Deadline follows the backstory to Governor George Ryan’s historic decision to commute the sentences of every prisoner on Illinois’ death row before leaving office in 2002. The saga began when a group of college students investigates death row inmates’ cases, proving that at least two were innocent. State newspapers began a series of exposés on cases of current death row prisoners, and shocking iniquities eventually trickle into the view of George Ryan, a Republican governor with a history of staunch support for the death penalty.
Deadlines reveals the complex web of corruption that surrounds any death penalty case, detailing the pressures on police and prosecutors, compelling them to inflate cases in order to placate public furor. Police coerce false confessions form suspects (in Illinois, one officer was fond of cattle prods) and jurors’ judgment is clouded when they come into contact with victims’ families. The film’s analysis unfolds in concentric rings, showing that every level of the decision includes practices that have little to do with what we imagine as our justice system.
Lawyers for such defendants usually have little to no experience, rarely advise defendants of their rights, and plead out the cases as fast as they can. By following the exposures of flaws in the Illinois system as they come to light, Deadline shows that legislators resist correcting injustices. When Ryan issued the controversial blanket commutation, he wasn’t running for reelection. Though he gave legislators the chance to fix the system before he acted, they did nothing. Politics has never been the province of principle.
According to its own promotional material, Deadline is about Ryan’s decision and the “gripping drama of the state’s clemency hearings.” But this is not the film’s focus (though it is for the DVD’s single extra, a perfunctory interview with Illinois Governor George Ryan. In fact, a clear picture of Ryan never emerges. The film includes no interviews with allies or enemies, people who might have offered more detail than the harried press conferences where his vacillation and fumbling make him seem like a man dwarfed by circumstances. He waffles so much during these that one is left with the feeling that if he’d had more time, he would have decided to leave death row open for business.
The film leaves much material underdeveloped, especially given the fact that it was a Republican who spared the lives of 167 inmates. Ryan here appears to exist in a political vacuum, as the film takes a “one-man-against-the-system” structure. The film’s most glaring omission is that fact that, while making the commutation decision, Ryan was also facing corruption charges related to bribery monies that ended up in his campaign coffers. Even a partisan film would serve itself well by addressing these charges, since to many people, these looming indictments were the primary reason Ryan threw up the smokescreen of investigating the death penalty system. These charges could be easily parried, but the filmmakers let them shadow the documentary unanswered, except to mention them in a sentence scrolled at the end of the Ryan interview included as a DVD extra.
The clemency hearings themselves provide gripping and difficult viewing. Watching the families of both the victims and the prisoners grapple with the enormity of their losses can be torturous. And Deadline never once condescends to the people who support the death penalty. Nearly every talking head acknowledges both the validity and prevalence of a desire for vengeance. By including these hearings, the documentary offers moving counterarguments in the form of familial grief. The senseless evil of murder comes through in their inability to convey their feelings, in the moments they are reduced to pained animal wails.
But these hearings are curiously decontextualized, emotional flashpoints edited down to their tear-jerking core. The technique seems exploitative, a little too much like an episode of The Practice. It would be more appropriate to focus on a couple of cases with backgrounds, rather than a visual litany of breakdowns that ends up looking like a Barbara Walters Anniversary Special.
Author and lawyer Scott Turow offers his own stinging reservation about capital punishment: “But you have to recognize if you’re using the death penalty for a symbolic purpose, to make a moral statement, that it makes a great deal of difference if you’re executing the wrong people, because you’re not sending a clear moral message. You’re not saying, ‘Ultimate punishment for ultimate evil.’ You’re saying, ‘Ultimate punishment sometimes, maybe not so evil, and maybe he didn’t even do it.’” Emotionally and factually overwhelming, Deadline uses Illinois’ problems to indict the death penalty system more broadly. Though a film primarily composed of people talking, it never ceases to be riveting. I finished watching it with a sorrow in my gut, overcome by the injustice of a system crippled by well-intentioned misjudgment and bigoted subjectivity. There’s no way to walk away from Deadline, whether you’re for or against the death penalty, without conceding at least minor qualms.