Four decades after the death penalty became legal again in the United States, the issue remains as polarizing as ever. School of Communication professors Richard Stack and Maggie Burnette Stogner are staunch opponents of capital punishment, but they've taken a decidedly non-judgmental approach to examining it in their forthcoming documentary, In the Executioner's Shadow, which explores how our decisions about the death penalty define who we are as individuals, as a society, and as a country.
"We've tried very hard to make this a balanced piece so that a vast range of perspectives are represented," Stack says. "We'd like the public to begin talking about the death penalty in deeper, more meaningful ways, and we'd like to get people getting beyond their differences and talking about some common ground."
The film follows three main characters whose beliefs and experiences vary widely. Vicki and Sylvester Schieber's daughter, Shannon, was raped and murdered months before her 24th birthday, yet they opposed the death penalty for her killer. For years, it was Jerry Givens's job to carry out death sentences. As Virginia's executioner, he ended the lives of 62 men before he resigned and began advocating for the abolition of capital punishment. This summer, Stogner filmed Givens in the now-defunct, crumbling old Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, capturing strong images she thinks will impact audiences this subject normally doesn't reach.
"It's the perfect metaphor for a decaying, nonfunctioning criminal justice system," she says. "Putting him in that situation is visually powerful and engaging. It's also a metaphor for what haunts him every day, which is that he came very close—within days—of executing an inmate who was later found to be innocent."
The final protagonist is Karen Brassard, who was wounded in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. She struggled with what would constitute justice for the man who carried out the terrorist attack.
"She let us into her thought process as it unfolded over the years," Stack says. "As she wrestled with it, she very thoughtfully explored a lot of issues around what it really means to want the death penalty."
The collaboration, which has also included many graduate students, started in 2013. In addition to the film, Stack and Stogner are developing a suite of materials they hope can be used to reach wider audiences and stimulate conversations in classrooms or discussion groups.
It's a timely issue. Twenty states have now outlawed the death penalty. If that number reaches 26, opponents may attempt to take a case to the Supreme Court, arguing that the punishment is not only cruel, but unusual as well.
"That is the heart and soul of what this is about," Stogner says. "What is justice?"