Punishment Surfaces in a Tabloid Sea
Investigation Discovery is a particularly lurid precinct on the cable
television grid, home of shows like “Nothing Personal: Murder for Hire,”
“Facing Evil With Candice DeLong,” “Nightmare Next Door” and “Deadly Sins,”
which uses a religious theme to explore “the depths of depravity.”
It’s both disconcerting and entirely appropriate that the channel’s newest
show, the mini-series “On Death Row,” beginning Friday night, features the
sober voice and calm eye of the German filmmaker Werner Herzog.
The 4-episode series, which Mr. Herzog wrote and directed, is an island of
restraint in Investigation Discovery’s tabloid sea. But given its reflection of
his career-long interests in last things and the rational roots of irrational
behavior, it fits right in.
“On Death Row” is a companion piece to the feature-length documentary “Into the
Abyss,” an examination of a Texas murder case in which a young man was
sentenced to death. (He was executed shortly after Mr. Herzog interviewed him.)
The hourlong episodes of the series look at 4 more cases, and 5 condemned
prisoners; compared with the film it feels as if relatively more time is being
given to the jailhouse interviews and relatively less to the details of the
Mr. Herzog’s stately technique and Teutonic diction, applied to what was
essentially a straightforward true-crime tale, gave “Into the Abyss” an
appearance of profundity it didn’t entirely deserve. This isn’t really an issue
in the more modest environs of “On Death Row,” and a surprising element of the
series — making it both compelling and perversely enjoyable — is that Mr.
Herzog loosens up, getting more argumentative in the interviews and presenting
moments of mordant humor.
Joseph Garcia, on death row for his involvement in a prison escape that led to
the killing of a police officer, argues that because he did not pull the
trigger he should not be condemned. “I wasn’t even on the back dock when that
happened,” he says. “I was still in the store tying up hostages.” Mr. Herzog’s
prompt and dry response: “Which was bad enough, let’s face it.”
The inmates, in Texas and Florida, seem to have been selected partly for their
diverse reactions to their situations. Several insist on their innocence;
others admit their guilt and await their fates with startling equanimity.
Mr. Herzog doesn’t linger on the larger questions, being more interested in the
details of bad choices, last meals and family visits. (When he asks an inmate’s
twin sister, who lives in another state, why she hasn’t visited him, she winces
and says, “I think I might have a warrant down there.”)
An exchange with a Texas prosecutor about the case of Linda Carty, who
maintains her innocence in the 2002 abduction and murder that put her on death
row, seems designed to answer not just the prosecutor but anyone who would
object to Mr. Herzog’s re-examining of these cases. “I do not humanize her,” he
says, his voice rising to something like indignation. “I do not make an attempt
to humanize her. She is simply a human being, period.”
On Death Row
Investigation Discovery, Friday nights at 10, Eastern and Pacific times; 9,
Produced by Creative Differences. Written and directed by Werner Herzog;
produced by Erik Nelson. For Investigation Discovery: Henry Schleiff and Sara
Kozak, executive producers.
(source: New York Times)