Documentaries about Escaping the Death Penalty Back to Life By Andrea Dittgen

in 23rd Miami International Film Festival

by Andrea Dittgen

He never gives up. Even if a case seems hopeless Steven Birch, America’s leading anti-death penalty lawyer, tries to find at least one error made by the authorities in court to save his wrongly convicted client from execution. In Fighting for Life in the Death-Belt (USA 2005) Jeff Marks and Adam Elend take a look at his law office. Without losing temper Birch talks to his clients, their relatives and the authorities. 90 percent of the executions he tries to prevent are scheduled in the Southern states. The clients and their families can’t afford a lawyer. For over twenty-five years Birch hasn’t worked for money or glory, he is not fighting against the death penalty but does everything to ensure a just and fair resolution. “If we don’t fight people are killed”, says the Director of the Southern Center for Human Rights and teacher at the Yale and Harvard law schools.

The first documentary feature of the two young filmmakers gives an inside view of his exhausting daily work in an exciting way by showing without nearly any comment in a distant but also emotional way how Birch handled two different cases within three days while time was running out. One of Birch’s clients is scheduled to be executed in Georgia in three days, the other has to stand trial to determine whether or not he gets the death penalty. The second client, found guilty of rape and murder twenty years ago, doesn’t want to make the deal proposed by the State of Georgia. Although his verdict was after an appeal changed into a sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of parole, he insists on being executed. Birch and his assistants are constantly talking to the stubborn prisoner and his relatives to make him accept the deal. Birch finally succeeds but loses the other case which seemed not to be so serious. Despite the errors made by the jury with a hearing of only one day and a half to judge over the murder case, overlooking reports that the gun shot was accidental, so that the accused should never have been on death row, the appeal didn’t get through. Birch is desperate, accompanies the mother of his client on the execution day, comforts her and begins to work on a new case the same day saying he considers himself like the medical doctor in the emergency room who couldn’t save this man’s life but maybe the life of the next dying man. It’s thrilling to see this man never giving up hope, and it’s thrilling to see how the two directors fight for their independent film to be shown outside festivals and schools.

For about ten years there’s a new opportunity to free wrongfully sentenced people from the death row — after DNA evidence proved their innocence. After Innocence (USA 2005) by Jessica Sanders shows the difficulties to get a DNA test and to make the judges accept the newly proven innocence and their own mistakes. The case studies are about eight men accused of rape and murder. Up to 2003 about 140 persons in the United States became exonerated by post conviction DNA testing, among them thirteen prisoners sentenced to death row. One of them was Nicholas Yarris, exonerated in 2003 after spending 21 years in prison in Pennsylvania for which he was given no compensation. Sanders shows him in prison and back in freedom driving a jeep. “I was amazed by the smell of the world”, Yarris said after he left prison. He always finds the right words to capture the audience, and now he is one of the most sought after public speakers on DNA testing. He is petitioning to put DNA data into the data bank of the FBI in order to prevent other wrongful indictments. Every week the former sales agent speaks to the public giving out flyers on the subject.

The second man Sanders focuses on among the eight exonerated men is Wilton Dedge. He was sentenced to life, in 1996 he became the first Florida inmate so seek post DNA testing, even before the state passed a law providing for such testing in 2001. So Dedge had to fight for its exoneration because he won access to DNA too early as the judge said. Only in 2004 when the District Court of Appeals rejected the paradoxical arguments of the state, Dedge was given another chance. Further testing was ordered, Dedge again was excluded from being a rapist and released from prison the same year. He now works part-time, plans a lawsuit against the state of Florida and fights for social improvement in the state prisons such as education and jobs, better food and sleeping conditions. “There is so much to do” he stated in the discussion following the two films about death penalty.

Sanders’ film is wonderfully composed mixing scenes from prison with those of the outside world. She managed to get statements from the prisoners, their families, the lawyers and – most important – from one of the judges who had to admit he was wrong and corrected his error, and even from a former Governor now fighting for reforms. But nothing is as touching and convincing as former rape victim Jennifer Thompson-Canino. In 1984 the college student identified young Roland Cotton As the culprit and put him in jail. “I was certain, but I was wrong”, she admitted after DNA testing proved the innocence of the accused men who was exonerated after eleven years in prison. The black man and the white woman became close friends, and she now is an activist against conviction for pure eyewitness identification.

Both films were placed in the outstanding section “Big Picture Discussions” and the discussion with Birch, Dedge, Marks and two other involved attorneys after the screening showed that there still is a huge lack of information about death penalty. Feature films as Dead Man Walking (USA 1995, Tim Robbins), Last Dance (USA 1996, Bruce Beresford) or The Life of David Gale (USA 2003, Alan Parker) could only scratch the surface of the subject and not provide the facts and faces of real life that those young and talented documentary filmmakers give us today.