JWR Articles: Film/DVD - At the Death House Door (Directors/Producers: Steve James, Peter Gilbert) - April 24, 2008

At the Death House Door

4.5 4.5
98 min.

Reviewed at the 2008 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival
And Justice for Some

Rarely has the unholy alliance between Church and State been so succinctly delineated than in this detail-rich documentation which brings the near-daily ritual of purging “worst of the worst” from the glorious State of Texas into sharp focus.

Group rationalization is at its finest with “Team Execution,” a band of gallant men from the Huntsville prison—their perfect scorecard (no one has come out of the 15-hour ordeal on their last day on the planet alive) is only occasionally blemished by the lethal injection of an innocent human being. No worries there: the overwhelming majority of those executed aren’t even white.

The job of organized religion (here in the devout personage of Pastor Carroll Pickett) is to offer God’s comfort to the damned and, more importantly, persuade the walking corpse to hop onto the gurney and take the needle without any fuss—or what’s a heaven for? Ironically, the first of the “chosen” when the death penalty was reinstated (1976) was a Muslim.

The State, “confident’—to quote then Governor George Bush—that final justice will be done to serve the greater good, provides the last meal, usually instantaneous heart-stopping drugs—Carlos de Luna, the focus of a Chicago Tribune feature that convincingly claims it was profile-lookalike Carlos Hernandez who murdered the gas station attendant in 1983, took a full eleven minutes of pharmaceutical hell-on-earth to expire—and all-included funeral arrangements.

The Fourth Estate, er, hangs on every word of the convicted, and—in the case of Karen Boudrie’s coverage of de Luna—befriends the convict in hopes of landing an exclusive confession. Sadly for her readers, de Luna—despite trusting enough to favour the story-at-any-cost reporter—makes his last phone call to Boudrie but still maintains his innocence. (Arrested hiding under a truck barely forty minutes after the convenience store blood bath, de Luna’s bare chest, hands, pants and shoes sported nary a drop of the victim’s blood—the envy of Lady Macbeth.)

The ghoulish public adore Huntsville, TX—no longer revered for its rodeos (replete with another type of clown whose main purpose is to calm the nerves of cranky livestock who also face execution, then to be chopped into best-before slabs of meat or ground into glue. On extinction nights, they don freakish costumes and party hearty as midnight nears (mercifully switched to 6 o’clock in recent years), many having munched on a “Killer Burger” at the fast-food stand a few short yards from the prison gate—Ancient Rome would be proud.

At its most basic level, directors/producers Steve James and Peter Gilbert have crafted a stunning indictment of capital punishment (to wit several Republicans scurried out of the theatre once it became apparent that their “system” wasn’t going to be praised for its devotion and vigilance much less get re-elected: here’s a production that ought to be banned!).

But those who have the courage to face many “inconvenient truths” (a.k.a. global harming), this film is a brilliant testament to the peril of human inertia.

Now, everyone concedes de Luna’s innocence. But where were they when it mattered most?

At the time, the ever-practical reverend feared for his job as prison chaplin. That was due to a pair of his previous parishioners being shot to death in the very same Huntsville prison during the inmate siege of 1974 (how did his God sanction that?). He supported capital punishment, but didn’t share that belief with his death-house charges or incarcerated congregation. Neither spiritual nor moral leader he.

De Luna’s family members put their faith in their own lawyers whose expensive counter-examination of the facts confirmed the 27-year-old’s guilt.

A recent interview with the visibly chastened Boudrie bemoans her inability to “have believed him sooner,” then, presumably, use her truth-seeker status to publicly raise doubts much, much sooner.

And the government of all the people? The “deterrent” of capital punishment has worked so well that the executioner “teams” can hardly keep up with the demand. Like weapons of mass destruction, the State assures itself and its nervous voters that it has the conclusive evidence to mete out permanent justice to those so obviously guilty of heinous crimes.

Besides, killin’ folks is much cheaper than putting them behind bars for life with no chance of parole—just in case there might have been a “mistake” in the trial. Look no further than Steven Truscott or Robert Baltovich … not to mention death by friendly fire. JWR

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Directors/Producers - Steve James, Peter Gilbert
Composer - Leo Sidran
Cinematographer - Peter Gilbert
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purchase information, production sponsors:
Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival
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