Life and Death Row: the Mass Execution – a valiant, important attempt to tell an astonishing story

The state of Arkansas' attempt to execute eight men in ten days is put under the spotlight by BBC3's award-winning documentary strand

Life and Death Row: The Mass Execution, BBC Pictures, SL

The Life and Death Row strand is hard to pin down – part true crime, part thought-provoking, almost campaigning documentary, previous series have focused on particular crimes, and the individuals (both victims and perpetrators) involved.

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The latest instalment, The Mass Execution – a run of four films – takes a look at the legal mechanics of capital punishment in the USA, focusing on the unprecedented move by the state of Arkansas in 2017 to schedule eight executions in ten days in order to beat an expiry date on Midazolam, one of the drugs used in lethal injections.

It’s as compelling as ever – there’s real power in its intimate, on-the-ground approach, as the programme-makers gain access to various interested parties: the Arkansas governor, the prisoners, their lawyers and families, relatives of the victims. They also intercut views from ordinary Arkansas residents, who each have their own idea of justice, and whether it is currently being done in their state.

And the film-makers do ask difficult questions. When Susan Khani – whose mother, Jane Daniel, was killed in 1992 – discusses the upcoming execution of the man who was convicted of her mother’s murder, she says she hopes that, after 25 years, the man’s death will ”give the family peace”. “Do you think you will get that?” asks a voice off-camera. “Oh yeah!” comes the enthusiastic reply.

There’s an intense frustration, though, inherent in the events this series is covering. Many people are up in arms, it tells us, because these executions are being rushed through in order to beat an arbitrary deadline, and will involve a drug that may inflict unnecessary suffering. There are also suggestions that the scheduling is political grandstanding, a statement of intent by Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson. And of course this is something to decry.

Protesters in Life and Death Row, BBC Pictures, SL
Protesters in Life and Death Row, BBC Pictures, SL

But as the series unfolds you realise that this is not the US justice system malfunctioning. This is the US justice system at work. I will freely admit to a bias here, but it is hard to understand how the particular circumstance of these executions is a scandal, but the usual application of capital punishment is not.

Because the programme is rooted in personal testimony and experience, it is light on facts, so here are some: there are currently 2,816 people (99% are men) on death row, but in 2017, only 23 were executed. On average, those 23 people spent 19 years waiting to be killed.

It’s important to know this to know that the experience of the prisoners and the families of their victims shown in the series – many of whom have waited decades with the promise of an execution hanging over them – is not a blip, a one-off; this is the reality of capital punishment in America.

In the series we see some of the convoluted process that lawyers must go through to get stays of execution; judgements are handed down, challenged, overturned, challenged again, all by different courts or panels. But the glimpses we do get just beg more glaring questions: if there is enough evidence that someone should be granted a stay of execution, does that not undermine the whole legal system that handed down that execution? How was that person condemned to death in the first place? Why would it be OK to kill them in a few months’ time, but not now? If the conditions under which a death sentence is given are so fickle, so malleable, then how can anyone ever be sure that it is the right, just, legal thing?

Tasha (stepdaughter) and Judy (wife) of death row inmate Stacey Johnson, BBC Pictures, SL
Tasha (stepdaughter) and Judy (wife) of death row inmate Stacey Johnson, BBC Pictures, SL

Somehow this ­– the programme’s use of an individual story to gesture to wider issues – manages to be both a strength and a limitation. There is something unsatisfying in the way threads are picked at but never unravelled, even if you know it’s because this is a subject that is too big, too morally muddy for one programme to be able to cover it in a satisfactory way.

The Life and Death Row strand as a whole makes a valiant, important attempt, and the Mass Execution series in particular does a lot well: it conveys both the sheer chaos that seems to govern this most solemn of responsibilities and the inadequacy of the current system, which is certainly not working for prisoners, but also, crucially, not for victims and their families, either.

As the attorney of one of the condemned men puts it, “There’s nothing about having ten days to plead for a man’s life that’s fair.” He’s right, except I’d go further – there’s nothing here that’s fair at all.

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Life and Death Row: the Mass Execution is available on Sunday 18th February from 10am on BBC3 with episode one broadcasting at 9pm on BBC2