Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
This notable Sundance festival documentary examines the rationale behind a controversial move by
George Ryan, the governor of Illinois in 2002: He cleared his state's death row by commuting the
death sentences of 167 prisoners to life imprisonment.
That unprecedented act of governance just before he was scheduled to leave office,
was reported in most of the nation's media as an outrage, another example of liberalism gone wild.
According to the coverage I saw, bad leadership had once again ignored the rights of crime victims
and thwarted justice.
Deadline tells the story of the decision through interviews with journalists and activists,
courtroom videos of months of hearings. The issue is a lot more complicated than it looks.
A college journalism class had reinvestigated some capital cases and discovered that several
convicted murderers were completely innocent, the victims of perjured testimony, extorted
confessions and bloodthirsty juries. Governor Ryan reopened the case of every prisoner awaiting
execution, and anti-death penalty activists went into action.
The docu brings a fair mind to a complicated and emotionally loaded issue. The Governor was
appalled by a broken justice system that routinely railroaded poor minority defendants,
especially in high-profile crimes. We get testimony to the effect that some of these death row
criminals received almost no legal defense at all. One particularly compelling case shows a Mexican
defendant from whom a confession was extracted after forty hours of interrogation that could easily
be called torture. A non- English speaker, he eventually signed a confession he could not read. The
only translator present was the interviewing officer.
Deadline gives the flipside of the issue its due. Journalists characterize Governor Ryan
a small town pharmacist overwhelmed by his political responsibilities. Others calmly
judge him to be naive. Victims' rights activists express the pain to long-suffering family members
at the proposal that guilty parties be taken off death row. We're shown
interviews with several convicts, some spared by the first 1972 ban on the death penalty, and
others by Ryan's action. They can't be said to be a particularly convincing bunch; one who was
involved in the shooting of a policeman blames heroin and tries to make it sound as if his work
for the Black Panthers somehow exonerates him.
Altogether 13 death row inmates were proven to be innocent, a shocking fact indicating the need for
drastic reform. The point of Ryan's mass commutation is not that most of the convicted aren't guilty
but that ritual killings to gratify an emotional need are simply wrong. A warden tells us most of
his peers are against the executions, and we see testimony from a group of victims' relatives
who also believe in the abolition of the death penalty.
The death penalty is examined for what it is, society's revenge against heinous criminals. Ever since
Richard Nixon made the War on Crime a major political issue it has become impossible for any
political candidate to be elected without a strong anti-crime, pro-death penalty stance. Several
states have become veritable execution factories, with George W. Bush's Texas leading the list. With
the evidence of scores of proven wrongful convictions, Governor Ryan's action can be seen as a first
step towards some semblance of a civilized method of applying justice to capital cases.
Deadline is a no-frills presentation of the facts that gives its issue balance and avoids
overly emotional material from either side. Although clearly against the death penalty in general,
it makes a persuasive case that American 'eye for an eye' attitudes are inbred, along with
pervasive racism. Within our enlightened times is a clear streak of barbarism.
Home Vision's DVD of Deadline presents the good-looking docu in an enhanced transfer; Kirsten
Johnson's camerawork is of exceptional quality throughout. The 90-minute show is accompanied by various
outttakes, an unedited tape of Governor Ryan's announcement speech, an interview with the Governor,
a Death Penalty Timeline and some filmmaker bio text pieces. Director Katy Chevigny and Kirsten
Johnson tell the story of the making of the docu in a separate interview.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Supplements: Filmmaker interviews, full Ryan speech, interview with Ryan, Timelines,
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 7, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson