Friday, December 21, 2012

TV Movie Review: On Death Row

On Death Row
Directed by: Werner Herzog.

Werner Herzog wanted to make a documentary about the death penalty in America – and in 2011 he made Into the Abyss, a stunning film about crime, punishment, violence and poverty in America, that was for me, the best documentary of the year. But before Herzog settled on the story of Michael Perry and Jason Burkett for Into the Abyss, he considered four other cases – and even conducted interviews with the offenders. Not wanting to waste these interviews, Herzog decided to make four mini-documentaries, each 50 minutes long, about their stories. While none provide the depth of Into the Abyss, all four stories are well told by Herzog and simply add to his basic premise – that the death penalty is wrong, even for offenders who are guilty of the crimes they committed. As he says at the start of each of these mini-docs >As a German, coming from a different historical background, and a visitor to the United States, I respectfully disagree with the practice of the death penalty`.

Herzog tells each of the five inmates her interviews over these four films that just because he`s here, it doesn’t mean he likes them – or that he has any interest in trying to prove their innocence – which two of them proclaim. He wants to examine their cases and what led them to do what they do, and what the experience of being on death row is like. He is not really making an advocacy documentary.

The first doc concentrates on James Barnes, one of the only people who will fully admit to his guilt. He was convicted of murdering his ex-wife in Florida, and while serving out his life sentence, he confesses to the rape and murder of a nurse way back in 1988 – for which he receives the death penalty. While talking to Herzog, he even admits to committing at least one other murder. He is a serial offender, who has no hope for rehabilitation. He led a troubled life as a youngster; in and out of trouble from the time he is a teenager – who may have molested his twin sister. Yet, he seems to value family – he wants some sort of approval, or at least acknowledgment for his family. He tries to manipulate Herzog, but he sees through him. This is the most disturbing of the docs, but Barnes is so clearly guilty, so clearly evil – and even rather unrepentant – even blaming the nurse for her own murder, although not wanting to disparage the dead, he refuses to explain why it was her fault.

The second doc is the only one that concentrates on a woman – Linda Carty. This is the strangest, most incomplete of the docs, mainly because I do not think that Carty ever really levels with Herzog. She remains evasive throughout, trying hard to milk sympathy out of the audience. Her case is disturbing, because it involves Carty apparently hiring three drug dealers to break into the apartment of neighbor, to steal her newborn child. She tells the drug dealers that there is nearly a ton of pot in the apartment – which simply is not true. Eventually, the young mother is found dead in the trunk of a car, and her baby found barely clinging to life in a car right next to it. Carty proclaims her innocence, and she does have serious, legitimate concerns about her representation at her trial. But based on what I saw in this documentary, I think she probably is guilty. But because she is so evasive, and the case itself so complex, I do not think Herzog ever really nails this segment down. It does have one of the best single moments in the series though, when a prosecutor says it is easy to concentrate on the criminal, and forget the victim, in these cases. That it is very easy for Herzog to "humanize Carty", to which Herzog very bluntly replies “I do not make an attempt to humanize her. She is simply a human being, period”, which is one of the underlying points to this series by Herzog – the people who commit these crimes may have done evil things – but they are all still human.

Next up is two of the infamous Texas Seven, inmates serving out life sentences in a Texas penitentiary, who inexplicably were able to escape from prison. They didn’t kill anyone getting out of the prison, and survived for weeks on end on the run. One night, while robbing a sporting goods store, they do kill a police officer – for which all are sentenced to death when they are caught. The segment starts with Joseph Garcia, sentenced to 30 years for a murder, which he claims self-defense, who had no part in the murder of the police officer – he was shot outside, while he was still inside the store, but because his co-conspirators committed the crime, by Texas law, he is just as guilty as the one who pulled the trigger. Next, Herzog interviews George Rivas, the mastermind of the escape, and the man who pulled the trigger to kill the police officer. This is stronger than the Linda Carty segment, but not as strong as the other two – Herzog, by necessity, has to spend so much time going over how they escaped, that the crimes for which they found themselves in prison in the first place, and their life on death row, and doesn’t get quite as much attention.

Finally, there is the case of Hank Skinner, in what is probably the strongest of these mini-docs. Skinner was convicted of a triple homicide back in 1993, and vehemently claims his innocence (but does seem to hedge at points, coming up with excuses as to why his DNA may well be on the murder weapon when he eventually gets them tested). Skinner speaks most eloquently on his life on death row – on the Pollunsky unit, and how it felt when he came very close to being executed – only receiving a last minute stay of execution. Skinner gives the clearest picture of what day to day life on death row is like – how dehumanizing it is, and how difficult it is to maintain your sanity.

I think these four documentaries are better taken as a whole than any one segment is. Along with Into the Abyss, it makes for one large film about capital punishment in America. Yes, Into the Abyss is a masterpiece in itself, because Herzog takes the time to flesh out the crime, the victims and their families, the perpetrators and their families, and the people who are tasked with the impossible job of executing these criminals. Herzog does not have the time to do that with any of these cases. And yet, taken together, the movies make a devastating portrait of crime and punishment in America. You can be for capital punishment or against it, and these films will still make you question what you think. That is what great documentaries do – not simply confirm or congratulate you for believing what the filmmaker does, but makes you re-examine why you think it.

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