Comfortable and Furious

Deadline (2004)

It might strike some readers as odd that I would oppose the death penalty, given that I rail against the continued existence of most of the world’s population on a daily basis. And yet I do in fact assert my strong objection to this alleged punishment, if only because it is never a good idea that the state be involved in the deliberate taking of human life. Interpersonal violence is perfectly acceptable in my mind, as it involves instincts, passions, disputes, and often hilarious drunken rampages that have as their origin the competition for a woman who, in the light of sobriety, would hardly merit a belt to the chops, let alone an extended stay under moth-eaten blankets. When the bloodshed is sponsored by the government, it becomes wholly unacceptable, as that is but one more step in the direction of tyranny. I also reject the death penalty as an option because it is, in the paraphrased words of former Illinois Governor George Ryan, “Racist, classist, arbitrary, unjust, and riddled with inconsistencies.”

You know the drill — the only people this country executes are black, poor, and ignorant, unless of course you consider the occasional Mexican in Texas. We loves us a lynchin’, and only on rare occasions are we concerned about the guilt or innocence of the man swingin’ from the tree branch. And that is how I arrive at Deadline, a rousing, irrefutable documentary about the shabby state of capital punishment in America, which remains a stain on democracy itself. The hero of this piece is the aforementioned Ryan, a truly courageous man who investigated the state’s criminal justice system, actually considered the facts, and concluded that there was a distinct possibility that innocent people might be put to death.

Ryan’s eleventh-hour commutation of all Illinois death row inmates is made that much more shocking given his status as a Republican. And yet, because he is from that side of the aisle, he was able to accomplish what no Democrat would even attempt. The objections leveled against a liberal Governor (if there were any, that is) commuting death sentences would be so deafening as to make such a move impossible and politically suicidal. But as only Nixon could go to China, only Ryan could take a stand against a system that is corrupt at its very core and not be accused of bleeding-heart Communism. Fine, Ryan acted as his term was coming to an end (one must wonder if he would have uttered a peep had a re-election campaign been staring him in the face), but he is spending his retirement years touring the country, giving speeches, and trying desperately to convince other states to follow suit.

Filmmakers Katy Chevigny and Kirsten Johnson, despite being strong opponents to the ultimate punishment, have crafted a documentary that is surprisingly even-handed, in that it considers the evidence without speechifying or hysterics. It is far from a dry academic study, however, as lives and emotions are involved, but it never lets us forget that in most cases, the prisoners being considered are very much guilty, often of truly heinous crimes. And as they and Ryan believe, punishment is due. But if one man is sent to die who might have been innocent, then it is not enough to say that we’ll “play the percentages.” As Ryan stated in an after-movie Q&A session, “Given the finality of the sentence, we had better be absolutely correct 100% of the time.”

Given the institutional inequalities and capacity for human error, such a request is asking the impossible. And why not life in prison? Is that not, in the end, the worst possible punishment? And as Ryan states, until he hears one argument that pushes the debate beyond the victim’s lust for revenge, he will remain convinced that the death penalty cannot be defended by any intelligent person.

The film works as history (we see footage from a BBC documentary about the landmark 1972 case Fuhrman v. Georgia, that established the death penalty as unconstitutional), social commentary, and the story of a man’s intellectual redemption. Here is a man (Ryan) approaching the end of his life, retiring from politics and fading into the sunset, who actually entertains a point of view not his own and is ultimately convinced to switch positions. Of how many people of advancing years can such a thing be said? Age usually hardens the heart and locks conservatism into place, and here is a shining example of the high road of logic winning out over the easy (and low) road of tradition. We only see Ryan at press conferences and during his eloquent farewell address to the people of Illinois, but the power of his argument is felt throughout.

Again, I have no special place in my heart for any American, let alone one who has raped and shot a mother of three, but I avoid the hypocrisy that says we are deterring crime when we send someone to the gas chamber. That there are otherwise reasonable human beings continuing to perpetuate the lie that executions prevent crime speaks only to our absolute surrender to the most depraved elements of our character. I doubt most politicians would utter such nonsense in private, but they must play to the red meat crowd; the same sort of folks who believe the best way to bring democracy to a foreign land is through the barrel of a gun and/or the sting of a warhead.

And lest anyone doubt the stupidity of the deterrence argument, look only to Texas, where dozens of poor saps continue to meet with the needle on a yearly basis. One would think that after almost thirty years since the Supreme Court re -nstituted the death penalty, the number of executions would go down as terrified Texans learned their lesson and stopped a-killin’. That the number actually rises every year is telling, but don’t ask your average citizen of the Lone Star state to figure out that by the numbers, it could be argued that executions actually encourage crime.

So all hail George Ryan, one of the few Republicans left in America who actually makes sense, and an equal amount of praise for the filmmakers who brought his story to the screen. We may not be able to stop Murder Inc.’s mighty roar through Iraq, but perhaps we can dent the culture of death back here at home. As I said and will continue to argue — on Ruthless and on the streets — leave the killing up to us. Leave Uncle Sam out of it.



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