Deadline, 2003

Another highlight in what has proven to be an especially strong line-up for domestic-related human rights issues, Deadline follows the last weeks of outgoing Illinois governor George Ryan, a conservative Republican who had been closely following the cases uncovered by Northwestern University journalism students whose term project had led to the exoneration of 13 death row inmates. Pointing out that in the same year, the state had executed twelve prisoners, Ryan argued that the fates of 25 inmates in Illinois that year were akin to the chances of tossing a coin and consequently, asked the state legislature to enact measures that would overhaul the system to prevent such miscarriages of justice from recurring. However, driven by re-election year cautiousness, the state legislature failed to pass such measures and instead Ryan, frustrated by their inaction, ordered special clemency hearings for the remaining 167 prisoners on death row with the intent of personally reviewing every case to determine if any sentences should be commuted to life without parole. What ensues is a deeply conflicted and heart-rending emotional tug-of-war between the inconsolable grief and the need for retribution by some families of victims, and the equally tragic, life-destroying testimonies of wrongfully imprisoned former death-row inmates and other families of victims who, nevertheless, oppose capital punishment (including families of several, nationally recognizable hate crime victims such as Emmett Till’s mother and James Byrd Jr.’s son). Filmmakers Katy Chevigny and Kirsten Johnson capture an extraordinarily engaging, effectively edited, and unsentimental, yet profoundly moving tale of moral idealism, public service, and personal conscience.

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