Death Row Stories

Obviously, by my numerous posts on Netflix documentaries, I’ve been on a recent “kick” of watching these types of programs on the internet. Mainly, I try to stick to historical docuseries so that I can learn a bit of history while sewing or doing my other art projects. Instead of watching a film about a mass murderer coming back to kill their sorority sisters (“Sorority Row” with Rumor Willis; never watched it, ahem!), I’ve found that delving into a non-fiction realm is more rewarding both intellectually and mentally (yes, there is a difference).

Last weekend I began watching the CNN series “Death Row Stories” narrated by Susan Sarandon. There are eight episodes, each chronicling a separate case. I was surprised to find that not all episodes deal with an innocent individual who didn’t commit the crime, so it was an anti-death penalty series (which I will be transparent about, I was not in the mood to watch a series that was solely about that). The episodes were 40-45 minutes and usually kept me spellbound for their entirety. All of the episodes had numerous twists and turns and the producers really knew where to pause for commercial breaks, which was great since Netflix doesn’t have any!

I’m not going to spend my time rehashing the actual cases that were presented in the series. Instead I want to delve a little deeper into the underlying themes that were interwoven throughout the series. Because I AM a scientist, I’m going to start off at the science part: DNA evidence and technological advances. A comparison that I’ve come to realize is that like the Salem Witch Trials in which women were accused of witchcraft because of environmental issues, an innocent individual who was accused of a crime say in the 1980’s did not have the scientific evidence that we have today to prove himself/herself innocent. DNA evidence and the use of genetic information really was not heavily utilized until the last few decades so many individuals were presumed guilty where evidence would have proved them innocent. Score #1 for science!

Additionally, many of the cases had tampered evidence. It wasn’t until the second round of appeals, that it took a second set of eyes for lawyers to realize that evidence that was used against their client in the first case was either not provided to the defense, or tampered with between being transported from the scene of the crime to the evidence locker at the police station. This ties into another underlying theme of many of the cases had defense attorneys who were ill-equipped to fight the defendant’s case. They overlooked evidence, they did not call witnesses they should have, or they just plain old didn’t cross-examine ANY witnesses (yes, this happened once). The most surprising thing out of all of this is that these attorneys were NOT public defenders, but were paid for by the defendant so it wasn’t like they were overworked public servants, but actually paid for their efforts.

Lastly, my father has many famous lines he loves to use, one of which: “Never get caught up in the legal system.” After watching this series, there is no way that I want to even be intermixed with such a system. Even with substantial evidence that proves the defendant’s innocence, it takes over a decade for lawyers to get their day in court and beyond that they have to jump through so many hoops and prove that the first case was unconstitutional. I’m not using the correct legal jargon, but if you watch the show the amount of time that has lapsed between when the crimes were committed and when the defendants either are set freed or in some cases are STILL in jail awaiting their third plus verdict is really quite nauseating.

This series was quite thought-provoking, yet really didn’t change my mind or shed light on the death penalty for me. If anything it provided confidence in science to prove innocence and provided a lack of confidence into the legal system. I would suggest watching this series for not all episodes show an innocent man being proven not guilty, but some really do prove a guilty man (there is one lady too, so it’s not just men who get caught up in the system). It’s also not anti-death penalty like I thought it would be, which was an apolitical way of discussing the legal and death row systems. I really enjoyed it, and if you have the time totally watch it for it will put many ideas of the legal system into a new light for you.


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