Guest blogger David Yamada, Professor of Law at Suffolk University Law School in Boston and the founding board chair of the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence, writes…
At a 2009 TJ symposium hosted byFlorida Coastal School of Law,professor and death penalty lawyer Cynthia Adcock presented a compelling talkabout the anti-therapeuticimpact of the death penalty on all major parties involved with executions, beyond the condemned prisoner. These individualsincludefamily members of both the victim and the prisoner, prison personnel assigned to carry out the sentence, lawyers and judges, and many others.
I thought about Cynthia’s presentationand essay throughout my viewing of the movie “Clemency” (2019),an intense, outstandingmotion picture starringAlfreWoodard asprison wardenBernadine Williams, who ischargedwith overseeing executions.The movie centers on events leading to the scheduled execution of Anthony Woods (played with great nuance byAldisHodge), who has beensentenced to die for the killingof a police officer,in connection with a robbery.
Thanks to a remarkable script and Woodard’s brilliantly heartfelt and dignifiedperformance,“Clemency” is the unusualfilm placed in a correctional setting that portrays a prison warden as a living, breathing, three-dimensional human being.In fact, it makes an extra effort not to portray any of the prison officers as unfeeling caricatures as they go about the grim, detailed work of planning and rehearsing for an execution.
And therein lies asignificant therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ) dimension to this movie. As one of a handful of “industrialized”nations to still use capital punishment, the U.S. has itsowndeath penalty movie genre. It includes well-known filmssuch as“The Green Mile” (1999),“Dead Man Walking”(1995), “In Cold Blood” (1967),and“I Want to Live”(1958).
Although Ihave notwatched all of the selectionsinthis category, I doubt that any matches the ability of “Clemency” tohave us empathize so strongly with a prisonwarden, as we imagineourselves wrestling with thepsychological tollof overseeingmultiple executions as part of our job.
“Clemency” is hard to watch. Perhaps out of respect for its subject matter, the movie offers no lighter moments to relieve the seriousness and tension of the story. We are emotionally with Warden Williams and prisoner Woods throughout the film. Nonetheless, I strongly recommend it, especially as a TJ-relevant example of how this particular form of punishment has few, if any, therapeutic effects.