Who Wants to Be Executed?!
(The set of America's No. 1 game show, currently struggling to maintain its ranking in the face of fierce competition from the onslaught of "reality programming." An indigo curtain gathers in a semicircle around a high-backed chair and an executioner's gurney. Strapped to the gurney is a crew-cut man in his early thirties, RICK PRESCOTT, wrestling coach at Hiram Walker High School in Groundswell, Nebraska. Leaning forward familiarly in his chair is the host of the show, REGIS COFFIN.)
REGIS COFFIN: Welcome back to the 168th performance of "Who Wants to Be Executed!?" Are you ready, Coach Prescott?
(Prescott raises his head and nods uncertainly. In his left arm is a large needle, connected by an orange plastic tube to a console near Coffin's chair. A screen behind Coffin shows values of money up to one million dollars.)
COFFIN: You know the rules. You earn increasing amounts of money for as long as you answer the questions correctly -- up to one million dollars! When you miss, you get to keep the amount you had and give it to whomever you name. Coach Prescott, you've already won $64,000. (Audience applauds) Here's our next question! For $250,000 ...(reads dramatically) You've been accused of murder. What is the most important thing you can do to ensure you are proven innocent and escape the death penalty?
One) Fight for a DNA test that shows you weren't at the crime scene
Two) Escape and find the real killer yourself
Three) Actually BE innocent
Four) Be rich and white, and have a high-powered attorney
(Prescott ponders the question while the audience waits.)
RICK PRESCOTT: I'd like to use one of my lifelines here, Regis. 50-50. (Audience applauds)
COFFIN: For those in our audience who don't know ... with the 50-50 lifeline we toss out two of the INCORRECT answers, leaving a choice of just two.
(The console behind Coffin blinks, leaving just two potential answers).
COFFIN: Here you go, for $250,000. You've been accused of murder. What is the most important thing you can do in today's legal system to ensure you are proven innocent and escape the death penalty?
1) Actually BE innocent?
2) Be rich, white and have a high-powered attorney?
(Prescott anguishes. New programs at his high school, his self-respect as a teacher and community leader are at stake.)
PRESCOTT: I've got to use another lifeline, Regis. I'd like to call my friend, Hurricane Carter.
COFFIN: He's going to call his friend, Rubin "Hurricane" Carter! (Huge applause as a speakerphone is placed beside Prescott's head. A phone rings and rings again.)
HURRICANE CARTER: Hello!
PRESCOTT: Rubin, I need your help. I've been accused ...
HURRICANE: I saw! I saw! I saw! Coach, you gotta go with innocence. Like I was innocent. My innocence was a light that shone through the darkness of those 18 years behind bars. It was my blanket, my star, my revelation. Nobody can take your innocence from you, Rick. No body. You gotta go with number one.
(Prescott smiles with relief and turns to Coffin.)
PRESCOTT: Well, Regis, that's pretty clear. I have to go with my friend -- and with my gut. The answer is number one -- to actually BE innocent.
(A HUSH falls over the room.)
COFFIN: He says number one -- to actually BE Innocent! Coach Prescott, is that your final answer?
PRESCOTT: (He hesitates, closes his eyes and takes a deep breath). Yes. That's my FINAL answer.
REGIS: OK, Rick ... I've really enjoyed having you on the show, by the way. Is it number one, and $250,000 for our midwestern gladiator or number two! (flashing lights illuminate number 2) It's number two -- to be rich and white, and have a high-powered attorney!
(Huge groan from the audience. Prescott falls back onto the gurney.)
I'm sorry, Coach. But it's true. Just BEING innocent doesn't cut it. Ask the 89 people who were condemned to die even though they were innocent! And your friend Hurricane Carter -- he spent 18 years in jail even though he was completely innocent! (Confidentially) Innocence, without the right lawyer, is nothing.
(Coffin stands and puts his hand on a switch connected to the tubes in Prescott's arm.)
COFFIN: But you still get to send home $64,000. That should take away some of the pain of losing. Thanks for playing, Coach!
(Coffin throws a switch and in a few seconds Prescott stiffens, expels a huge gasp of breath and goes limp. Coffin smiles mischievously into the camera.)
COFFIN: It's not an easy game, as you can see. Sometimes what's obvious is not, and what's logical is anything but. But that's not going to stop our next 10 contestants from trying to win a place in our "hot seat." So without a moment's delay, let's play ... "WHO WANTS TO BE EXECUTED?"
Jeff Gillenkirk is a San Francisco-based writer who has written extensively about the death penalty.