The next time you’re at a party or out with friends and feel like bringing the conversation to a standstill, try bringing up the death penalty. It’s the rhetorical equivalent of announcing you’ve got the Hanta virus or, you know, maybe Osama bin Laden isn’t allthat
evil. But Dallas-raised Austin folk-pop singer Sara Hickman wants to change all that.
For the past five months, Hickman, one of the few performers with loyal followings in both children’s and adult music, has teamed up with the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (TCADP) on the “Music for Life” concert series, which combines music and discussion in one Texas city per month. Hickman and native Houstonian Trish Murphy bring the tour to Houston today with a 6:30 p.m. performance at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art, 1502 Alabama at La Branch. Tickets are $10 or $5 with a valid student ID. Waiting for her flight at the Washington, D.C. airport, Hickman called Houstoned Rocks yesterday to discuss this extremely sensitive, rarely brought up issue.
Houstoned Rocks: Tell me about this tour.
Sara Hickman: Last spring, TCADP called me and asked if I’d do a benefit concert, and I said, ‘Well, let me think about that.’ And then I invited them over to my house and said, ‘I could do a benefit concert and you’d make $1,500 or $2,000 or whatever, but what if we did something bigger? What if we did a yearlong tour where I went to a different Texas city and you brought speakers, and we got another musician, two musicians and two speakers, and we started a dialogue across Texas about the death penalty.’ They were like, ‘Whoa!’
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I find it disconcerting that we execute so many people, and yet people in Texas are either one way or the other way. It’s a pretty hostile conversation, and it seems to me there should at least be dialogue about it. So once a month we go to a city and I play, and a speaker comes up for ten minutes, and then we open the floor to the audience to ask questions, and then we have another musician come up and they play for a little bit. Then we have a break and I sing again, and the second speaker comes up, same format, and that’s it.
HR: What cities have you been to so far?
SH: We started in Austin, and then we went to Huntsville, Corpus Christi and San Antonio, so tomorrow will be our fifth city.
HR: What sort of dialogue have you been able to get going?
SH: Well, when we were planning this, I had it in my mind there would be more hostility. I envisioned there would be, perhaps I should say more combativeness, but really, I think the majority of the people that come have already decided they’re against the death penalty or have questions about it. Which is good, because really I was hoping we’d get the middle-ground people, who are on the fence or don’t know enough about it or have questions. We haven’t had anybody show up that is terrifically for it. We haven’t had anybody come with bullhorns and disrupt it. That was kind of a pleasant surprise. I was expecting some of that.
In San Antonio, one of our speakers was the prosecutor for the State of Texas, and he was probably the most conservative speaker we’ve had. He came to speak not for moral reason, but because of economic reasons why the death penalty is wrong. He got engaged in a question with a woman who want him to understand he should also morally oppose the death penalty. That was touchy. They were getting a little heated. He stayed pretty calm, but she was getting emotional. That’s exactly what I was hoping for. I was hoping there would people of different opinions talking so that others around them would get invigorated or see that there’s different opportunities to discuss this issue.
HR: What sort of questions are people in the crowd asking?
SH: Well, it depends on the speakers. In Huntsville we had Rev. Carol Pickett, who was the death row chaplain and witnessed the execution of 92 inmates. So people had a lot of questions for him about what was that like, were the inmates scared, what did you say to them, what was it like as they were being put to death, how do you feel about it now compared to before you took the job.
Another speaker we’ve had, Linda White, who’s also going to be at the event tomorrow night, she’s the mother of a daughter who was murdered, and everybody was pretty much speechless after she spoke, because she said she never for one second wanted the death penalty, she never wanted the two boys who murdered her daughter executed. So she gives a really compelling story about her feelings and why the death penalty is a myth because it doesn’t bring closure to anyone and extends the pain to the families of those who are executed, so the violence just continues.
HR: As a musician, what part do you play in this dialogue?
SH: Well, I think my music has really come from a spiritual place, so my role I guess – I kind of just felt like I was the spark to get this thing ignited. I think I just felt frustrated, not just about the death penalty, but about dialogue in general in the United States. It seems like it’s just really dumbed down. Like I said, people are pretty violent about whatever issue they’re talking about, whether it’s education or it’s political, people running for office, or it’s abortion, anything. And the death penalty to me is the biggest hot-button of all because nobody wants to talk about it.
HR: Moreso than, like, abortion?
SH: Well, I think abortion gets talked about a lot. You hear about it a lot, really, but you don’t hear people in coffeehouses debating the death penalty, or people on the streets. Honestly, when in the last week have you talked about the death penalty except with me, probably? It’s not something people just casually bring up at a cocktail party. And not to say that abortion is brought up casually, but I think that there’s more people on fire speaking out about this issue than there are about this issue, which is costly, not just economically but in terms of lives, so I guess I just really wanted to be an instigator and get people talking. And I’m enjoying my role.
HR: Why do you think this issue is not discussed very much?
SH: One thing, I think people are tired. I think the economy and the war and people who are parents working just to make ends meet, they’re tired. This is a very volatile issue in that people don’t want to talk about it – they think that if someone’s in prison, they probably got their just desserts, they’ve done something violent and if they get put to death, well, an eye for an eye. But I think how it eats away at the moral fiber or moral fabric of this nation is that a) of course, many innocent people have been executed; and b) the death penalty doesn’t really bring violence down.
In fact, in the states that have the death penalty, violence is up, and it costs for the legal ramifications for someone to appeal the death penalty versus having life in prison. I mean, I could go on and on and on. It’s a complicated issue and like I said, people are tired, so they might not feel like they want to go spend a Wednesday night hearing somebody discuss the ramifications of the death penalty, but the people who have come have a lot of questions and they’re very impassioned about it and want to put this thing to bed, so to speak. I think New Jersey ending the death penalty was great.
HR: That does seem to be a trend elsewhere in the U.S., people reconsidering the death penalty. Do you realistically think Texas might ever actually take that step?
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SH: I’m going to say yeah. I know we’re a really yee-ha cowboy state, that’s what people think of us, but I think that’s changing. I think there’s a lot of youth and vivacity moving to Texas that’s changing its perimeters. It’s not a big oil/cowboy state anymore, it’s become a lot more international, and that’s exciting. I think with the internationalism comes more thought, more debate and more dialogue. That might be because I live in Austin. But there’s a lot of conservatism in Austin, but there’s also a good, lively dialogue. I have a lot of hope for Texas. I think in the next five, ten years, we’re going to abolish the death penalty. That’s what I’m going to say.
HR: Have you ever written any songs specifically about the death penalty?
SH: I have. I have a song in conjunction with the Virginia Tech shooting. When I was watching the news when it happened, and how violent and disconnected Cho was, I really couldn’t see where music was. I couldn’t see a song in that. It’s sad. Then I overheard somebody talking about Cho’s mother, how she’d had a nervous breakdown and was in such pain, and that’s where I made the connection.
I’m a mother, and how overwhelming that would be to get a phone call that not only had 32 people been murdered but that my daughter had murdered them and then murdered herself, blown her face off, and I could never hold my child again or say goodbye. So I wrote a song from Cho’s mother’s point of view, and I sing it a cappella at the events. I’ve had a lot of people come up and say ‘That really opened my eyes and made me think twice about the death penalty,’ and I’m really glad. It’s probably the most powerful song I’ve ever written in that it gets right to the heart of it really quickly. – Chris Gray