The Meadows School of the Arts Division of Cinema-Television and the SMU Human Rights Education Program presented two documentary films by CTV chair and Emmy-winning filmmaker Rachel Lyon: Race to Execution and Juror Number Six in the Hughes-Trigg Forum on Thursday night. It was followed by a discussion of the films between a panel of SMU professors and the audience.
The panel was comprised of Lyon; Rick Halperin, director of the Human Rights Education Program; Dick Hawkins, SMU associate professor of sociology; and Victoria Palacios, SMU associate professor of law. Discussion ranged from specific questions about the films and the influence they could have on the way society views the death penalty and the current justice system.
A large problem that Lyon is trying to address with her film is the problem of ignorance in society. Many people support the death penalty because they don’t know the truth about the system. In response to a comment about several Hispanic prisoners on death row, Professor Halperin said, “the death penalty is not an act, it is a process, and torture is inherent in the process.”
However, changing the treatment of inmates is difficult, because although death row inmates are subjected to extensive torture, many Americans do not know about it because it is hard to generate sympathy for the inmates.
This ignorance sets America apart from other Western and industrialized countries because it perpetuates the death penalty while many other countries no longer use it. Many questions were posed to the panel about their personal beliefs, about the death penalty and how the system affects the way people view capital punishment.
“I can’t say right now how I feel about the death penalty,” Lyon said, “the current system is too flawed to answer if the death penalty is right or wrong.”
Many arguments were presented for and against capital punishment including cost, protection for innocents and a basic value for life.
“You do not forfeit your right to life,” Halperin said, “You forfeit the right to function with all the privileges of a free society.”
The panel revealed that it costs more to execute inmates than to keep them in prison for life; however, they argue that this should not be a factor.
“Life and death should never be determined by cost.” Hawkins said, “Cost is paid by the taxpayers because we want to live in a society that values life.”
“I think that we have found that no matter what the goals of the death penalty,” Professor Lyon said, “as it turns out, we have not managed to be fair in the first 200 years of the death penalty. Timothy McVeigh, the poster child for capital punishment is the exception, not the rule.”
The panel encouraged the audience to use its own voice to change the system regardless of their personal beliefs about the death penalty.
“There is great change brewing in capital punishment,” Halperin said, “it will end in this country in the lifetime of everyone in this room.”