TV puts death penalty on trial

A real-life drama and a documentary show the controversial issue in a fresh light

Two important television films this week take on the issue of capital punishment in no uncertain terms - though from vastly different angles.

"Shot in the Heart" (HBO, Oct. 13, 9-10:30 p.m.) is the wrenching true story of Gary Gilmore's execution for murder in Utah, as told from the perspective of his youngest brother, Mikal. "Investigative Reports with Bill Kurtis" celebrates its 10th Anniversary with an outstanding documentary, "Investigative Reports Special Edition: Death Penalty on Trial" (A&E, Oct. 16, 9-11 p.m.).

The Gary Gilmore story, Shot Through the Heart, is an American tragedy of Greek proportions. A child is beaten and humiliated again and again for years on end, gets into trouble with the law, spends most of his adult life in prison, and when he does get out, murders two innocent men for no reason he can ever explain. Gilmore (powerfully played by Elias Koteas) was guilty, and he wanted to die. When Mikal (sensitively portrayed by Giovanni Ribisi) visited his brother on death row, it was to decide whether or not to ask for a stay of execution. But Gary was adamant.

Based on the book by Mikal Gilmore (a winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award), the film does not sentimentalize Gary Gilmore, nor does it whitewash his rash nature. In fact, the film is much more about Mikal's attempt to understand why his brother became what he was than it is about Gary's remorse. For some reason, Mikal was the only one of the four Gilmore brothers that was not beaten, scorned, and rejected by his father.

It is a difficult film to view. But it is because the film is so forthright that it deserves attention. It requires the viewer to ask the old questions again about the correlation between childhood abuse and adult violent behavior. And it offers no simple answers.

But this tragic tale does stir up a desire to see the root causes of violence handled with greater intelligence and compassion. It does question the whole of the penal system, from the psychiatrists who examine juvenile offenders to the methods of "reform" and the violence tolerated within the system. And the true cost of the death penalty, as it affects the family and the society around the man under sentence of death, is revealed scrupulously.

If "Shot Through the Heart" isn't enough to make one think about the issue, Death Penalty on Trial will. The numbers tell a staggering story, says Mr. Kurtis: More than 90 men and women have been exonerated of capital crimes by DNA testing after their convictions in recent years.

Poverty and race still make a difference. Corrupt or incompetent defense attorneys - and even in some cases, police torture and collusion - have been implicated in the death-penalty convictions of innocent people.

Mr. Kurtis investigates five cases - and he is no pushover. He certainly allows the case for the death penalty to be cited in his fair and balanced presentation: A man who commits a murder is caught on videotape. Timothy McVeigh's execution was a direct result of his guilt. And the American public wants justice for victims of violent crime.

But justice isn't always so easy to come by. At one point, Kurtis says, "The argument over the death penalty will always come down to this: Does society risk the chance of executing innocent people to make sure those who are guilty pay for their crimes?"

Mr. Kurtis lives and works in Chicago. The fact that the conservative governor of Illinois suspended the death penalty in that state made a powerful impression on him.

In a recent interview, Kurtis said, "The releases from death row caught my eye. I'm a lawyer.... I believed we had the best system of jurisprudence in the world. I was not anti-death penalty. But I realized our system wasn't working at so many levels, from defense attorneys to prosecution to eyewitness accounts, biased judges.... In 6,000 death-penalty cases in the last 20 years, there is a 68 percent error rate."

He says that when you go into a courtroom, in many cases, the judge leans toward the prosecutor. Since the O.J. Simpson trial, it has become clear to him that sometimes police lie - something he would never have believed before that trial.

"It is clear that we need a moratorium on the death penalty," he says.

Racism goes so deep that it still plays a part in deciding who lives and who dies, Kurtis notes. In one of the cases he investigates, a murder was committed by two white men - both of whom received life sentences. But the black man who played the lookout, who was not even in the store when the victim was shot, received the death penalty and is still on death row.

"Journalists started the whole investigation of the justice system," he continues. "The legal profession has not come forward to stop the death penalty - except for a few voices in the wilderness. They don't even listen to the American Bar Association - you saw the former president in the film calling for the moratorium."

This is a story about closed thinking in the legal system, Kurtis says.

"I think there will be a moratorium on the death penalty in time, but what is more significant is a reexamination of the legal system. Is it working?"

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