A Chilling Look at the Death Penalty
By Jabari Asim
Monday, July 26, 2004; 11:42 AM
I kept thinking of the Scottsboro Boys while watching "Deadline," a new documentary by filmmakers Katy Chevigny and Kirsten Johnson.
I sensed them looking on with approval as the film illuminated the circumstances surrounding George Ryan's struggles with capital punishment issues during his tenure as governor of Illinois. In January 2000 Ryan imposed a moratorium on the death penalty in his state. He told CNN: "We have now freed more people than we have put to death under our system -- 13 people have been exonerated and 12 have been put to death. There is a flaw in the system, without question, and it needs to be studied." He appointed a panel to examine the issue.
"Deadline" will air July 30 on NBC's "Dateline" program. It includes interviews with several opponents of capital punishment who argue persuasively that such cases often involve race, poverty, bad lawyering and police misconduct. The Scottsboro case had all of that in abundance. The nine defendants, black and poor, were accused of raping two white women on a Tennessee freight train in 1931. Representing them at their Chattanooga trial were an alcoholic real-estate attorney who showed up drunk on the first day and a forgetful septuagenarian who hadn't set foot in court for years.
Despite the absence of supporting evidence, all nine defendants were tried and convicted in two hours. Eight were sentenced to death. The youngest, 12-year-old Roy Wright, received life in prison. The Scottsboro Boys eventually got better representation and, after six years of court battles, were exonerated and finally regained their freedom.
For decades afterward, the Scottsboro Boys became synonymous with the kind of gross miscarriage of justice that can place the wrong person on death row. Their arduous experience was frequently cited by opponents of capital punishment, who achieved a victory in 1972 when the Supreme Court called a halt to government-sponsored executions. That triumph proved short-lived when the court allowed the reinstatement of the death penalty in certain states in 1976. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 921 people have been executed since then.
"Deadline" includes chilling interviews with men who came perilously close to being part of that number. Anthony Porter, for instance, was two days from death when a group of students from Northwestern University found evidence that cleared him. Among the most compelling speakers is Gary Gauger, a farmer who was convicted of killing his parents and sentenced to death in 1993. He was cleared in 1996 when a three-judge panel overturned his conviction.
Interspersed with such segments is riveting testimony from the nine days of clemency hearings held in Illinois in October 2002, during which a prisoner review board evaluated the cases of 142 of the 160 inmates on the state's death row. The comments from victims' families are heartrending and, while helping to remind viewers that the inmates aren't the only ones deserving of compassion, they also show why the issue of capital punishment is so perplexing. It is possible, however briefly, to listen to the agonizing speech of a bereaved individual and join them in their desire for vengeance. But how to balance that genuine grief against due process of law? And what if our all-too-human desire for vengeance targets the wrong person? What if it targets the right person? Will executing them bring our loved one back?
Attorney and best-selling author Scott Turow served on Ryan's panel. In the film, he expresses little concern with executing someone such as serial killer John Wayne Gacy. But, Turow asks, "Can we construct a capital system that only executes John Wayne Gacy without also executing the innocent or undeserving?"
Such questions show why capital punishment is a hot potato for both liberal and conservative elected officials, none of whom want to be viewed as soft on crime. As illustration of the death penalty's nonpartisan significance, "Deadline" takes note of Bill Clinton's refusal to the stop the execution of a mentally handicapped Arkansas man in 1992, and calls attention to George W. Bush, who allowed 152 executions during his six years as governor of Texas. Ryan, who had already decided not to run for re-election, ultimately decided to commute the sentence of every death-row inmate in his state.
Other politicians have considerably less latitude. While they dither, DNA tests and other evidence continue to reveal the presence of innocent people on death row. The latest and 114th inmate to be exonerated since 1973 is Gordon Steidl, released on May 28. His home state? Illinois.
© 2004 washingtonpost.com