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Forthcoming Documentary: In The Executioner’s Shadow

04/9/18 Episode Fifty-Six – Forthcoming Documentary: In The Executioner’s Shadow

In this episode, we hear from American University School of Communication Professor Rick Stack about a forthcoming, very important documentary concerning the death penalty in America, entitled In The Executioner’s Shadow. This documentary is co-produced by Rick Stack and Professor Maggie Burnette Stogner, also of the American University School of Communication. And the project has been made possible through the support of American University. On Wednesday, April 11, the American University School of Communication will be hosting the first pre-screening of the film. The event is open to the public. Following the pre-screening, there will be a panel discussion. The panel will consist of the three primary characters in the documentary as well as both filmmakers and Diane Rust-Tierney, executive director of the National Coalition Against Death Penalty. Learn more about NACDL. Ivan J. Dominguez, host. Music West Bank (Lezet) / CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 and Walkabout (Digital Primitives) / CC BY-NC-ND 3.0. Running time: 12m40s.

Direct link to the podcast:


"I am ready, Warden."

While the President was giving his first State of the Union address Tuesday night, another American was being put to death by the state of Texas.  At approximately 9:35 p.m., EST, William Earl Rayford became the first inmate executed by Texas this year.
You probably didn’t hear about this.  The media gave the event precious little coverage.  In keeping with a prevailing criticism, the death penalty persists, in part, because people don’t think about it.  It’s hard to consider what you’re not aware of.
The facts of the case are not subject to dispute.  Rayford was convicted in 1999 of the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Carol Lynn Thomas Hall. At the time of that crime, he was on parole from a sentence for murdering his wife thirteen years prior. While trying to escape her house, Carol called on her two young sons. When the youngest son came down the stairs, Rayford stabbed the 11 year old boy in the back. The young boy survived his injures.  His mother did not. She was later found hidden in a pipe, beaten to death. 
As issue raised by Rayford’s punishment is whether the execution of an elderly inmate is cruel and unusual.  Rayford spent more than 17 years on Texas Death Row, becoming a part of an increasing crowd of elderly men in their 60’s and 70’s awaiting their fate for years on end.  To critics, such long waits are extreme. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, there is a growing concern with inmates spending up to twenty years awaiting their own deaths, often under extreme conditions and in solitary confinement. 
Most death row inmates “are excluded from prison educational and employment programs, and sharply restricted in terms of visitation and exercise, spending as many as 23 hours a day alone in their cells,” according DPIC. 
Mr.Rayford’s last words expressed remorse and sought forgiveness.
What do you think proper punishment is for a 64-year old man?

Executing Aged Inmates

The Supreme Court recently denied an Alabama inmate’s stay of execution.  Vernon Madison’s lawyers argued he should be ineligble for execution because failing health had rendered him unable to recall the murder he’d committed.  The Court ruled a Federal panel overstepped its authority by overturning a state court’s determination that memory loss did not disqualify a death sentence.  The 1996 Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act precluded such intervention.

Justice Stephen Breyer noted the case presents an ancillary issue of growing concern.  The average wait for the 21 inmates executed in 2017 has been 19 years.  As the prison population grays the justice system will be dealing with more inmates suffering old-age infirmities.  Do lengthy delays for elderly prisoners add a new dimension to “cruel and unusual?”

California addressed this in 2016 with a referendum on competing proposals.  Proposition 62 sought to repeal capital punishment.  Proposition 66 aimed to expedite executions.  Voters opting for Prop 66 assumed less time between conviction and execution saves taxpayer dollars.  Studies indicate, however, death sentences are costlier than life sentences, with the heaviest expenditures borne at trial and confinement.      

Taking human life is an act government is obliged to get right.  Assuring accuracy may require extensive appeals.  Balancing considerations, California favored speeding the process.  Proposition 66 carried 51% of the electorate. 

How would you vote? 

A Hypothetical Situation...

