Friday, February 1, 2013

One For Ten launch party at Vibe Bar, 31st January 2013

Executing a human being is barbarism.  Societies that practise capital punishment are giving in to their worst impulses: justice as revenge, pleasure through cruelty and simple, straightforward blood lust.  Thankfully the political climate worldwide appears to be heading towards abolition of the death penalty, but when 35 states in the US still have capital punishment on their statutes it’s clear that there’s still a long way to go.  Last night’s event at Vibe Bar showcases a series of short films created to crank up the political pressure, with the aim of adding a powerful voice to the debate.

‘One For Ten’ refers to the fact that for every ten people executed in the US, one person sentenced to death has been completely exonerated.  The execution of an innocent person by the state has been the instigating factor in a number of countries abolishing the death penalty.  The abolition of capital punishment in the UK came about as partly as a result of one of these miscarriages of justice.  In 1949, Timothy Evans, 25 was accused of murdering his wife and daughter in 10 Rillington Place.  He was convicted on the evidence of his neighbour and sentenced to death by hanging, a sentence carried out on 9th March 1950.  The neighbour that gave evidence against him was John Christie, one of England’s most notorious serial killers.  Christie admitted killing Timothy Evan’s wife, but of course by then it was too late for poor Timothy Evans who was by then mouldering in the dirt under Pentonville Prison. 

Amador by Nick Reynolds.  A death mask of an executed inmate.
It’s a nightmare to imagine yourself convicted of a crime that you didn’t commit, being marched towards the gallows, the electric chair or the gas chamber knowing not only that you’re an innocent man, but that the real killer still walks free.  Trials can turn on the flimsiest of reasons; you may have a terrible defence counsel, the prosecution may have a compellingly charismatic expert witness or in your own nervousness you may inadvertently  incriminate yourself in the witness box.  All these things have happened to people much like you or I. 

The fact that it’s so easy to identify with wrongly convicted people sentenced to death is what makes ‘One For Ten’ so compelling.  This is the launch of a project, and upon completion the film-makers will travel around the US in a campervan that’s been converted into a mobile editing suite.  They’ll meet ten exonerees, film their stories, edit the video and upload it overnight, allowing for an unusually fluid and responsive kind of film-making.

405 and Counting by Carrie Reichardt
We saw a preview of what these short films will be like at Vibe Bar last night.  In 1991 Ray Krone was convicted of the rape and murder of a bartender in Phoenix, Arizona.  Although he protested his innocence, an expert testified that the bite marks on the body couldn’t possibly have been made by anyone else.  With confident testimony like this in front of them the jury didn’t hesitate in handing down a guilty verdict, and Ray was sentenced to death. 

Ten years pass. 

In 2002, the evidence was re-examined, and DNA testing on the blood and saliva found on the victim excluded Krone as the source matching a convicted sex offender living close to the bar at the time.   Krone’s story is horrifying, all the more so for how pleasant, nice and want of a better word, 'normal' he is.  You can sense the anger behind his words, but it’s measured, calm and controlled.  He’s the model subject for a documentary like this.

His story is so compelling that it’s a bit of shame that the video is a bit over-produced, with a flashing graphics, pointless shots of Ray feeding a horse or playing darts and a constant, overbearing guitar soundtrack over the top.  The bright spot is a brilliant bit of narration by Danny Glover, but the visual overload distracts from the subject.  Aesthetically, the tone is unpleasantly close to something like 'CSI', I found myself wishing they’d just pointed the camera at Krone and let him speak.

The major point of comparison is Werner Herzog’s ‘Into the Abyss’.  This documentary is primarily a series of conversations between Herzog, death row inmates, prison workers and relatives of the condemned.  Herzog has always been an opponent of capital punishment, but this isn’t a preachy documentary.  His subject, Michael Perry, committed a reprehensible and pointless crime; murdering a woman so he could joyride in her car.  Although he denies the crime, the weight of evidence stacked against him is considerable his conviction is secure.  Herzog’s choice to focus on an unsympathetic, guilty man is, I believe, why ‘Into the Abyss’ makes a stronger and more compelling argument than ‘One For Ten’.

By interviewing the exonerated, ‘One For Ten’ sets up an unnecessary division between the innocent and the guilty on death row.  All executions, whether carried out on the innocent and guilty, and no matter what crimes the person may have committed, are equally ethically reprehensible.  After all, in one respect interviewing people exonerated of their crimes proves that the system works.  In these instances innocent people weren't executed.  I will grant that purely from the point of view of changing people’s opinions on the death penalty, concentrating on the innocent is more emotive, but I think you make a stronger and more honest argument by defending those who are least sympathetic.

Ceramic Slipped Cast Spray Cans by Carrie Reichardt
In the excellent art exhibition that supports this cause there was one piece that particularly stood out to me.  In a corner there are a number of letters from prisoners on death row.  They are quite moving, except one which reads “I didn't like homosexuals and killed him. ... I feel sorry for the victim's family.  Have no feelings for him".  This it made me angry, and for a microsecond I wondered if maybe this despicable person should be executed.  Would the world really be a worse place without him in it?  But the very fact that cases like these arouse those retributive feelings in me makes them better examples than exonerees.  We have to look beyond crude impulses towards retribution and examine our own ethical framework.  While I’m sure ‘One For Ten’ agree that the death penalty is universally wrong in all instances, by only using exonerees to make their argument they give a foothold to the counter-argument that execution would be justifiable if the conviction is sound beyond all doubt.

Selma James speaking.
Having said that, I wholeheartedly support this campaign and the speakers last night were convincing in both their enthusiasm and their intelligence. My favourite speaker was Selma James, who spoke with furious passion about creating a society that wants to care, rather than kill.  It was her speech that articulated what I think the overarching problems with the state having direct powers of life and death over those in its care are.  The state committing violence and murder against its own citizens in the guise of justice helps implant the ethos that murder is acceptable deep under the society's skin.  

The abolition of the death penalty in the US would not only save men like Ray Krone from the electric chair, gas chamber or lethal injection, it'd demonstrate that the state believes in the power of rehabilitation, of the idea of prison as a corrective rather than punitive measure.  For those reasons and many others, this campaign deserves to make an impact in the argument.  

You can donate to the project here:

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