
nation's deadliest human smuggling attempt described Wednesday how he
grabbed a cell phone and made two futile calls to 911 for help.
"We are in a trailer ... ahead of Harlingen and Sarita. We're in a
trailer," the panicked voice of Matias Rafael Medina Flores was heard in
Spanish on a recording of the second call. Both 911 calls -- filled with
static -- cut off before he could tell authorities the exact location of
The testimony came in the smuggling trial of Tyrone Williams, who is
accused of abandoning the truck in south Texas and causing 19 immigrants
to die in May 2003. Williams, 34, could get the death penalty if
Medina said he and his companions shouted and banged against the trailer's
walls and punched out a signal light, but Williams ignored them. They felt
like prisoners, he said.
Medina also told jurors that he is still haunted by the memory of watching
a 5-year-old Mexican boy die in the stifling heat of the trailer.
"He was suffocating with the heat. He was crying so loud that he was
making us feel what he felt," Medina said, testifying in Spanish through
Defense lawyer Craig Washington questioned whether Williams could have
heard any screams or known people were dying.
The defense also says that while Williams is guilty of transporting the
immigrants, he tried to help by giving them water but couldn't understand
their pleas because he didn't speak Spanish.
Witness Scott Reuter testified he remembered thinking something was wrong
when he saw the tractor-trailer as he drove home. He saw hands holding on
to the light that had been punched out, and one hand was also waving a
bandanna, he said.
"It was very frantic-looking to me. To me, it was obvious something was
wrong," said Reuter, who later called 911 about what he saw.
The tractor-trailer was discovered where Williams abandoned it, at a truck
stop about 100 miles southwest of Houston. A firefighter and a paramedic
who were among the first to arrive told jurors they found half-naked
bodies piled 4 feet high on the trailer's floor -- and bloody claw marks
on the doors.
County medical examiner Dr. Roberto Bayardo also testified had the victims
been in a cooler environment, their chances of survival would have been
greater. Prosecutors have previously said the refrigeration unit on
Williams' trailer was not turned on.
Williams is being tried on 58 counts of harboring and transporting illegal
Williams, a Jamaican citizen who lives in Schenectady, New York, is the
only one of 14 defendants in the case who could get the death penalty.
Federal law allows the death penalty in fatal smuggling cases.
(source for both: Associated Press)
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