faith in action

In the Executioner’s Shadow reveals a personal look at the consequences of capital punishment

The General Board of Church and Society recently hosted two screenings of “In The Executioner’s Shadow”, a documentary offering personal stories behind the impacts of the death penalty. Co-producer Richard Stack reflects on the film and the screenings.

During the 26th Annual Fast & Vigil to Abolish the Death Penalty, on July 1st, 2019, it was my privilege to present “In the Executioner’s Shadow”, a documentary depicting deeply personal stories of how the death penalty affects people in different, destructive ways.

The film intertwines three narratives. One is the story of heart-wrenching forgiveness, as Vicki and Sylvester Schieber fight to spare the life of their daughter’s killer. Another is the story of Karen Brassard, who struggles to define justice in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing. Brassard, along with her husband, daughter, and best friend, were all seriously injured by the terrorist blast. “On the one hand, I’d like to strangle that kid myself. On the other, I have a 19-year-old son, the same age as Tzarnaev, and I don’t really want to be a part of someone else losing his life,” paraphrased Karen. The film follows Karen’s thinking during a year and a half as she becomes a spokesperson for the tragedy’s victims and expresses her opinions about the court’s disposition of the case.

The fulcrum between these two stories is Jerry Givens’, Virginia’s former chief executioner. Over his tenure of 17 years, Jerry executed 62 inmates, but his change of heart comes when one of the men he’s scheduled to execute is exonerated. Givens’ reunion with Earl Washington Jr., decades after then Gov. Douglas Wilder’s reprieve, reveals the toll that the state-sanctioned killings took on the executioner.

Fortunately, few share any of these extreme experiences with the criminal justice system, but audience members are able to relate to the compelling stories told by the film’s featured characters. Moving, thought-provoking discussions follow every screening.

The documentary has changed outlooks and affected legislation. Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty adopted the film as the centerpiece of its recent lobbying campaign. “In the Executioner’s Shadow” was shown at town hall meetings across the state, and following a screening in a small community in eastern Oregon, one audience member who was silent throughout the film and ensuing discussion stood and announced that he came to the screening in favor of capital punishment. He explained his brother was murdered and his family was still in great pain. He added, “After seeing this documentary, now I’m conflicted.”

The coordinator of OADP’s legislative strategy to “reduce the use” of the death penalty credits the many screenings of “In the Executioner’s Shadow” with providing a big lift to their efforts in urging Oregon’s state legislature to pass S.B. 1013. If passed, S.B. 1013 would make it unlikely that Oregon inmates would be sentenced to death in the future.

I thank the General Board of Church & Society of the United Methodist Church for its gracious hospitality in hosting two screenings during the 26th Annual Fast & Vigil to Abolish the Death Penalty. I urge those interested in dismantling the death penalty to ask their congregation, library, or civic association to order the documentary through New Day Films. Detailed background and the documentary’s trailer can be found here.