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Balancing Act: Almost 30 years after ‘Dead Man Walking,’ Sister Helen Prejean is still pushing to end the death penalty. It’s working.

If you're looking for evidence that we can – and do – still summon the better angels of our nature, look no further than public opinion on the death penalty.

In 1993, the year Sister Helen Prejean's memoir "Dead Man Walking" was published, 80% of Americans supported the death penalty. Twenty-six years later, fewer than half of all Americans (49%) support it, according to Pew Research Center data. It's banned in 21 states (including Illinois, since 2011) and under a governor-imposed moratorium in four others.

"We have presidential candidates who oppose the death penalty," Prejean said recently. "Even President Obama didn't oppose the death penalty in all instances. People used to just accept the premise that there are some acts that by their very nature are so bad that only death is a just punishment. And that's wrong."

(Nearly every Democrat running for president opposes the death penalty.)

Prejean, born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1939, wrote "Dead Man Walking" about her time as the spiritual adviser to Patrick Sonnier, convicted of killing two teenagers and sentenced to die in the electric chair at Angola State Prison in Louisiana.

The book was made into a 1995 film written by Tim Robbins and starring Sean Penn as the convicted killer and Susan Sarandon as Prejean. (Sarandon and Prejean have remained close friends; it's been reported that Prejean had her own bedroom in Sarandon's New York apartment for a time.)

"Dead Man Walking" is also an opera, which opens at the Lyric Opera on Saturday, Nov. 2. Prejean was in Chicago for opening night. I spoke with her two days prior.

"There's no stronger art form than live theater, with music to guide and instruct the heart," she said. "There's always profound silence in the audience when it's over. People cry. They're brought close."

And they're brought close to people for whom they resist feeling sympathy, people who arrived at their grief in such remarkably different ways that you think, at first, they can't possible earn a place in your heart.

"At one point the victims' families are singing, 'You don't know what it's like,' and Joseph's mother is singing 'You don't know what it's like' and there's me in the middle saying, 'I'm sorry,'" Prejean said. (The killer is named Joseph De Rocher in the opera.) "And Jake (Heggie, the composer) said to me, 'They're all singing the same pain.' "

Prejean has advocated fiercely for the abolition of the death penalty for close to three decades. She runs the Ministry Against the Death Penalty out of an apartment next door to her New Orleans home.

She's deeply troubled by the way the death penalty is applied. Research shows jurors are much more likely to recommend a death sentence for a black defendant than a white defendant, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. A California study found that defendants convicted of killing white people were more than three times as likely to be sentenced to death as those convicted of killing black people and more than four times more likely as those convicted of killing Latinos.

"We have no just way of selecting the 'worst of the worst,' as the Supreme Court called it," Prejean said. "Because all our prejudices, our frailties, our weaknesses as a nation are built into our penal systems."

Amnesty International estimates the cost of a death penalty case, through the execution, is 70% more than the cost of a comparable non-death-penalty case.

"At first I went, 'All the moral reasons to end the death penalty and we're going to make it about money?' " Prejean said. "Then I read that Martin Luther King said, 'A budget is a moral document.' That helped me understand. To spend millions and millions on the machinery of death to kill some people and claim you're doing it for the victims' families, while you're taking that money away from public education and at-risk kids and health care? We don't have unlimited resources in our society, so to designate money for death instead of for life is not right."

Prejean brought up Bud Welch, whose 23-year-old daughter, Julie Marie, was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Welch went from supporting the death penalty for bomber Timothy McVeigh to advocating against it.

"He went through this whole journey and he says, 'I finally realized if they killed Timothy McVeigh or left him in a cell for the rest of his life – even if I got to watch him die on closed circuit television – I'm going to go home and Julie's chair is still going to be empty. I have to deal with losing Julie,' " Prejean said.

"That's part of the journey for a lot of people," she said. "They're promised a front-row seat to watch the state kill the one who killed their loved one. But they watch that violence and it doesn't heal them or give them closure."

Prejean figures she'll do this work for the rest of her life.

"I can not not do it," she said. "I've accompanied six human beings to execution. I owe it to them to tell their story. To bring them close.

"We all know what it is to be hurt or to have someone we love hurt," she said. "And what road would we take? To try to get even? Or to find another road where we don't lose the love inside of us, where it's not overcome by the hate?"

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(Contact Heidi Stevens at hstevens@tribune.com, or on Twitter: @heidistevens13.)

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