Voices: Richard Stack and “In the Executioner’s Shadow”

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“In the Executioner’s Shadow” is a documentary that examines the death penalty from the per-spective of three very different people, and their very different experiences: The parents of a young woman who was raped and murdered; a middle-aged woman who was injured in the Boston Marathon bombing; a corrections officer who performed 62 executions.

The two filmmakers, Maggie Burnette Stogner and Richard Stack, have been working on the film for the past four years. It is near completion, and will be presented at a work-in-progress screening in North Carolina next month, with a premiere scheduled for another film festival in the spring.

Stack, who is a longtime opponent of the death penalty — he was a public defender years ago, and has written two books about the problems with capital punishment — says that when they started working on the film, the plan was to focus on the injustices of the system, and to convince viewers of the need for abolition. But after a few months, they changed direction.

“I have a clear position on the issue,” Stack says. “My work reflects that. But for the sake of moving public opinion forward, I wanted something more nuanced, more balanced.” If they only “preached to the choir,” he says, they would not get death penalty supporters or even those on the fence, to see the film, and possibly change their minds.

So that was one reason they included Boston Marathon survivor Karen Brassard who struggles throughout the film with her feelings about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and whether she wants him put to death for his role in the bombing.

Karen is a sympathetic figure, one who is clearly struggling to come to terms with what she has been through physically and psychologically, and whether the death penalty for Tsarnaev would be justice, or revenge. She is, in a sense, the embodiment of the debate for and against the death penalty that still rages in this country.

“If it [the death penalty] were an easy subject, it would have been decided a long time ago,” says Stack. “And maybe the reaction to Karen will be that she is so thoughtful about the issue, it will make those who support it think about the reasons why, and maybe reconsider.”

Stack says that because they decided to go for a balanced approach, there were several prominent abolitionists who declined to participate. That was a disappointment, but he said he took consolation in what Sister Helen Prejean (who is interviewed in the film) said to him. “She told me that what’s important is to get people to think about it, to dig deeper into the issue and once you’ve done that, once they’ve weighed all the arguments, they’ll come to oppose it.”

The most surprising thing, says Stack, was that those who support the death penalty “were so thoughtful, and articulate in their reasoning. I understood the position of the retributionists better than I ever have. I don’t agree with them. Their point of view is that they believe past deeds need to be punished. They say, ‘You look at rehabilitation and I look at retribution.’ But it was eye-opening to hear the other sides’ position.”

The film also tells the story of Jerry Givens, who, as the chief executioner for the Commonwealth of Virginia, conducted 62 executions, 37 by electric chair and 25 by lethal injection. He believed in what he was doing right up until the time he came within days of executing Earl Washington, Jr., who had been on death row for more than 17 years for a crime he didn’t commit. Clearly still haunted by how close he came to killing an innocent man, and aware that there are many like Washington, innocent men and women wrongfully convicted, and, still worse, innocent men and women who were executed, Jerry is living proof of the collateral damage the death penalty causes.

Finally, Vicki and Syl Schieber share the story of how they struggled to forgive the man who murdered their daughter. Never wavering in their belief that nothing would be gained by executing their daughter’s killer, the Schiebers go up against the Philadelphia district attorney in insisting that he not be charged with the death penalty. Their grief is as raw as their determination is strong, and this brave couple demonstrates how difficult it can be to have the courage of your convictions when the worst possible thing that can happen to a parent happened to them.

“Those who lost a loved one to violence, and can forgive, and those who have been wrongly accused of a heinous crime but lived to tell about it, their ability to overcome what I consider to be a personal holocaust have my admiration beyond words,” says Stack.

“I view the death penalty as a microcosm of a major issue in our society that doesn’t require a technical fix, a mathematical fix. It’s all about people coming together to make policy for the enlightenment of their society. If we can solve this problem, obviously I mean abolishing the death penalty, there’s no societal problem we can’t solve. I see its abolition as a road to an enlightened society, one that rises above hatred, and vengeance, and revenge to a much more compassionate, merciful, and just society.

“You never know when you’ve changed someone’s mind. The best you can do is plant the seed.”

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