on September 11, 1987 by Jordan Reed
Capital punishment is just one of the myriad hot-button issues in American political life. So when George Ryan, former Illinois governor and the hero of Katy Chevigny and Kirsten Johnson's unnerving doc "Deadline," decided to investigate flaws in the judicial system and grant clemency hearings for 167 death-row inmates in 2002, he took a big risk. (He was about to retire, but still.) Amazingly, his choice stemmed from the last-minute overturning of a conviction based on evidence found by journalism students at Northwestern University--proof that the state nearly executed an innocent man.

Chevigny and Johnson obtained some traumatic footage of the clemency procedures, showing us the honest and emotionally wrenching exchanges between victims' families and defendants, the stoic insistence by the prosecution that no mistakes were made, and the last-ditch efforts of the defenders to stop their clients' demise. (It makes even the best episodes of "Law & Order" look like kid stuff.) Candid interviews with inmates and activists--including a families-of-victims group against execution--further intensify the issue and heighten its inherent drama.

"Deadline" could have used input from the pro-capital punishment movement for the sake of balance--especially since Ryan eventually granted clemency to all 167 prisoners, some of whom admitted their guilt. But the film's indisputable overall message is chilling no matter what side of the debate you're on: Some innocent men almost died for crimes for which they were wrongly convicted, so maybe some other innocent men actually did die. The system is not foolproof. Insistence on the ultimate punishment by vote-seeking politicians, fervent prosecutors and rightfully vengeful families does not change that fact. And when added to the usual arguments that the death penalty is neither a crime deterrent nor a financial benefit, the disturbing central tenet of "Deadline" becomes nearly impossible to refute. Directed by Katy Chevigny and Kirsten Johnson. Produced by Dallas Brennan and Katy Chevigny. A Big Mouth release. Documentary. Unrated. Running time: 89 min

Tags: George Ryan, Katy Chevigny, Kirsten Johnson, justice system, clemency, death row, prisoner, prison, evidence, courtroom drama, law

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