At the outset, the makers of documentary series Life and Death Row settled their focus on some of the youngest men awaiting execution in America. Capital punishment is legal in 30 states, and as of 1 July 2018, there were 2,738 people on death row. Ninety-eight per cent of them are male.
But it’s the intimate look at how America’s capital punishment system affects the families of inmates and those of their victims, and the legal teams working on their cases, where the documentary makes its most powerful punch...
In a heightened situation where so much is at stake, and a decision on a stay of execution goes down to the wire, Life and Death Row takes a measured approach to explore each case before ratcheting up the tension as we learn the fate of the death row inmates.
In the build-up, the camera lingers on each person affected – the inmate, family members, victims, friends, attorneys – like evocative live portraits, leading to an often breathtaking conclusion.
There’s a gripping true crime case that’s worthy of its own series
Episode two follows the intriguing case of the Brunswick trailer park killings as 26-year-old Guy Heinze Jr. goes on trial in Georgia for the 2009 bashing murders of eight people. Seven were from his own family, including his father.
The police say it’s an open-and-shut case, but Heinze Jr.’s defence team raises serious logistical and forensic issues that call into question whether Heinze Jr. is actually guilty. Is there more than one killer?
What sets the portrayal apart is that we barely hear from the accused. Instead, the focus is on the incredible access gained by the filmmakers to the jurors whose ebbing-and-flowing opinions on Heinze Jr.’s guilt captivates, not to mention the chess moves of the defence and prosecution and the desperate plight of Heinze Jr.’s grandmother Jean Usher and younger brother Tyler. He’s bound to break your heart.
It’s a stunning case that will have you gripped and guessing until the very end.
The dogged young law student fighting to save death row inmates
At the University of Houston Death Penalty Clinic, some of Texas’ brightest young legal minds work to launch last-minute legal appeals for death row inmates. Here, 25-year-old legal student Kelly Hickman is coming to the end of her time as a volunteer and doggedly fights for the lives of two young convicts – Robert Lynn Pruett and Robert Garza. Theirs are what’s known as “crises cases”, where most legal avenues have been exhausted and the offenders are a matter of weeks away from execution.
In a race against time, we see Hickman on the hunt for mitigating evidence that could give the men a reprieve. It’s a portrait of a diligent, tough and compassionate woman of utmost integrity, and the realities of being a death row lawyer.
“I feel like I know him at this point,” she says of one of her clients. “If we lost and he was executed, it would hurt.”
An unflinching look at attitudes toward the death penalty
Texas features heavily in the series, historically the leading state for death penalty executions in the country. The unfiltered and astonishingly frank opinions hit home just how contentious and emotionally charged the issue of capital punishment is in America.
We hear the full gamut, from the defence attorney who sees it as “old testament justice”, to the mother of a brutalised victim who believes school children should witness executions as a deterrent. Hearing children of victims advocating the death penalty is particularly jarring.
But others remain conflicted. “Our feelings are very torn when it comes to death row, because on one hand, you think that you’re going to feel a huge sense of relief,” says Jena Kincaid, whose policeman father was murdered. “And then of course on the other hand, we’re human beings. You do feel guilt.”
It gives a voice to the families and victims most impacted by America’s capital punishment system
If the eyes are the windows to the soul, Life and Death Row captures the tragedy in those of its subjects stunningly – it’s haunting and beautiful all at once.
A significant amount of screen time is devoted to the first-person perspectives of victims, their family members, and the desperate loved ones of those on death row.
These are the people that true crime documentaries can too often leave out, not allowing them to express themselves in the rawest of emotions – anguish, sadness, bitterness, compassion, love, hatred, hope.
For the viewer it’s an incredibly bracing experience, just one of the reasons Life and Death Row stays with you after the credits roll.
Life and Death Row airs Mondays at 8:30pm on SBS VICELAND. Missed the previous episode? Watch it at SBS On Demand:
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