Deadline (2004)

Directors: Katy Chevigny and Kirsten Johnson

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The death penalty is an issue on which Americans are divided. The statistics say that 70% of Americans are in favor of the death penalty, but the majority also are against executing innocent men and women. The incongruity of that seemingly coherent finding is that the death penalty has cost hundreds of innocent lives. In Illinois, before the moratorium on the death penalty was called in 2000 by Gov. George Ryan, a review of 25 cases showed that 12 men were dead at the state’s hand, and 13 men were found to have been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death. If the majority of Americans found out that many capital convictions were obtained against innocent men, would they still be for the death penalty?

That is one of the questions Deadline, a 90-minute documentary, raises. Others include whether the system of capital punishment is racist, classist, and capricious. Directors Katy Chevigny and Kirsten Johnson talked to a number of people intimately acquainted with the death penalty, from exonerated Death Row inmates who were freed by the 1972 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Furman v. Georgia that struck down the death penalty (at least until such time as states revamped their systems of capital punishment; 38 states currently allow the death penalty) to the warden of Mississippi’s notorious Parchment Prison to best-selling attorney/author Scott Turow, who served on the commission that examined the application of capital punishment in Illinois.

Gov. Ryan is the central character around which a swift circuit through the issue of capital punishment is run. Some of the interviews are heartbreaking, especially with the Parchment Prison warden. We watch him, in archival footage, prepare a prisoner for execution. He notes that most wardens who have been charged with running executions end up being opponents of the death penalty. The warden says emphatically that it is unfair for the American people to expect wardens to carry out executions of innocent men. Yes, he knows innocent lives have been taken, and he is demanding that We the People do something about it.

The clemency hearings called by Gov. Ryan are heartbreaking as well. We watch grief-stricken families having to relive, perhaps for the 20th time over the course of trials and appeals, the horror of their loss. We watch families of convicted killers (some, admittedly guilty as sin) beg the commissioner to spare these prisoners’ lives. What came through clearly to me in this section of the film was what one of the interview subjects, a death penalty opponent, said—that crime in the United States is incident-driven. We apply the law one case at a time, and that such an emotion-driven system of life and death will never be applied fairly according to our principle of equal justice under the law.

As a film, Deadline is confusing. Furman is brought up without explanation of what it is. We don’t get enough background on the decision to be able to comprehend how states could now have the death penalty. The film relies exclusively on the words of the interviewed and archival footage to tell the story. Some informative title cards or a voiceover narrative would have been helpful to put the events shown into context. I was fortunate to have one of the film’s producers, director Katy Chevigny, a family member of a murder victim who is working against the death penalty, and exonerated Death Row inmate Gary Gauger to answer questions about some of the issues that had contextual problems. Gauger expanded on the capriciousness that still exists (one man exonerated because of flimsy evidence, his codefendant still in prison).

Despite its flaws, this is a crucial film for people to view, particularly as the pace of executions seems to be on the rise. It may be instructive to know that Amnesty International has reported the United States as a human rights abuser for its continued use of the death penalty. Whatever your position on the death penalty, there can be no doubt that the current system’s flaws cannot be accepted because they cause the death of innocents. Better no death penalty at this time than more irreversible mistakes. l

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