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    Grayland Johnson, who claims to have been tortured into confessing to a Chicago murder, saw his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment. in Deadline
    Grayland Johnson, who claims to have been tortured into confessing to a Chicago murder, saw his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment.

    Fear and loathing in Illinois

    The documentary "Deadline" undermines arguments for the death penalty by structuring its story around a capital-punishment believer, George Ryan, whose conscience was stricken by what he learned as governor of Illinois.


    With the unobtrusive sophistication in structure that marks the finest documentary films, "Deadline" lances a small hole in the stubborn chain-veil in which a tough-on-crime America has shrouded its eyes.

    Directed by: Katy Chevigny, Kirsten Johnson.
    Produced by: Dallas Brennan, Katy Chevigny, Angela Tucker.
    Featuring: Anthony Amsterdam, Stephen Bright, Donald Cabana, Tom Cross, Gary Gauger, Cornelia Grumman, Lawrence Hayes, Grayland Johnson, Elaine Jones, Robert Jones, David Keaton, Larry Marshall, Steve Mills, Maurice Possley, George Ryan, Donald Schneble, Bryan Stevenson, Scott Turow, Robert Warren.
    Cinematography: Kirsten Johnson.
    Edited by: Carol Dysinger, Kate Hirson, Charles Olivier.
    Music by: Steve Earle, Dan Marocco, Peter Nashel.

    Related links: Official site
    Walter Reade Theater Lincoln Center, 65th St. between Broadway and Amsterdam (212) 875-5600 Sat June 12: 6:30; Tues June 15: 3; Mon June 21: 8:45

    Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2004
  • Overview
  • One Shot
  • Deadline
  • Maria Full of Grace
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  • Official site
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  • Human Rights Watch 2001
  • Human Rights Watch 2003
  • The subject is the death penalty, a well-treated topic prone to choir-preaching approaches, but filmmakers Kate Chevigny and Kirsten Johnson utilize an ingenious framing narrative — the reluctant education of a Midwestern everyman, who evolves from kneejerk capital-punishment supporter to thoughtful abolitionist. This choice of narrative permits Chevigny and Johnson to document the case against capital punishment in the terms that this everyman confronts the issue — first, through the "prism of innocence," and eventually, in much more radical and full fashion.

    This everyman is then-Governor of Illinois George Ryan, a traditional law-and-order Republican whose eyes are first opened by the efforts of a Northwestern University journalism class, which resulted in the exoneration of several condemned who came within hours of execution. As one activist observes, "If these students had taken chemistry that semester, those folks would have been executed." After a systemic study by the Chicago Tribune, which found that many, if not most, capital trials in the state suffered from stunning deficiencies — unqualified attorneys, reliance on unreliable jailhouse informants, coerced confessions, or manufactured evidence, and more — Governor Ryan ordered a temporary moratorium on the penalty pending clemency hearings for each of Illinois's 167 death-row inmates.

    Without sacrificing coherence, the film takes two tracks. In the Illinois-specific track, several of the clemency cases are followed, representing the full range of candidates for execution: from a likely innocent man, Gabriel Solache (beaten brutally and told to sign a confession in English, which he did not understand a word of), to a self-admitted guilty man, Robert Jones. In addition to interviews with the prisoners, the film covers the hearings themselves, which provides an opportunity to see the naked, single-minded mindsets that capital situations foster in otherwise ordinary people.

    Governor George Ryan, troubled by the revelations of innocent people convicted and rampant errors committed in the criminal justice system, commuted all Illinois death sentences before leaving office. in Deadline  
    Governor George Ryan, troubled by the revelations of innocent people convicted and rampant errors committed in the criminal justice system, commuted all Illinois death sentences before leaving office.
    The prosecutors, even in the face of strong evidence of innocence, urge death for one and all, swift and public. Channeling medieval inquisitors, all eyes and voice and hot blood, they urge, with a preternatural force, desperate determination, and rote, unquestioned conviction. The victims' families also appear, each publicly reliving their pain, imploring the tribunal to take the life of he who took their loved one. The film refrains from direct comment on the families' desire for revenge, but the families are later cast in unflattering moral relief to the mother of Emmett Till, who publicly presses for abolition. For their part, the families of the condemned ask the tribunal to see that society's interests are safeguarded by life imprisonment, and to see the men not as the equivalent of their worst act, but as sons, fathers, and humans with pasts and personalities, roles and potentials.

    In the other track, the film takes a by-the-book approach of letting attorneys and activists — and they are the best and brightest working in capital litigation — provide background, history, sociological analysis, and general commentary, as well as profiling several non-Illinois exonerated persons and one rueful, thoughtful ex-warden. Through these, Chevigny and Johnson fill in why and how the justice system allows for the conviction of so many innocent people. Also, however, Chevigny and Johnson use this other track to subtlely, even slyly, shift the scope of the issue beyond the issue of wrongful conviction and highlight other problematic aspects. For example, the death penalty is levied in overwhelming disproportion against minorities, and almost exclusively against the poor — those with means almost always evade its imposition. Like "separate but equal," the term "capital justice" has proven in practice to be a oxymoron, a euphemism masking a residual three-fifths reality. The film, being a film, eschews statistics and hones in on the particular — namely, an exonerated black man broken by his years in prison, and his still-stunned family.

    Finally, the question is asked, why? Why does the death penalty survive when it demonstrably leads to the condemnation of many, many innocent people, and, even where innocence is not in question, is applied in a discriminatory manner? A former prosecutor and present Illinois legislator answers: since the 1970s, the American electorate has demanded that its politicians be tough on crime. And not just Republicans. New Yorkers, erstwhile liberals and patrons of human rights film festivals, have twice elected a certain illiberal mayor solely on the strength of his tough-on-crime stance. Accused ur-liberal Bill Clinton himself happily signed into law the 1996 "Effective Death Penalty Act," an act that greatly restricts a wrongfully or unconstitutionally convicted person from obtaining access to a federal court's review, hence making it much easier for states (like a Bush-led Texas) to impose the death penalty on such people. It's a curious, awful gloss on the meaning of "effective," though few took much notice. Somewhere along the way, liberals quietly crept over to the other camp where law and order was concerned, sheepishly uniting with conservatives to create a political reality where politicians will never lose a vote for taking a tough line, and where anyone who even suggests justice reform will promptly be voted out of office. As the film reports, not even a picayune measure of reform has passed in Illinois. Creating a fair system would just be too politically dangerous.

    Which brings the film back to Governor Ryan. His term was expiring; he was not seeking re-election. Therefore, he was free to act according to scruple rather than political expediency. He educated himself; as any person of ordinary intelligence is when learning about capital trials, he was aghast. Against every expectation, he commuted the sentence of every death row inmate to life imprisonment. His thoughts on capital justice constitute the film's coda, and the coda symbolizes a great hope: that, one day, with continued advocacy and education, many more may feel as Ryan does. Would that every man become this everyman; tantalizingly, they can. As one lawyer notes, to learn about the death penalty is to loathe it. By documenting that even the most law-and-order kind of person is capable of changing his mind, and by otherwise astutely approaching the subject, this film is a fine tool in the task of spreading that principled loathing.

    JUNE 14, 2004

    Reader comments on Deadline:

  • Deadline   from Mary Markey, Aug 8, 2004

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