This post originally appeared in Honeysuckle Magazine.
By Kathryn O’Kane
Death Row Stories explores the fallibility of the ultimate criminal penalty, capital punishment. Narrated by current and former death row inmates, each episode of Death Row Stories seeks to unravel the truth behind a different capital murder case and poses tough questions about the U.S. capital punishment system. It airs Sundays at 8pm, ET/PT on HLN.
I directed two episodes of the series for Jigsaw Productions. This was my first foray into the true crime genre, which I’ve been following as a growing phenomenon over the past few years. Studies show that women consume the most media about true crime. There are many theories about why: whether it’s escapism or it’s a way to interact with our worst fears, many people are looking for reasons to why bad things happen. Death Row Stories premiered in 2014, and it has since been at the forefront of true crime’s popularity exploring capital punishment in a way that’s more palatable for people who might not think they’re interested in social justice issues.
As society evolves and culture shifts, so too do our laws. For example, in 2002, the execution of people with intellectual disabilities was ruled unconstitutional. In 2005, the execution of minors under the age of 18 was prohibited. In both cases, the Supreme Court referred to, “the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society” to determine which punishments are so disproportionate as to be cruel and unusual. Just last month, New Hampshire became the 21st state to abolish the death penalty.
Death Row Stories examines the deals and decisions that prosecutors and defense attorneys make on behalf of their clients as the law changes over time. Often, those decisions are based on resources that are tied to geography, experience, and technology.
Curtis Davis, a criminal justice activist, explained it to me like this: “There are 2.3 million people that are incarcerated in the United States right now. If prosecutors get it right 99% of the time, that means that there are 23,000 wrongfully convicted people in the United States. If they get it right just 90% of the time, that’s almost a quarter of a million people that deserve to be free.”
My team strove to tell balanced, fact-based stories that do not exploit the victims. I had to ask people about the worst day of their lives and to trust me to tell their story with respect and honesty. That manifested in a lot of research, a lot of phone calls, and a lot of conversations with my colleagues about the significance of and the approach to crafting this series.
Death Row Stories has six New York Women in Film & Television (NYWIFT) members working on the latest episodes! Below they share some insights from working on the series.
BARI PEARLMAN: “Any system that isn’t continually re-evaluated to maximize its effectiveness, efficiency and fairness, will ultimately fail to serve those it is designed to support. That holds true for all systems we are part of in our personal, our professional and our civic lives. Particularly when it comes to our civic lives, and specifically with respect to the criminal justice system, there is a moral and ethical imperative to continuously update it for the benefit of all of us that it is mandated to serve. What I have learned after directing five episodes of Death Row Stories is that we are not meeting that imperative. Over and over again, the system fails victims and their loved ones, those convicted of a crime (rightfully or wrongfully) and their loved ones, and all of us in their greater community entitled to a just society. And that has to change, we have to change it.”
Pearlman is a Peabody Award-winning director/producer with over 25 years experience in non-fiction film and television.
MARCELLA STEINGART: “Many of these death row cases are litigated for decades while the prisoner is locked away as the world radically changes on the outside. I’m working on a story which involves a teenager who went to prison in 1991 and was released last year. He spent most of that time in solitary confinement, with barely any access to technology, including very limited internet privileges. A complete digital revolution transpired while he was incarcerated. Now he’s introduced to the internet, smartphones, social media, big data, AI. It’s inconceivable in some ways. Like time travel I imagine. Another startling revelation while working on this series centered around the shock that death row prisoners face if their sentence is reduced or capital punishment is abolished in their state and they move into the general prison population. They go from total solitude, quiet and isolation to utter crowded chaos. It’s something I never thought of.”
Steingart is a director/producer with over 15 years of experience in non-fiction feature films, television, and web content. She also writes screenplays and is working on a short script she plans to direct.
CINDY KAPLAN ROONEY: “I’ve learned so many things working on Death Row Stories. It really has been eye-opening. There is so much complexity to having a case reopened and reheard by the court, and it’s so very difficult and a long process. One of the most surprising things to me was learning that if your conviction is commuted to life in prison and you are off of death row, you have basically lost all rights to council by a public defender. The state views your case as done and you can languish in prison even if there is new evidence or evidence of corrupt procedures by the prosecution or ineffective defense at your original trial. It’s another kind of death sentence, really.”
