National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  July 16, 2004

Documentary explores debate on death penalty


The independent documentary “Deadline,” which will air on NBC’s “Dateline” July 30, begins with the testimony of an articulate Northwestern University undergraduate who, on a lark, took an investigative journalism class. She and her classmates reenacted the crime of a man on death row and determined that the key eyewitness couldn’t have seen what she said she had seen. The case quickly fell apart and the man was freed. Eventually, such investigations turned up 13 innocent people on Illinois’ death row when George Ryan was governor of the state.

In 1978, as a Republican state legislator, Ryan voted to reinstate the death penalty. But, in 2000, when he was governor and indicted in a drivers’-licenses-for-bribes scandal, Ryan called a moratorium on the state’s death penalty. He eventually requested clemency hearings for all the prisoners on death row. The film takes us into the passion-filled hearing room, where the power of documentary takes hold. We witness human emotion at its rawest: desperate and vulnerable.

Horrific crimes play before us. We see two families from a small town. They’ve known each other their entire lives. One son murdered and then raped the daughter of the other. Her father tells his mother that he cannot help it, he cannot forgive: He wants her son executed. She sobs, “I understand.” We witness firsthand how, when the death penalty is an option, many victims’ families feel compelled to pursue it as a blue ribbon tribute to their loved ones.

Directors Katy Chevigny and Kirsten Johnson know better than to lecture us on this volatile subject. They don’t need to. They simply let the people involved speak to us themselves. We see an accused man who claims to be innocent. We watch his face up close on the screen and wonder: “Is he really innocent? Do we believe him?” We catch ourselves. Does it matter? Are we willing to play God?

In the film, the characters in the familiar Passion narrative emerge: the zealous prosecutors; the Southern governor who declares the day in 1972 when the Supreme Court abolished the death penalty a “dog day” for America; the prison guard who admits that a pending execution will be rough on him because of his closeness to the condemned; the mother who pleads that killing her husband would “only punish his children”; and Ryan -- the jury of one -- trying to make up his mind.

Ryan, a member of the United Methodist church and a pharmacist, eventually granted blanket clemency to the 167 prisoners on Illinois’ death row, commuting their sentences to life without parole. But the saga continues. Under a new governor, eight people now sit on Illinois’ death row, although the moratorium remains in effect. In America, 3,503 prisoners await execution today. Christianity was founded by a victim of capital punishment, yet America, while professing Christian values, continues to repeat Christ’s Passion.

Through archival and interview footage, the film calmly presents the basic arguments against capital punishment: Innocent people are killed; the poor and minorities are executed more frequently than others; and the U.S. bishops’ position that life is sacrosanct, that killing, even in retribution for killing, is wrong. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Capital punishment is society’s ultimate statement that it will not forgive.”

Jesus invited everyone to his table. Can we follow his example and do the same? At the end of the movie, we meet the Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, who show us another way -- the way that Jesus taught. One family member after another describes the heart-wrenching murder of a loved one and then concludes: “And I do not support the death penalty.”

They are in the minority. Recent Gallup polls have found that 71 percent of Americans support the death penalty. And 66 percent belong to a church or synagogue, and 90 percent believe in God. Lawrence Marshall of the Center for Wrongful Convictions says in the film: “All that’s needed in the death penalty debate is education.” If that is true, the national network broadcast of this compelling documentary provides us with a momentous opportunity.

NBC’s “Dateline” can attract more than 6 million viewers. On July 30, “Deadline” will bring an informed discussion of capital punishment into the national debate this election year. The film, which addresses George W. Bush’s 152 executions while governor of Texas and the poor chances of a black man in the criminal justice system in Florida, will air unedited just after the Democratic convention this summer. The film is both riveting and provocative. It just might have an impact.

Michele Marie White writes from Chicago.

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National Catholic Reporter, July 16, 2004

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