In the Executioner’s Shadow
Directed by Maggie Burnett Stogner (2018)
This documentary concerns the death penalty in the US, the only remaining Western industrialized nation to retain execution as punishment for both legal and political crimes.*
In public opinion polls, 50% of Americans favor the death penalty and 50% oppose it. The annual number of executions peaked during the 1930s, when lynchings were popular entertainment in many communities. In 1936, following massive public backlash against the execution of Rainey Bethea, whom many believed innocent, most states moved to hide their executions inside in death houses. With the advent of DNA evidence, roughly one in ten death row inmates is ultimately proven innocent.
For many years, electrocution was the method of choice. This changed to lethal injection in most states several decades ago.
The film profiles the emotional struggles of two families of murder victims and a former Pennsylvania chief executioner, as they confront the issue of public execution. The former executioner, who performed 62 executions over 17 years, presently campaigns against the death penalty. He asserts that neither judges nor juries would sentence people to death if they had to carry them out themselves.
A couple whose daughter was robbed and murdered during a break-in outraged their local district attorney by fighting to save their daughter’s killer’s life. After watching other parents’ being overcome by the grief and anger of 15+ years of death row appeals, they decided compassion and forgiveness was the better avenue.
Another couple, whose daughter was killed in the Boston Marathon, supported the death penalty for the convicted bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
His death sentence was overturned in July by a federal appeals court: https://www.nbcboston.com/news/local/tsarnaev-death-sentence-tossed-federal-appeals-court-orders-new-penalty-phase-trial/2169713/
*The film neglects to mention that Obama signed an executive order in July 2016 allowing the President to order extrajudicial assassination of political enemies without due process of law.