Working for a Virginia law firm that specialized in defending death penalty
cases, Jeff Reynolds spent two years immersed in the world of capital
At first, the Oconee native balanced the fence of the issue, he said. “But when
I got the job at the law firm, I saw firsthand how our justice system works and
the problems that arise when punishments are final.”
Over the course of his employment at the law firm, Reynolds met a lot of death
row inmates in person, including a few he felt were innocent. He also learned
that overturning a death penalty conviction is next to impossible, he said,
because the wheels of justice turn very slowly.
“When it works, everybody is happy,” he said. “But when it doesn’t, people tend
to keep that quiet.”
When Reynolds moved to Wilmington, N.C., to start a career in the film industry
in 2008, he knew he wanted to make a documentary about the death penalty. And
one of the cases he came across while working at the law firm, the now
11-year-old conviction of Justin Michael Wolfe, encompassed everything he
wanted to address about the subject, including the labyrinthine appeals
The movie Reynolds is filming, “Corpus: The Case of Justin Wolfe,” still is in
production, but the filmmaker returns to Athens on Thursday to screen a short
teaser for the project, as well a full screening of his award-winning short
documentary “Jerry,” about a former death row executioner.
Ciné also will sneak preview Werner Herzog’s new documentary, “Into the Abyss,”
an exploration of a triple homicide in Texas. All proceeds from Thursday’s
screening help fund Reynold’s “Corpus” project.
Reynolds met Jerry Givens, the former executioner, while researching for the
film about Wolfe.
“I wanted someone to explain on camera what Justin would face when he goes to
be executed,” he said, but he didn’t find what he expected.
“We have no point of reference as to what an executioner’s personality is
like,” Reynolds said. “Except maybe for cartoonish figures with axes and
After 1 meeting, a 5-minute interview turned into a 25-minute movie.
“I found his story so compelling. I didn’t expect someone who was so warm and
personable,” he said. “(Jerry) saw this stuff firsthand. I have my own bias, so
it was nice to hear his point of view.”
Faced with such emotional material, especially with his own experience with the
subject, Reynolds said he tries to retain objectivity “to a certain degree” in
the filmmaking process, admitting he has some “pretty strong opinions.”
Making a film with an argument is totally acceptable, he said, but he tries to
round out his film with opposing opinions, including one of the jurors who
“I’m not overly concerned about being objective,” he said. “But to make an
interesting movie, I need to be counterbalanced.”