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Musicians team up for anti-death penalty event

By Bill Friskics-Warren

APRIL 12, 1999:  Few forms of cultural expression have music's healing power. Think of Mahalia Jackson singing "Move on up a Little Higher" during the Montgomery bus boycott; of Sly and the Family Stone embodying a vision of community that cut across lines of race, gender, and class; of Madonna empowering abuse survivors to break their silence on "Live to Tell"; of KRS-One birthing the Stop the Violence movement with "Self-Destruction." There are countless other examples. But perhaps none is as timely for Tennesseans as Steve Earle's "Ellis Unit One," a song about the human and social costs of executing people--something the state hasn't done since 1960; this year, the state plans to send convicted murderer Robert Coe to the electric chair.

Earle wrote and performed "Ellis Unit One" for Dead Man Walking, the 1995 movie adaptation of the book of the same name by death penalty abolitionist Sister Helen Prejean. Earle had already written a song from the perspective of a death-row inmate, "Billy Austin," for his 1990 LP The Hard Way. Here, however, he doesn't take sides, but rather assumes the voice of a second-generation prison guard, a guy who's seen what executions do to people. He's seen inmates' mothers grieve their sons and daughters, victims' families walk away from executions without comfort, prisoners whose knees buckle on their final walk. The guard has seen so much, in fact, that one night he dreams he's the one being strapped into the chair. Earle's message is clear: No one, not even those who fancy themselves bystanders, escapes the ravages of the death penalty.

Earle has since emerged as a leading advocate in the anti-death penalty movement. And it's in this capacity that he has enlisted Jackson Browne, Emmylou Harris, and the Indigo Girls to join him in concert at the Ryman Auditorium Monday to kick off the 1999 Journey of Hope...From Violence to Healing. Also appearing at the event will be Sister Helen Prejean.

The Journey, a two-week statewide trek led by murder victims' families, will stop at high schools, colleges, and houses of worship in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, and Chattanooga. Along the way, victims' families will share stories about the process of healing through reconciliation. Together with the loved ones of prisoners on death row and supporters such as Earle, they will advocate for alternatives to capital punishment.

"I was at a lot of vigils before I witnessed an execution," Earle says. "I've seen murder victims' families go into the prison. I've seen them come out. And they always look the way I did when I came out. They look damaged."

Bill Pelke's grandmother was brutally murdered in 1985 by four Gary, Ind., teenagers. One of the girls who handled the knife, 15-year-old Paula Cooper, got the death penalty, making her the youngest female on death row in the country. "At the time she was sentenced to death, it was all right with me," admits Pelke, a cofounder of the Journey of Hope and a former crane operator for Bethlehem Steel. "I felt that if they didn't give her the death penalty they were telling our family that my grandmother wasn't an important person."

Six months later Pelke had a change of heart. "I was up in my crane one night and it hit me that my grandmother would have had compassion for Paula Cooper and her family," Pelke says. "And I felt it was something that fell on my shoulders. So I prayed that God would give me compassion, and it brought a tremendous healing. I learned the most important lesson of my life--forgiveness.

"Taking another life is never gonna repay you for the loss of a loved one," adds Pelke, who later spearheaded the fight to get Cooper's death sentence commuted to 60 years. "It's a natural reaction--you get hurt, you wanna strike back; you wanna hurt equally. But vengeance never brings healing. We could execute 10 Paula Coopers, and it still wouldn't bring back my grandmother."

This willingness to confront the feelings of murder victims' families, says Earle, is one of the things that drew him to the Journey of Hope. "People who have had a loved one taken away from them are supposed to be angry," he explains. "They're supposed to want the [perpetrator] dead, but they're not allowed to kill them." Instead, throughout most of the United States, society carries out executions for victims' families. "That's the way the death penalty is being sold to the American people," Earle continues. "It's being sold to people as justice. But it's a lie. The death penalty is about vengeance."

According to Earle, Pelke, and others on the Journey of Hope, executions don't just fail to promote healing; they create more victims in the process. Lois Robison's son Larry was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when he was 21. Robison and her husband Ken did everything in their power to get him proper care. "We were told by mental-health professionals that he was not well and would get worse without treatment," Robison says. "But hospitals routinely discharged him after 30-day stays because he was 'not violent' and they 'needed the bed.' "

The couple was assured that if their son became violent, he would receive the long-term care that everyone agreed he needed. "Our son's first and only act of violence was to kill five people," Robison explains. "Despite his well-documented history of mental illness, he was found sane and sentenced to die. How can a modern, civilized society chose to exterminate its ill citizens rather than treat them?"

There are many compelling reasons to oppose the death penalty: For one, it discriminates against people on the basis of race and class. States also execute innocent people. Ultimately, though, those who participate in the Journey of Hope believe that it's the sharing of stories, stories of hard-won reconciliation and healing, that changes people's hearts about the death penalty--and, just as importantly, enables many to get on with their lives.

Steve Earle's greatest gift to this movement is his ability to bring such stories to life in song. "As you get older, hopefully, you get to be a better writer," Earle says, referring to the way that he approached "Ellis Unit One." "I was trying to do a better job of the very same thing that I did when I wrote 'Billy Austin.' And the difference, I believe, was the voice. I felt like the guard, as opposed to an inmate, had a better chance of changing someone's mind, if a song can ever do it.

"In this little corner of the abolition movement that I work in, we don't have the luxury of getting adversarial and yelling and screaming at murder victims' families. Whether she likes it or not, Rebecca Easley [who heads up Tennessee's victims' rights organization] has my sympathy and my love, because I know a lot of people who are just like her who went a different path than she did.

"She's just trying to deal with pain," Earle says of Easley, whose sister was murdered. "She's doing the same thing that Bill Pelke and the people on the Journey of Hope are doing. That's the hard thing about it. I can't tell her that she's wrong about anything except supporting the death penalty. I cannot take her feelings away, and I don't try."

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