New documentary indicts death penalty


“Deadline” is a new documentary film about the events that led up to Illinois Governor George Ryan’s decision to grant clemency to everybody on this state’s death row, just before he left office in 2003. It has a powerful message: The death penalty must be abolished in this country, before more innocent people are executed.

Made by independent filmmakers Kirsten Johnson, Dallas Brennan, Katy Chevigny and Angela Tucker, “Deadline” was a 2004 Sundance entry. The filmmakers start with the original 1972 Furman v. Georgia case that led the Supreme Court to declare the death penalty, as implemented in the U.S. to be unconstitutional.

Furman showed that there was a huge amount of racial bias in the implementation of the death penalty by the states. In 1976, the Supreme Court decided that these problems had been cleared up and gave the green light to executions.

With a series of fascinating interviews with ex-Gov. Ryan and other politicians, prisoners, former death row inmates, attorneys, journalists and an eloquent prison warden, Johnson and Chevigny provide a guided tour of what still remains wrong with the death penalty in spite of the “reforms.”

We see harrowing sessions of the Prison Review Board that preceded Ryan’s decision to give clemency to everybody on death row and complete freedom to five prisoners whose convictions happened only because of malfeasance by Chicago Police and Cook County prosecutors.

A number of things become clear as the film proceeds. In the first place, mistakes continue to be made in capital cases, and that is putting it charitably. The racial and class bias is still there. Prosecutors and police often manipulate the grief of the surviving relatives of murder victims, convincing them that an execution has to take place before there can be “closure.”

We feel the horror of life on death row, learning such things as the practice in one prison of leaving the door to the execution chamber open, so that prisoners will see it and be reminded what is in store for them, every day. Particularly moving testimony is given by novelist Scott Turow, who was appointed to the special commission created by Gov. Ryan to study the whole death penalty issue and make recommendations.

Turow points out that in the case of the death penalty, one mistake is too many, not only for the person executed, but for the whole edifice of justice. Originally an agnostic on the subject, his time on the commission turned him into a death penalty opponent.

Lawrence Marshall, an attorney at the Center for Wrongful Convictions based at Northwestern University in Evanston, gives another reason why “safeguards” will not suffice in the case of the death penalty. Interviewed for the film, he points out that in every one of the hearings the Prison Review Board had on the death row cases, the position taken by prosecutors was that anyone who claims that he or she was falsely accused and wrongfully convicted is automatically lying. No mistakes were ever made, the prosecutors and police are always right, and the convicted prisoner always wrong. Given that in the years leading up to Ryan’s decision, 13 death row inmates in Illinois were exonerated because of new evidence, this is a stance of startling arrogance.

Yet Illinois is surely not the only state with this problem. What of the 152 people who were executed in Texas when George Bush was governor? When running for election in 2000, Bush said he was 100 percent sure everybody he executed was guilty. He was also 100 percent sure about the “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq.

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