Here's a Hypothetical Situation:

Lisa is a 33-year-old bank teller from Portland, Oregon. On her way home from work, Lisa decided to stop in a convenience store to pick up something to eat.  While standing in line to pay for the item, a man walks in a points a gun at the store owner.  While the intruder collects the money, Lisa tries to run.  The robber grabs her and shoots and kills her during the struggle.  John was later apprehended and arrested for robbery, felony murder, and the use of a firearm the commission of a felony.  Oregon has the death penalty.  Would you give John a death sentence?

What if Lisa is not some random person but your sister, daughter, or mother?  Would you give John the death penalty?

During the course of the trial, it is discovered that John is wooded and recently lost his job.  He robbed the convenience store because he needed money to feed his 2 kids.  Would you give John the death penalty?

What if John and/or Lisa were white?  African American?  Hispanic?  Middle Eastern?  Asian?

What if the roles were reversed?

Some answers these questions without hesitation.  Others waiver or are never really sure.  How about you?  What does this say about our criminal justice system?  About our society?  About you?

In the Executioner's Shadow is about more than justice.  It is about the imprint the death penalty leaves on all of us; a dark shadow that cats in every direction.  Whether or not we see it, it's there.  And we are all in it.

- Keila Gunter

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In Preparation For IndieGogo

As part of the preparation for the IndieGogo campaign, the team shot a short video explaining the story of the film and our goals for the campaign. The greatest challenge of putting together a video of this sort is probably condensing the entirety of the grand story of this documentary into a brief yet compelling pitch. Maggie and Rick are so passionate about the subject matter of the film and the stories of their interview subjects that they could easily speak at length on any one aspect of the film. Ultimately, they both did a great job in conveying the most essential elements of the story in a way that should get viewers excited to see the film.

From a technical standpoint, the shoot was relatively simple. We reserved space in American University's Media Production Center Studio which is a great location for this kind of shoot. The studio provided us with a simple, yet visually pleasing backdrop that wouldn't distract from Maggie and Rick as they spoke.

The very talented Vanina Harel served as the director of the shoot and was able to work with Maggie to achieve the desired look for the video. I assisted with the lighting setup and worked with the sound equipment to make sure the audio was recorded clearly. Samantha Tinsley also was a big help in getting the equipment set up and taking great behind the scenes photos. On the whole, I'd say the shoot was very successful and I was quite proud of what we were able to achieve in a relatively short amount of time.

-Michael Henry


I had the opportunity to travel to Hampton, VA with Maggie and Rick to assist with the most recent interview of Jerry Givens. This would be my first time interacting with a former executioner first-hand, so I was excited to hear his perspective on the profession. 

Upon meeting Jerry, the most striking thing about him was that he was such an unassuming and friendly person who immediately put me at ease. Given the morbid nature of the task he performed for so many years, one might expect a former executioner such as Jerry to have a more intense, possibly cold personality. Jerry greeted us warmly and was easy to engage with.

In more recent years, Jerry has spent time speaking to at-risk youth to help steer them away from the pitfalls of crime and a life inside the prison system. For the sake of filming, I role-played with Jerry putting myself in the position of a young person asking for advice on how to stay out of trouble. When prompted on the subject of youth getting into trouble, Jerry was clearly passionate and had a lot to say about the importance of guiding young people.

It was evident that Jerry doesn't believe most of the troubled youth he's spoken to or the men inside the prison system he dealt with were inherently bad people. Jerry frames these stories as people who have made mistakes and found themselves in a downward spiral because they haven't had the strong guidance of anyone to tell them to avoid certain paths. Jerry has a natural talent for making a connection through conversation and weaving a story that brings to life his experiences.

-Michael Henry

Is There a Deterrence?

Selected as a graduate Research Assistant in my first year of film school at American University was both humbling and exciting. Unaware of the project I would be assigned, I initially met with Maggie the week prior to the start of the school year. It was at this meeting I would learn about the documentary in progress, ‘In The Executioners Shadow,’ and what my role would be throughout the year.

Admittedly, I was the ‘why’ child growing up, always questioning the ‘why’ of everything. My parents, I’m sure grew tired of this, but none-the-less, always encouraged me to find answers to all of my questions. The quest for truth felt like mini adventures for me then and as I grew up, I realized knowledge is paramount in making decisions of any kind.

