The barbarity of life on America’s death row Werner Herzog and Hank Skinner

march 23, 2012 source :

They have the death penalty in 34 American states – 16 of which currently perform executions with lethal injections. Until only recently, you could elect to die by firing squad in Utah.

German filmmaker Werner Herzog laid out his cards when he interviewed Hank Skinner, a man who has spent 17 years on death row in Texas.

“I’m not an advocate of the death penalty,” said Werner.

“Neither am I,” quipped Hank.

What emerged from this compelling documentary was a grim story of life on death row. The treatment of inmates seemed barbaric. Time doesn’t just drag here, it’s all over the place.

They don’t wash the windows of the cells so prisoners end up cocooned in a world of their own.

There’s activity and noise 24 hours a day. They serve breakfast at 3am, lunch at 10am and supper at 4pm.

The food is awful, says Hank, until you get to the execution unit, where you get a good last meal. He’s been so close to execution that he’s been given the last rites and had a final meal – fried chicken, catfish fillets, salad, a bacon cheeseburger, fries and chocolate milkshake.

It was delicious – because it’s prepared by the prisoners and they get to eat what the condemned man couldn’t face. Hank says, with a wry smile, that his last-minute reprieve gave him his appetite back and the prisoners had to go without their treat.

Hank says he’s innocent of the murder of his girlfriend and her two mentally disabled sons in 1995 – I guess a lot of death row men say they’re not guilty – but it seems unjust that he had to go to the Supreme Court to get the District Attorney to release DNA evidence which he says could prove his innocence.

On the face of it, he might have a point. There was another man’s jacket at the scene covered in the victim’s blood. His fingerprints were on a knife because he used it every day to make sandwiches.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the case, it throws the spotlight on the use of the death penalty. Being proved innocent after death makes no sense at all.


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