Rooney is a non-fiction editor with over 30 years of experience on documentaries for television and theatrical release.
YVETTE WOJCIECHOWSKI: “Editing an episode of Death Row Stories proved to be a truly profound experience. Not only was I reminded that the racial and cultural discriminations that have long been endemic in large areas of the United States continue until today, but, most importantly, I learned that the criminal justice system truly only continues to benefit the rich and discriminate against the poor and people of color. My hope is that series like Death Row Stories that air on widely-watched networks such as CNN will educate and continue to highlight the injustices and hopefully exonerate those wrongfully convicted of crimes. I am even more hopeful that going forward, every person regardless of race, class, gender, etc. will be fairly tried by all courts of law.
Production-wise, I greatly admire that the directors and their teams approach the projects with such sensitivity and careful attention to truth and fairness. I was truly humbled and inspired by the subject of my episode, and how he fought for his innocence and exoneration from the very moment of his incarceration. It was a testament to his undying spirit and his will to never give up or back down, and fight the system against all odds.”
Wojciechowski is a seasoned documentary film and television editor with over 15 years of experience exploring a wide range of topics.
JILL SCHWEITZER: “Editing on Death Row Stories was a unique experience and held a different kind of weight from other true crime projects I’d worked on. Faced with the task of constructing a story that will ultimately result in life or death presented a new sense of responsibility, and a feeling of really needing to get it right. From a man sitting behind bars for two decades maintaining his innocence, to a family struggling to gain closure on the death of their daughter, and a justice system that doesn’t function as it should, it was important to strike the right balance in presenting all sides of the story.
I was shocked by how many examples of a flawed system could exist in just one case. Between opposition to DNA testing, judicial bias and inconsistencies with the science behind the evidence – it was a reminder of how essential it is to educate the viewer on the basis for which life and death decisions are being made in the courtroom. I also didn’t realize how long it takes to appeal a conviction and the complex process involved – multiple appeals, delays in hearings, quests for new evidence – where does it end? While I adamantly feel no stone should be left unturned and each pursuit is warranted, it’s ultimately not a reliable system for determining the truth. In the end, there’s too much room for error when someone’s life is on the line.”
Schweitzer is a documentary editor who has been tackling social justice issues in film and television for over 15 years.
Two NYWIFT members have joined forces with a team of immigrant women filmmakers to tell the story of WORK, a short film written and directed by Aoife Williamson. WORK, a comedy-drama, follows Lilith, a musician scrambling to create a song in one day to submit for a job that could sky-rocket her music career. It just so happens that this day is a very busy day at her money job... and it just so happens that her “money job” is as a sex worker, named Eve.READ MORE
Learning the ins and outs of corporate sponsorship for your film projects can seem daunting, but Kim Skildum-Reid lays out all best practice principles to help you create a compelling pitch.READ MORE
Hailed by historian Robin Kelley as “one of the most powerful and inspiring documentaries of our era,” NYWIFT member Kavery Kaul’s Long Way from Home is the moving and provocative story of three remarkable girls entering ninth grade at top schools steeped in bias towards race, class, and culture. Though the film was made nearly 15 years ago, the issues still resonate in today’s climate of racial injustice and civil unrest. Kavery sat down to discuss how she put together this incredible portrait and what – if anything – has changed in our culture in the years since.READ MORE
Recap: NYWIFT Talks Black Lives Matter and Just Mercy with Scott Budnick, April Grayson and Donna Hylton
NYWIFT Executive Director Cynthia López moderated the July 1, 2020 installment of NYWIFT Talks with the team behind Just Mercy, a powerful and thought-provoking true-story film which follows young lawyer Bryan Stevenson and his history-making battle for justice. The film stars Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, and Brie Larson, and was available to rent for free across all platforms earlier this Summer in response to the Black Lives Matter movement following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery.READ MORE