Death Row Stories

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By Carissa Barstis

Susan Sarandon is the unlikely face of capital punishment in her narration of Death Row Stories on CNN: a series of one-hour documentaries on people sentenced to death. This isn’t the first time entertainment and criminal justice have intersected; Sarandon herself left the 1995 Oscars with an Academy Award for her portrayal of Sister Helen Prejean in Dead Man Walking – a film that netted a total of 4 nominations and cultivated accolades from both film critics and moviegoers.

The content is compelling. There is a wealth of material spanning decades to fill enough episodes of Death Row Stories for years to come, and the production value is top notch. But what is this program setting out to do? And is it succeeding?

Creator Robert Redford touts Death Row Stories as a series “about the search for justice and truth.” Director Alex Gibney says the show “provides stark examples of the struggle between the powerful and the powerless. The stakes – life or death – couldn’t be higher.” These are comments that any advocate of death penalty repeal and criminal justice reform would agree are important endeavors. But should the impact of such shows be gauged by the extent to which viewers ultimately enact policy change? According to Sarah Craft from Equal Justice USA, a national organization dedicated to reforming our justice system, the answer is initially “No.”

For Equal Justice’s part, there is no statistical certainty that Death Row Stories has led to an increase in traffic to their site or interest in similar non-profit groups. However, Craft maintains that programs like Death Row Stories are good tools for bringing people in and getting them involved in policy discussion. “We held a live tweeting event where we hosted screening parties for different episodes of the show,” Craft said. She praises the fact that it brought people in to the screening parties who may not have found their way to an Equal Justice event otherwise, and just “one extra body added to the cause is a great boon to the movement in general.” While these events are underway, Equal Justice is able to provide petitions – one of which Susan Sarandon supports – and awareness to projects they have on the horizon.

Craft concedes that it is “hard to draw straight lines” between shows like Death Row Stories and a direct influence on policy change, but she says that should not diminish its effect as a tool for education and research. When asked if she has any qualms about their marketing or entertainment slant similar to shows like 48 Hours, she says she does not. For where television stands with this issue, she sees the entertainment value as being necessary for bringing further viewers in.

Although those seeking quantification of Death Row Stories’ impact may be disappointed, its significance lies in small steps rather than great leaps. Both policy and public opinion rarely experience sea changes, and the weaknesses plaguing our justice system are too widespread and nuanced to see a shift within a few short months. But as long as the conversation continues to grow, we as a society can continue to edge toward a more just system.

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