Conducting research for ‘In the Executioners Shadow’ has led me down many rabbit holes, only leading me to ask more ‘why’s’ and feeling this relevance in the overall discussion regarding capital punishment. It seemed logical to do a side by side comparison of capital executions compared to rates of violence to identify any causal relationships or trends. Ensuring I looked objectively at all sides, I compared crime statistics complied in the FBI Uniform Crime Report to the statistics of capital executions per year compiled by the DPIC and Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Essentially, the numbers paint an interesting picture no matter where you stand. For example, one region of the US will have the highest crime rate and will also have the highest number of executions. In comparison, another region will have the lowest crime rate and lowest number of executions. Additionally, there were fewer executions in 2014 than in past years however the rate of violent crime fell by 0.2% compared to 2013. Is there a deterrence connection? It’s worthy of further discussion regarding what is working to prevent these crimes from happening and ensure no one has to lose a loved one.

Additionally, many criminologists and senior law enforcement officials agree that funding to help keep violent offenders off the street would be best utilized in more officers on the streets, youth programs, substance abuse and mental health programs, and so on. Ideally, get ahead of the issues and be proactive not reactive.

Maggie, Rick, and the entire team have worked tirelessly to bring you a film that will raise discussion on both sides on how best to confront the issue of criminal justice reform. We hope you will come along with us, exploring and seeking the answers, that will ensure justice for all and together, build a stronger community. United we stand, divided we fall.  

- Samantha Tinsley

The Public Spectacle

For more than 25 years I’ve been making documentaries, many of them about ancient civilizations around the globe. For thousands of years, justice and punishment were conducted in and by the public. In the U.S., government-administered public hangings ceased in the 1930s. Today, lethal injection is used, behind prison walls, far from public view. But recent botched executions due to shortages of the drugs used for execution have cast a new spotlight on capital punishment. Several states are moving to reinstate the electric chair, gas chamber, and firing squad. Will execution once again become a public spectacle? In the Executioner’s Shadow probes how decisions about justice affect us all.

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Maggie Burnette Stogner is a documentary filmmaker with 25 years of experience, the owner of Blue Bear Films and a tenured professor of film and media arts at American University in Washington DC.

Meeting the Former Executioner

I first met Jerry when we interviewed him in Hampton, Virginia. Meeting him for the first time was a little nerve-wracking. I didn’t know what to expect or how I would feel meeting an executioner. Although it was his job, this would be the first time I’d be meeting someone who has taken the life of another person. Nervous can’t begin to describe my feelings as I waited in anticipation.

We arrived at the hotel and sat in the lobby waiting for Jerry to come down and meet us. I looked up and saw him enter the room and immediately sensed a warmness about him. Jerry’s past is nowhere to be found. It was only when we started filming that the layers of who he is and who he was start to show themselves.

This experience was amazing. The stories he tells are ones that will make you cringe and make you wonder how one human being could witness or participate in such an action. But, at the end of the day it was a job. He was doing a service for the state of Virginia. To him, it was no more, no less than any other job because someone had to do it.

As we prompted him with questions, Jerry reflected on his past and that is where I got a glimpse at the internal struggle that plagued him; he did his job to the best of his ability, but was this a job that needed to be done? I walked away from this experience enlightened and slightly disheartened by the man who spent a majority of his life executing people and the rest trying to make up for it in some way.

His opinions on the death penalty and being the executioner were certainly changed by the exoneration of Earl Washington and so I wondered about one thing when we left; would he still be an executioner if Earl Washington never happened?

I think the exoneration of Earl Washington doesn’t point to it being Jerry’s fault, which by his own admission was not his fault because it was a job, a civil service, but it points to the inaccuracies in the court system. How can you work for someone that doesn’t know what they’re doing? “They are not killing these men, I am. My hands are the ones with blood on them, not yours.”

The only true conclusion that I can make about Jerry Givens is there is a goodness about him. What that may mean to someone else, I don’t know, but Jerry accepts his past. It is a part of him and to act like it never happened would be dishonest and insensitive to the men he has executed.

