Their crimes are monstrous. But renowned German filmmaker Werner Herzog seeks
to show that death row inmates in the US are not monsters. His new series of
documentaries, showing at the Berlin International Film Festival this week,
provides a different look at those up for execution.
James Barnes sits in his orange colored prison jumpsuit and talks about how
he's always been in trouble. As a youngster, he killed his family's cats, set
fires and committed other crimes. Now, Barnes is sitting on Florida's death row
awaiting execution for killing at least three women, including his wife, whom
he strangled and stuffed in a closet.
Barnes is 1 of 5 inmates featured in "Death Row," a film series directed by
legendary German filmmaker Werner Herzog. The series is being shown at the
Berlin International Film Festival this week.
Barnes accepts full responsibility for his crimes and is repentant. In his
conversation with the German film director, the inmate does not appear to be a
monster at all. And that's just what Herzog wanted to show.
The purpose of the series is to humanize the murderers, not to excuse their
crimes, Herzog, 69, said in a statement released Monday. "The crimes of the
persons in the films are monstrous, but the perpetrators are not monsters."
'I Respectfully Disagree'
Herzog, a Munich native, is firmly against the death penalty, in line with the
overwhelming sentiment of his fellow Germans. "A State should not be allowed --
under any circumstance -- to execute anyone for any reason," Herzog said in the
He referred to the millions of innocent people killed by the Nazi government of
his native country during World War II. But the killing of innocents is a
secondary issue, he said. Government-sponsored executions are just wrong.
Still, says Herzog, his intent with his four-part series about death row, which
portrays five people awaiting executions in Texas and Florida, is not to tell
Americans what they should do about capital punishment.
"As a guest in the United States, and being German, I respectfully disagree
with the practice of capital punishment," he says. "I would be the last one to
tell the American people how to conduct their criminal justice."
Herzog doesn't excuse the crimes. He tells the story of Linda Carty, probably
the most revolting of the series. Carty is one of 10 women on death row in
Texas. She was convicted of masterminding a bogus home invasion on a
Mexican-American couple with the goal of stealing the family's newborn child.
The mother was found dead with duct tape over her nose and mouth and a plastic
bag tightly sealed over her head. Though Carty denies any involvement in the
gruesome and bizarre crime, there is overwhelming evidence supporting her
Reviewing the Death Penalty
Herzog, in a statement, denied there is any "activist's anger from my side" and
said he doesn't commiserate with the inmates or in any way befriend them.
"There is no false sentimentality," he said. But "there is a strong sense that
these individuals are human beings."
It is perhaps no coincidence that most of Herzog's portraits are of inmates in
Texas. The state has been responsible for by far the most executions in the
United States. According to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), a
non-profit based in Washington, Texas has executed 478 inmates since 1976. The
number 2 spot goes to Virginia, with 109, followed by Oklahoma with 97 and
Florida with 71.
Herzog's film comes at a time in which many state governments in the US are
reviewing their death penalty statutes. Last year Illinois got rid of the death
penalty. In 2009, New Mexico voted to abolish the death penalty. It was
repealed in New York and New Jersey in 2007. In Oregon, Governor John Kitzhaber
halted all executions last year, though the death penalty is still technically
legal. The next state likely to abolish the death penalty is Connecticut,
DPIC's executive director Richard Dieter said.
Dieter said popular films may have more of an effect, but documentaries are
becoming increasingly important and are attracting more moviegoers in the US.
"Anything that will increase the discussion will add to the possibilities of
getting rid of it," he said of the death penalty.
Still an overwhelming majority -- 34 of the 50 US States -- still has the death
penalty on the books. That disturbs not only Herzog, but many of his
The Human Side of Death Row
Last year German Economics Minister and Vice Chancellor Philipp Rösler rejected
US requests to provide a German-manufactured drug used in lethal injections to
US states facing shortages, despite requests from then-US Commerce Secretary
Gary Locke to help ease the shortage.
"I noted the request and declined," Rösler said at the time.
In September, Germany along with countries all over Europe, reacted with
protests to the execution of African American Troy Davis, who was put to death
in Georgia. Davis was convicted of killing a white police officer in 1989. He
maintained his innocence until the end and his supporters said there were
serious doubts about his guilt. Davis, 42, was executed by lethal injection.
Hank Skinner, another subject in the Herzog series, was luckier. The Texas
inmate was sentenced to death 18 years ago for the fatal stabbing of his
girlfriend and her two mentally impaired sons. His execution has been scheduled
three times -- the second time he got his reprieve only 23 minutes before his
Skinner, a vivid story teller, gives a harrowing account of his remaining
minutes before he thought he was going to die. It's just one of the film
series' many moments that shows viewers the human side of death row.
(source: Spiegel Online)