The critique of capital punishment Werner Herzog initiated with “Into the Abyss” comes to riveting fruition in “Death Row,” a weighty and probing look at the practice of legally sanctioned execution. More humane treatise than searing polemic, this powerful companion work offers four criminal case studies that will conveniently fill broadcasters’ slots at an absorbing 47 minutes apiece. Viewed together in one three-hour-plus sitting, however, they build a stealth argument about the humanity of the accused and the potential pitfalls of due process that, given Herzog’s rep, could merit select theatrical and festival attention following the docu’s Berlinale premiere.
Each segment begins with a shot that moves from an empty prison cell to an adjoining death chamber with an awaiting lethal-injection gurney, over which Herzog solemnly intones that he respectfully disagrees with the practice of capital punishment. Viewers may recall the words and images from “Into the Abyss,” which blended interviews with two Texas convicts and the family members of their alleged victims, placing crime and punishment in a disturbing context of everyday violence and tragedy.
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The portraits in “Death Row,” devoted to four men and one woman awaiting execution, are not only shorter and narrower in focus but also more pointedly shaped and structured to interrogate the morality of the death penalty. Herzog’s personal views notwithstanding, however, the films are strikingly undidactic and, as one would expect from the director, as invested in eccentric human details as in questions of law and order; it’s up to discerning audiences to see the implicit parallels and contrasts and grasp the director’s overarching argument.
Convicted of the 1998 murder of his wife, James Barnes was serving his sentence in Florida State Prison when he admitted to killing another woman under even more brutal circumstances, a confession that landed him on death row. Intercutting conversations with Barnes and with his twin sister, Jeannice, Herzog doesn’t soft-pedal the ghastly nature of his subject’s crimes, clearly rooted in an abusive upbringing that led to drug use and arson. Yet the filmmaker’s larger point is that even someone with Barnes’ rap sheet is entitled to due process of law, a principle not especially evident in the state’s eagerness to expedite his execution, even when details surface that suggest future trials may be in order.
Unlike Barnes, Texas death-row inmate Hank Skinner maintains his innocence, despite having been convicted of a 1995 triple homicide on strong evidence. Easily the film’s most Herzogian figure, Skinner is funny, articulate and well read, dropping out-there references to Gilgamesh and at one point delivering a fascinating speech on the subject of one’s last meal. Indeed, he’s one of those lucky souls who has enjoyed this privilege and lived to tell about it, having received a last-minute stay of execution — a process that throws into stark relief the swift, arbitrary manner in which life can be either spared or taken by the state.
The fairness of certain death-penalty practices is further explored in the third and meatiest chapter, devoted jointly to Joseph Garcia and George Rivas. Both were members of the notorious Texas Seven, a group of prisoners whose meticulously rigged 2001 breakout from a Texas maximum-security prison was documented in the 2007 docu “The Hunt for the Texas 7” and is so entertainingly recounted here that it begs the question of why a feature hasn’t been developed yet. Far less diverting, however, is this segment’s grim focus on Rivas’ senseless, unpremeditated killing of a cop, which landed him and his five surviving cohorts on death row. The law that binds all accomplices under one death sentence comes in for considerable scrutiny here; so does Rivas himself, the one inmate here who acknowledges his actions with deep remorse.
Linda Carty, by contrast, denies any involvement with the crime of which she was convicted, the 2001 murder of her neighbor Joana Rodriguez. Carty insists, none too convincingly, that she was framed by drug dealers, though one of her accomplices, Chris Robinson, chillingly paints her as the mastermind of a scheme to steal Rodriguez’s infant son. Their competing testimonies, and the fact that Carty’s British citizenship entitled her to certain legal rights that went unmet at the time, add layers of ambiguity to a case that features by far the film’s least sympathetic culprit.
Viewer perceptions of guilt or innocence, indifference or remorse, are of course beside the point, even if they’re an essential component of “Death Row’s” cumulatively overwhelming emotional impact. “He does not appear to be a monster,” Herzog says of the bright, highly articulate Barnes, a statement so plainly true that it takes a moment to grasp what the director no doubt knows, that appearing and being are two different things.
At every turn, Herzog makes as clear as he can how he went about interviewing his subjects, reminding them and the audience that his films are not intended to facilitate their exoneration. Yet the fact that no execution dates have been set for Barnes, Skinner, Garcia, Rivas and Carty as of 2012 (another telling contrast with “Into the Abyss”) creates an unmistakable sense of lives hanging in the balance, upping the urgency of the film’s rigorous moral inquiry.