At the Death House Door

At the Death House Door

At the Death House Door is a documentary on the death penalty in Texas.

I felt a little dissatisfied by the structure of this film. It’s hard to describe, but I didn’t infer enough of an organization that justified why the material was in precisely the order it was in, why it didn’t last an hour less or an hour more, etc.

There were hints early on it was going to follow a mystery story format, like a CBS 48 Hours or one of those nonfiction shows that traces the story of a crime, investigation, etc. in chronological order. In this instance it was a case of a person convicted of murder who insisted on his innocence. Two reporters are shown investigating his claims, but then the film jumps around exploring not just that thread but others.

For a while I was wanting to focus on the thread about the investigation by the reporters, so I was a little impatient when it would go off in other directions, but really that thread didn’t turn out to be much of a sustained story. You find out very early the guy was (almost certainly) innocent, and also that he’s already been executed. So there’s no more suspense as to guilt or innocence, and there’s no more suspense as to whether the truth will be discovered in time to save him.

There were also elements of an argument against the death penalty, but really that wasn’t the organizational structure either. And it virtually never is in a documentary. Unlike something in print, documentaries just don’t have a format of premise, premise, premise, premise, conclusion. They are much more impressionistic. They include certain factual claims that could be part of an argument, but invariably their primary focus is on visually striking anecdotes that appeal to the emotions. This documentary was no exception.

So for me, I don’t know if I would say that it dragged, but maybe that it wasn’t structured in a way that I typically felt an urgency about seeing what was coming up next, because there wasn’t much of a “next.” As I say it seemingly could have ended an hour earlier or an hour later. It didn’t have the sense of building to a climax, or developing a story or argument. The emotionally most compelling moments were scattered throughout. So in that sense, the whole wasn’t more than the sum of the parts.

But I don’t want to make this too negative, because at least as important as that point is the fact that the parts themselves were usually good and sometimes very good. So if I look at the trees instead of the forest, really there was a lot to like about this documentary, a lot that worked on an emotional level, a lot that should be thought-provoking to a viewer.

The thread about the innocent man who is executed gets the second most screen time. The main thread (which ends up intersecting with the aforementioned one) is about a prison chaplain who accompanied condemned men to their death for over a decade. None of the material about him lost me completely; it ranged from OK to highly emotionally powerful.

Interestingly, as compelling as I often found it to listen to his stories, and to observe how his experiences impacted his life and gradually turned him against the death penalty, I was even a little more drawn in by the much briefer appearance of an officer who also was present for countless executions and finally just couldn’t accept it anymore and had to abandon his intended career in criminal justice. Watching him speak and try to not break down is truly gripping.

Also emotionally powerful are some of the details about some of the executions–times the lethal injection caused minutes of agony instead of being over in seconds, condemned men who were retarded and had no clue what was happening, and of course the people who went to their death innocent or probably innocent.

I was also struck by stray facts indicating random corruption and evil in the system. You wonder, for example, how the one innocent guy got convicted and sentenced to death when the evidence seems so clearly to point in another direction.

Well, for one thing, his defense was that a certain other person committed the murder, and the prosecution insisted no person by that name existed and the defendant had made this person up. Turns out they were flat out lying. They not only knew who the other person in question was, one of the prosecutors had interacted with him fairly recently in connection with another murder case. So there wasn’t just some honest mistake that was no one’s fault; specific individuals knowingly lied so as to bring about a false conviction and have someone executed.

In summary, At the Death House Door is a series of loosely connected scenes, stories, quotes, pictures, etc. concerning the death penalty from multiple perspectives (though it’s important to point out it contains only a small fraction of the possible perspectives), primarily fitted into an anti-death penalty theme. I may have organized it a little differently, edited it a little differently, but there are many individual elements to it that are quite powerful, and that I would say make this film worth seeing.

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