One thing television does well is reflect our concerns. And America is concerned about the death penalty and the even hand of justice. That's why the new TV movie Deadlocked (TNT, Sunday, June 18, 8-10 p.m.) is especially timely.
Though the majority of Americans support capital punishment, that majority is slowly dwindling, especially since the governor of Illinois, Republican George Ryan, declared a moratorium on the death penalty in his state after he found that 13 people on death row were not guilty according to new (some of it DNA) evidence.
The New Hampshire legislature recently voted to abolish the death penalty, but the governor vetoed the bill. And even Texas Gov. George W. Bush, after presiding over 131 executions, has issued a stay of execution for one death-row inmate to allow for DNA testing.
High-profile cases in which it appeared that the rich defendant was able to assemble a "dream team" of lawyers and get away with murder have further complicated the public's perception of even-handed justice.
That is exactly what the telefilm "Deadlocked" questions. A young African-American man is convicted of the brutal rape and murder of a rich white woman, and is about to be condemned to death when his father, Jacob Doyle (Charles S. Dutton), grabs the bailiff's gun and takes the whole jury hostage. Wounded and ill, Doyle negotiates with the assistant DA, Ned Stark (David Caruso), for the hostages' lives - demanding that the prosecutor reopen his son's case to find the truth. (This is an instance where even the DNA evidence has more than one interpretation.)
When the prosecutor, racing against time, really looks at what inadequate counsel, a recalcitrant defendant, and class (more than race, in this case) prejudice can do, a whole different story unfolds.
The movie is marred by clichs about trigger-happy SWAT-team officers and a dim district attorney who won't listen to reason. But the gripping scenes in which Doyle fights for his son, and those in which Stark revisits the evidence, yanks the truth out of the defendant, and finally listens to the anguished Doyle, make the film worthy TV fare.
Caruso, as the sympathetic prosecutor, is intriguing. It's great to see him in a role in which he can play many notes so well. But this film belongs to Dutton as the desperate father. Even as a reluctant terrorist, he rings every ounce of truth out of the sometimes thin dialogue, and the viewer can't help but feel the nobility of the man behind the desperation, the layers of ethical concern, and of profound feeling.
It's amazing that Dutton's scenes were shot in just 10 consecutive days (he had two other film obligations). Says Dutton, who is trained as a stage actor, "It was such a challenge, like a stage role. It took a kind of bravado to carry it off, a tremendous amount of energy.... The nice thing about [the lack of time], you have to be organic and immediate to play all those levels. You rarely get those moments on camera."
Another TNT presentation this week is especially poignant in the wake of "Deadlocked." It's a documentary special that asks Was Justice Denied? (Tuesday, June 20, 8-9:30 p.m.). The program looks at prisoners on death row, and those who have been executed, who may not have committed the crimes for which they were convicted. In two specific cases, an investigative team consisting of a judge, a prosecutor, and a defense attorney scrutinize the evidence against two convicted, but possibly innocent, people.
Another sense of justice surfaces in About Us: The Dignity of Children, hosted by Oprah Winfrey (Fox Family Channel, Monday, June 19, 8-10 p.m.). This outstanding documentary celebrates not only the worth of children, but the honesty, goodness, and loving kindness owed them. It tugs at the heart, not because it is sentimental or manipulative, but because it is true.
American children of various ethnic backgrounds are asked about the meaning of life, what makes them happy or sad, and what they long for. Their answers are stirring, intelligent, and honest. Difficult issues such as child abuse are also discussed here. But the film is meant to inspire love for children - and it succeeds masterfully.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society