TV REVIEW: BBC’s Life and Death Row

My TV and film binging, encouraged of course by the pandemic outbreak and lockdown rules, has continued on in top form even though life has resumed and things appear (at least temporarily) to be relatively normal.

At first it was me exploiting newfound free time and putting a film on to pass the hours. Now, it’s a full-blown fixture in my daily routine at every available opportunity.

Mornings, afternoons and evenings. It doesn’t matter what position the sun holds in the sky; I’m up for sticking a film on anytime. I usually have a screen on while I’m cooking, eating having a bath or doing my makeup. It’s gratuitous and definitely no good for my eye health, but it’s a pastime I enjoy thoroughly and I’ve taken full advantage of the opportunities that have presented themselves as a result of the pandemic.

I enjoy a bit of variety. Some days you just need an easy watch and a bit of a laugh, whilst other days call for Academy Award-nominated performances in some epic Hollywood biopic. I’ve tried comedies, action-packed blockbusters, classics, tear-inducing dramas, thrillers, nightmarish horrors, adventures and basically everything else in between.

Over the last few days, I’ve been making my way through a BBC documentary series about Death Row. There’s three seasons and each episode delves into a new case, from the perspectives of all those impacted by the crime. In the final season, the emphasis is more on the desperate spree to kill 10 men on death row in quick succession, simply because an ill-reputed drug used during executions is due to expire. The governor decides that this is the catalyst and that men who have been waiting for decades, in some cases, are finally read to be murdered by the state.

Note that I used the word murder. It’s not that I’m vehemently against the idea of capital punishment. It’s a whole lot more complex and nuanced than that. What’s brilliant about the show is that it truly decimates the black/white ideas about capital punishment: regardless of the severity of the crime, condemning a person to death is never an easy solution. Convenient, yes. Justice served? Debatable. However, the truth of the matter is that a person’s life is taken. The weight of contributing to a jury that helps to form this sentence or being an active part of the lethal injection procedure itself is heavy. Your actions have consequences and no matter how implicit your involvement, your actions are leading to death, which is a lot for a common member of the public to cope with.

Not everybody has what it takes to stab another human being mercilessly or to sexually desecrate another human being. Yet when the time comes for court to commence and ordinary people, who wouldn’t dream of committing these acts, are given a choice about whether somebody should die, everything turns on its head. You’re not holding the weapon and you’re not personally, solely, responsible for the death but you’re tarnished by the fact that you will knowingly be supporting death regardless. Does this distinguish you from the likes of those aforementioned criminals who knowingly kill others? Is there a difference when you’re not holding the weapon yourself?

This is what the show makes you question.

In addition, there are some very emotionally moving scenes from the killers themselves. In most instances, there’s remorse and genuine feelings of guilt and awareness. For example, Daniel Lopez was so remorseful from the outset that his own defence team felt they were not only fighting the prosecution, but their own client. Lopez was so fixated upon death that he failed to resist his sentence at any point, happily staring down the barrel of the camera and telling the crew that he couldn’t take his actions back and wanted to die. However, in other cases, killers are still adamant of their innocence, given an opportunity to appeal due to mitigating factors including abuse experienced as children and/or otherwise unfeeling about their crimes. It’s a real mixed bag.

The camera-folk interview the family of the victims, members of the jury, legal professionals involved in the case, the murderers themselves, the family of the murderers, random bystanders on the street etc. Everyone gets a say and through hearing what’s said, you understand that there’s no easy categorisation of troubled/pure evil. You understand than in most cases, mitigating factors destroy people who go on to destroy others. The cycle goes on and on and on.

To see the family of a victim struggling with the verdict of the criminal being put to death puts it all into perspective. In most cases, there was absolutely no justification for the trauma and grief that had been done to them. One day they woke up and went about their lives, and at some point, they were contacted to let them know that a loved one had their life bluntly snuffed out. For no reason.

For some, the argument is that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. With the death of another, no matter how brutal their actions, there’s another mourning family. For others, it’s a crime so abhorrent and with so little chance of rehabilitation, that there’s no way to comprehend this criminal being given the privilege to live or the privilege of parole.

I’d highly recommend giving Life and Death Row a watch. It’s a really well produced show that doesn’t come across even remotely exploitative, as everybody is entitled their time to speak and their space to disagree. There’s no gratuitous exploration of reasons why murderers should be exonerated and there’s certainly no disrespect towards the victims and their families: it’s a really sensitive approach to very emotional stories of the failed American justice system. It’s a really insightful look into some of the antiquated legal proceedings that continue to operate in certain US states and also a considerate look into how complex the capital punishment scheme is, for all those involved.

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