Reel Innocence

When hotshot reporter Bitsey Bloom -- who has a reputation for being "Mike Wallace on PMS" -- gains an exclusive interview with a high-profile death row inmate in the forthcoming fictional thriller, "The Life of David Gale," she's downright dismissive.

"It's not a story," she announces, "it's an interview." Her distaste for the assignment is apparent when an overly eager intern pipes up: "Maybe the guy's even innocent." "Yeah, right," Bloom responds.

The film follows Bloom's evolution from a skeptical journalist who has little regard for convicted criminals to someone who begins to question the accuracy and fairness of the death penalty system (which is clearly the journey that the filmmakers intend the audience to make).

david galeBloom (played by Kate Winslet) has been granted three interviews with convicted murderer and rapist David Gale (Kevin Spacey), formerly a charismatic and popular philosophy professor, mere days before his execution. Bloom is initially sure of Gale's guilt, but as she continues to learn more about the case, she becomes convinced of his innocence. In a race against the clock, Bloom tries to gather enough evidence to save Gale from his impending execution by fatal injection.

Though films like "Dead Man Walking" have provided complex portrayals of an issue that often inspires emotional responses from all sides, "The Life of David Gale" is one of the first major motion pictures to take an explicitly anti-death penalty perspective (though the filmmakers would likely backpedal from this assessment). But the film is not a political tirade; screenwriter Charles Randolph makes his argument via a suspenseful and entertaining plot, which asserts, in its own quiet way, that the death penalty is problematic because innocent men find themselves on death row.

Certainly, "David Gale" could not have come at a better time. It will be released at the end of February, a little less than two months after Gov. George Ryan commuted the sentences of Illinois death row inmates based on repeated examples of flaws within the criminal justice system. The film also comes amidst a remarkable growth in "innocence projects," or organizations dedicated to overturning wrongful convictions, across the country. According to these organizations, which now number in the 30s, more than 100 men have been released from death row as a result of their work since 1992. Marketing executives for "David Gale" could not have hoped for more.

And yet, despite the buzz, a majority of Americans still support capital punishment. Depending on the poll and the way the question was asked, between 65 to 71 percent of Americans favor the death penalty as of 2002.
Still, could it be possible that the specter of the debate has shifted so much that we can now find mainstream anti-death penalty movies (albeit masked as suspense thrillers) in suburban cineplexes?

During a question-and-answer session at a recent San Francisco preview screening, director Alan Parker hinted that this kind of film was not the easiest sell to a major studio. "This got greenlit the moment Kevin Spacey said he wanted to do it," Parker said. "The rest of us worked for nothing before that, for a year. It's getting more and more difficult these days to do thoughtful films of a certain scale."

Parker also hinted that the key to getting major studio backing for films with political content is to create a multi-layered product with mass appeal. "This will find a wider audience because obviously, from a movie point of view, it's a thriller," he said. "From an actor's point of view, it's absolutely about drama and character. And for perhaps me as a filmmaker, it has a political heart to it." Still, Parker deliberately did not make "David Gale" just as a vehicle for his views. "It's not a political diatribe in any way," he says. "If you stand on a soapbox, no one's going to listen to you anyway."

Still, capital punishment advocates and abolitionists alike say that the debate around the death penalty has changed dramatically in the past 10 years, and while films like "David Gale" are certainly not the impetus for these shifts, they are a signal of a widened discussion. "The fact that movies are being made about the death penalty shows that this issue has percolated into the public consciousness," says Jane Bohman, executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty.

If taking an anti-death penalty view seems somewhat radical for a Hollywood film, the assertion of innocence is becoming an accepted -- and even safe -- argument. For death penalty abolitionists, innocence has become the most popular and effective stance, forcing even the most tough-on-crime politicians with religious or moralistic mandates (Illinois' Gov. Ryan was initially a pro-death penalty Republican, after all) to seriously question the accuracy of the system.

"Innocence is the most important argument because the American public simply cannot stomach the idea of an innocent man being sentenced to die," says David Elliot of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. "The fact that people have walked off death row because of innocence is the most important development in our movement in a quarter of century." Indeed, "innocence projects," often housed in law or journalism schools across the country, have been largely responsible for throwing a spotlight on the notion that wrongfully convicted men can be sentenced to death. These projects have taken a lead from an organization founded by law professors Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld at New York's Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in the early 1990s.

Scheck and Neufeld's first victory came in 1992 with the release of David Vasquez, a "borderline mentally impaired" man from Virginia who was sentenced to 35 years for murder. He admitted to the crime, but a DNA test eventually led to his exoneration. He served five years of his sentence. With the highly publicized success of the New York innocence project's work, programs began cropping up all over the country to investigate cases of wrongful conviction. More than 30 have emerged in recent years in New Orleans, Texas, North Carolina, and two in California. The exoneration of several inmates by the Illinois group at Northwestern University has reportedly influenced Gov. Ryan's position on capital punishment.

"In the early 1990s, dedicated opponents of the death penalty basically changed the argument," notes Josh Marquis, an Oregon district attorney who has testified before the U.S. Senate in support of the death penalty. "They said, 'O.K. Maybe you're for the death penalty but surely, you're not for killing innocent people.' Which is a reasonable argument. This argument really started gaining traction in the mid-1990s in the U.S."

Death penalty supporters say literal innocence is actually very rare. "To say that innocence is one big problem is disingenuous at best, and flat-out false," says Marquis. "I don't believe [the death penalty] is a perfect system, and yes, mistakes are made. But has [wrongful conviction] become a serious enough epidemic to abolish it?"

According to research published in 2002 by Ron Huff, a criminology professor at U.C. Irvine, there are about 7,500 wrongfully convicted people in the U.S. for the eight most serious crimes. And while some death penalty advocates accept that innocence is a valid argument, they argue that it is often oversimplified and misrepresented in pop culture. "American pop culture has created a stereotype that most people on death row are innocent, and have been framed by evil, racist cops and prosecutors who delight on putting innocent people on death row," says Marquis, who has given speeches on the subject. "[The public] thinks that all defense lawyers are threadbare but plucky, and at the last moment, someone will rush in with a key piece of evidence to exonerate someone. "But the anti-death penalty people can not point to one single case of an innocent person being executed, not one."

This is precisely the point that abolitionists in "David Gale" grapple with; they finally decide that the most powerful way to make a statement is to prove that innocent people on death row actually do die. "Almost martyrs don't count," one abolitionist tells Gale.

And it is precisely the premise of innocence -- the sheer injustice of killing a wrongfully convicted man -- that melts reporter Bitsey Bloom's skepticism in the film. Once she begins to observe factual and logical flaws in the case, she feels compelled to investigate -- not because she wants to help a convicted criminal, but in order to save an innocent man from death. As the days progress, Bloom, who initially greeted Gale with cold indifference, becomes emotionally involved in the case. Her character softens as her investigation continues (she even becomes friendly with the peon intern assigned to help her with the interviews). Indeed, as she begins to explore the humanity of the inmate behind the glass, Bloom, herself, becomes more human.

Bernice Yeung is a San Francisco-based journalist.

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