|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.
By PETER THEIS
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.
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.
|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
Sat June 12: 6:30; Tues June 15: 3; Mon June 21: 8:45|
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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
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.
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.
|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 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|
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