‘On Death Row’ Is Odd, Incisive, and Unsettling

Sometimes, James Barnes says, a bird nests in a window for a few days. He’s describing his daily existence for Werner Herzog, who wonders, “How big of an event is that?” Barnes nods. The question makes sense to him, a Florida prison inmate since 1998, and currently on death row. Though some of his fellow prisoners “can’t stand that it’s making a noise,” he takes pleasure in it, a sign of the world beyond the walls around him. “I love the rain,” he adds, “I love when I can her it beat.” Herzog presses: when was the last time you felt the rain, he asks. It was 2002, recalls Barnes. “So,” concludes Herzog, from off-screen. “Eight years ago, you had rain on you.”

It’s a simple enough story. But it’s also utterly complicated, typical of the kinds of stories Herzog solicits from his interview subjects in On Death Row, a four-part series that premieres on Investigation Discovery on 9 March. Following his documentary Into the Abyss, the filmmaker turns again to the horror he feels toward the American death penalty. He opens each episode in the same way: “As a German coming from a different historical background, and being a guest in the United States,” he says, “I respectfully disagree with capital punishment.” This as the camera hovers near a death chamber, floating by Bibles on a table, intimating the system’s pervasive moral and spiritual hypocrisies.

As Herzog interviews each inmate, he remains off camera, his hovering presence indicated by his unmistakable voice and phrasing, his ability to trust in his subjects in any given moment even as he realizes — and articulates — the likelihood that they would lie to him, intentionally or not. He tells Barnes on their meeting, “Even though I might be sympathizing with your quest to have procedural injustices corrected in your case, it does not necessarily mean that I have to like you.” Barnes answers, though he doesn’t have to: “Correct.”

This exchange typifies the dynamic between Herzog and his subjects, who include the inmates, some, like Barnes, quite open about their crimes and circumstances, and others, like Joseph Garcia or Linda Carty — on death row in Texas, under Governor Rick Perry — absolutely rejecting the guilty verdict. He also speaks with detectives and lawyers and relatives. All of them speak to Herzog as a kind of confessor, detailing their own cases, explaining what went wrong or how they’ve come to their current places, or more accurately, their sense of being out of place. Herzog listens and interjects his own helpfully perverse insights. (That these insights are punctuated by Paula Zahn’s post-commercial break re-introductions is only more disconcerting, Paula Zahn seeming the most out-of-place person on the planet in her Investigation Discovery gig.)

For Barnes, this relationship means telling a bit of his life story, which he does with unnerving elegance. “I was one of those that wasn’t wired like everybody else. I needed constant supervision,” he says, now. That is, now after you know that he’s a serial murderer. Seated in an undecorated visiting room and wearing an orange jumpsuit, Barnes appears at once serene and ever agitated, self-aware and doing his best not to think about his dreadful future and the horrors he’s committed.

By the time he’s done confessing to Herzog — and opening up possibilities for unsolved cases — you’re as uneasy with him as Herzog sounds. To commit one murder, the one for which he was sentenced to death, he hid naked in a woman’s closet and, Herzog narrates over footage of the crime scene, “He watched her as she did household chores and watched TV,” finally beating her with a hammer and then setting her bed on fire (vividly evoked by crime scene photos of the charred aftermath). The show never backs off the monstrosity of the crimes that send someone to death row. But it quietly presses the question as to how the penalty can help anyone. “This is what I’ve done,” says Barnes, “This is what happened in this case and now I’m going to be executed.”

When Herzog asks how Barnes can live with the idea that he has a set date to die, Barnes notes that it’s a “very specific situation,” for it’s not only the date but also the stories about what goes wrong in the lethal injection process. “Mentally and psychologically, it comes with a lot of anxiety,” he says. “Whether the procedure is working properly or not, once they start it, it has to be finished,” he says.

Or not. As Herzog points out, indirectly as well as directly, the death penalty rarely leads to resolution. Even if, as Barnes asserts, his action “was very ugly, it was very brutal, it was very messy, and there’s no way to take it back,” the system that’s supposed to restore order only makes a bigger mess. Herzog discusses this question with lawyers (as the death penalty is not a deterrent, the “only support for it is retribution”) and relatives. As Barnes’ twin sister Jeannice remembers their difficult childhood, their abusive father, her brother’s fear and pain, the camera zooms in on the father’s face in a photo, eerily like James’ but also not, suggesting that he’s a source for all the trouble. (When Herzog asks the self-described “bad girl” Jeannice why she won’t be traveling to Florida to see her brother before he dis, she says, “I think I might have a warrant down there for a misdemeanor.”)

The zoom into the smiling dad in the photo suggests as well that such violence — however chaotic or planned — is a function of systems and cycles, not only individual pathologies. But even as this is the political and ethical point of On Death Row, the series lays out as well the specific effects on specific people. And this, after all, is the great cost of capital punishment, the effects on everyone involved with it in so many ways.

RATING 9 / 10