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AHS students perform ‘Dead Man Walking’
By KARA HANSEN
The Daily Astorian
To some people, Matthew Poncelet's role in the rape and murder of a teenage couple parked at a Louisiana lovers' lane after a high school football game painted him as a cold-blooded murderer deserving the worst possible punishment.
But to his three younger brothers, he was a man, not a monster.
Did Poncelet deserve to die?
Astoria High School students this month have swung the spotlight on the issue of capital punishment - or the death penalty - as they prepare for a February stage production of "Dead Man Walking."
With a script written by Tim Robbins, who directed the 1995 film of the same name, the story is based on the experiences detailed in a novel by Sister Helen Prejean. Poncelet's character is actually an amalgam of two convicts the nun counseled on death row.
The story walks a fine line on a divisive issue, its foundation rooted in religious, moral, logical and emotional views.
Critics say capital punishment lowers government to a criminal's level, that it violates human rights, that it costs more than lifelong incarceration, that it could lead to the deaths of people wrongly convicted.
Proponents argue the practice deters crime, that it prevents repeat offenders, that it's cheaper than long-term high-security imprisonment and that the victims of crimes lost their rights, too.
AHS students hope comprehensive research can help them portray all sides of the controversial issue. Cast members have each spent eight to 12 hours so far reading about laws, personal experiences and the death penalty's history.
"We're having to do a lot of research, but I think it's going to build everyone's characters more," said Christina Tweed, 18, who plays a prison worker. "People are really going to be able to connect and form their own opinions."
And it's important for people her age to explore sensitive topics, she said.
"It's helping me look past Astoria," said Tweed. "I'm going to go to college soon, and I'm going to be exposed to a lot of different things and different opinions. This just helps me figure out where I stand on everything before I'm thrown into all that."
That's the goal of Jenni Newton, the school's drama director.
She said theater offers a perfect opportunity to probe challenging subject matter.
"I believe theater is an art that helps equip students to make their own decisions," Newton said. "That's an invaluable thing to teach this age group."
The process has led her to examine her own opinions as well, although she refuses to share them with her cast until the last curtain falls.
"When it started, I wasn't even sure where I stood," she said. "Good theater makes you think."
To use the script, the high school had to agree to a few requirements.
In 2004, rather than having the stage version of "Dead Man Walking" produced professionally, Tim Robbins offered the play to a group of schools, mostly Catholic.
Their success led to the creation of the Dead Man Walking School Theatre Project, which allows schools to use the play on several conditions: They must provide feedback; multiple academic departments must be involved in a larger study of capital punishment; and script changes must be minimal and pre-approved under the project.
Astoria's production has involved speech and debate, yearbook, drama and other students.
On Wednesday, several classes met with Aba Gayle, of Silverton, whose 19-year-old daughter was stabbed to death in 1980. Her murderer was sentenced to die, a punishment Gayle does not support. Since forgiving the man more than a decade ago, she has traveled internationally to speak against the death penalty.
Next week, the school will hear from Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis and abolitionist Magdaleno Rose-Avila, director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project in Seattle, at an evening forum that opens the debate up to the public.
In addition, students have examined their own opinions and connections to the death penalty. They have spoken with counselors about rape and other violent crimes, and they have studied the personal accounts of death row inmates, victims' anguished families, inmates' bereaved families, prison workers, attorneys and others in the judicial system.
"There are a lot of repercussions to the death penalty other than the person being put to death," Aba Gayle told the "Dead Man Walking" cast.
Student Meredith Boullie, 17, agreed. "It affects more people than it seems at first," she said, noting an inmate's family members can also become victims.
Vice Principal Gary Sunderland said he hasn't found a consistent stance on the issue, "but there's such a thing as justice."
"If someone is going to choose to be a monster, maybe their life should be ended," he said.
The death penalty is sanctioned by 38 of the country's 50 states, each with its own definition of capital crimes and chosen method of execution.
More than 30 inmates sit on Oregon's death row. Most of them are white. Their average age is 44. If executed, they will die by a lethal chemical injection.
But it's unclear whether that will actually happen to many of the prisoners. Oregon has a tumultuous history with the law, abolishing it and reinstating it multiple times in the past century. Only two people have been executed since 1976, both in the 1990s. Both also gave up their rights to appeal - essentially, said D.A. Marquis, they chose to die.
"It's something that's rarely sought and rarely imposed," he said. "I think that's a good thing."
Marquis has requested a death sentence in only one case - the 1998 murder of a woman in Warrenton - but it was not granted. It's something he reserves for only the worst cases.
"We don't execute people to avenge victims," said Marquis. "We execute people in the United States because there are some crimes that are so awful they deserve it."
A murder is not comparable to a state-sanctioned death, he said. With the play's character Poncelet: "Although he's being put to death, he's able to say his good-byes."
"This is something I feel strongly about as someone who tries murder cases," said Marquis. "It's state killing, not state murder."
But the play aims to show all points of view. Marquis feels the film, and likely the stage version, largely fulfill that goal.
"It is very easy when you are passionately opposed to the death penalty for moral or religious reasons to identify with the killer" when they're chained "and often contrite," he said. "They're not the vicious predator that they were 10 or 20 years ago when they committed what got them on death row.
"One of the things 'Dead Man Walking' does that is laudable is it frames the debate in a way that is not emotionally one-sided."
Astoria will be one of the first public high schools to perform "Dead Man Walking," and just the second high school in Oregon to try it.
The only other is Portland private school Jesuit High, which staged the play in spring 2005.
For teachers Jeff Hall and Elaine Kloser, who managed the play there, the benefits they've seen for students have been endless.
"From the educational standpoint, kids got to really see all sides of a complicated issue," said Hall. "From a theatrical standpoint, kids saw in a really tangible way how theater could be a catalyst for dialogue."
That dialogue has continued through today. A group of Jesuit students now meets regularly to discuss current issues involving the death penalty.
"Drama is not self-serving; it's service to a community, to a story and to each other," said Kloser. "The play did exactly what Sister Helen (Prejean) wanted it to. It started discourse that is continuing today."
Astoria High School's production of "Dead Man Walking" opens Feb. 16.