“Clemency”, the movie, delivers a powerful therapeutic jurisprudence relevant message about the death penalty in America

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 by Florida Coastal School of Law, professor and death penalty lawyer Cynthia Adcock presented a compelling talk about the anti-therapeutic impact of the death penalty on all major parties involved with executions, beyond the condemned prisoner. These individuals include family members of both the victim and the prisoner, prison personnel assigned to carry out the sentence, lawyers and judges, and many others.

Cynthia produced an essay based on her talk, “The Collateral Anti-therapeutic Effects of the Death Penalty” that was published in the Florida Coastal Law Review.

I thought about Cynthia’s presentation and essay throughout my viewing of the movie “Clemency” (2019), an intense, outstanding motion picture starring Alfre Woodard as prison warden Bernadine Williams, who is charged with overseeing executions. The movie centers on events leading to the scheduled execution of Anthony Woods (played with great nuance by Aldis Hodge), who has been sentenced to die for the killing of a police officer, in connection with a robbery.

Thanks to a remarkable script and Woodard’s brilliantly heartfelt and dignified performance, “Clemency” is the unusual film 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 a significant therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ) dimension to this movie. As one of a handful of “industrialized” nations to still use capital punishment, the U.S. has its own death penalty movie genre. It includes well-known films such as “The Green Mile” (1999), Dead Man Walking (1995), “In Cold Blood” (1967), and “I Want to Live” (1958).

Although I have not watched all of the selections in this category, I doubt that any matches the ability of “Clemency” to have us empathize so strongly with a prison warden, as we imagine ourselves wrestling with the psychological toll of overseeing multiple 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.

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