“We are made wise not by the recollection of our past, but by the responsibility for our future.

- George Bernard Shaw.

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The Conversation

In the Executioner’s Shadow is not an advocacy film. With co-producer and author Rick Stack, an expert on capital punishment, we set out to create a film that would be a catalyst for informed and meaningful dialogue about the death penalty and justice reform. The film probes both pro and con views through two intimate stories, and gives viewers a rare journey into the world of an executioner. I’ve been making documentary films for more than 25 years on a wide range of subjects, but none as intense as this one. "In the Executioner’s Shadow" began as a film about justice, but our characters have shown us so much more. Their resiliency and humanity is inspiring.

Support this documentary film by making a tax-deductible donation to:

- Maggie Burnette Stogner

Campaign UPDATE!

WOW! Your support has helped us reach over $12,000 dollars in 9 DAYS! We’re nearly halfway there. Please help us keep going!

For those who have just started following our campaign or are not on social media, here is what has been happening on our Facebook page and Twitter:

We post important facts about the death penalty every week in great graphics designed by our graduate assistant Jessica Moreno. Below is one of them: 

We provide sneak peaks into the three stories we will be telling in the film. The highlights from the past two weeks are:


We follow Karen as she struggles to come to terms with how her life has changed and how the Boston marathon bomber should pay for what he did. Karen says, "I don't know what justice is. You know it's easy to say that word, I want justice. It's different for different people."

In the Executioner's Shadow is a catalyst for real debate about justice and what it means for all of us.


In the Executioner's Shadow reveals a point of view rarely heard before: that of the executioner.

Jerry: "Well when I accepted the position to be executioner, I was totally for the death penalty. I was... My thing is, that if a person takes the life of another person, then that person's life should be taken. That's what I believed."

We also share special behind-the-scenes previews how what we have been filming: 

Maggie, Rick, and production assistants from American University's Film and Media Arts, set up for an interview with Vicki and Syl Scheiber at their home. To learn more about the Scheibers, go to:

And for further insights into this topic and what it takes to make this important film happen, check out our blog at where Maggie, Rick, and graduate assistants talk about why they are making this film and how it feels to meet with an executioner for the first time.

Thank you again for all your support so far, we hope you keep sharing the link to our campaign so we can get raise the funds we need to finish filming. We are so close!


Why Capital Punishment?

Why a film about capital punishment? I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area not far from two of the most notorious prisons in the U.S.; San Quentin and Alcatraz Island. You can’t miss them. Alcatraz Island, in the middle of the bay, was home to a federal maximum-security prison that operated from 1934 to 1963 and is famous for gangster Al Capone and the murderer “Birdman”. I took a tour as a teenager and to this day remember the dank urine scent of its solitary cells. San Quentin is a State facility still in operation and currently houses 699 of California’s 740 death row inmates. California has far more prisoners on death row than any other state. Ironically, the waters just beyond the prison are a mecca for wind and kite surfers. What a bizarre juxtaposition. This year, California voters may have a chance to vote on competing death penalty measures and this is why an educated discussion needs to happen now.

Support this documentary film by making a tax-deductible donation to:

- Maggie Stogner

Why Should We Care?

Capital punishment. Why should we care? The trend in recent years is that fewer defendents are receiving death sentences and fewer death row inmates are being executed. The crash of a single jumbo jet could result in more fatalities than the number of prisoners executed in a given year. Very few people, likely no one you know, will be a murder victim. So, why should we care?

Years ago at the annual conference of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, I put that question to Hugo Bedau, Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus, at Tufts University and author of 10 books on capital punishment. “It’s life and death. Why wouldn’t we care?” I didn’t find that a satisfactory answer. 

I put the question to Steven Hawkins, then the Executive Director of the NCADP. “Eliminating the death penalty would remove a layer of violence from our society.” This struck me as a bit counterintuitive. “Aren’t we taking out the bad guys?” I asked. “Maybe, but how are we doing it?” 

Steve got me thinking. The significance of the death penalty is not in how many are being affected. The significance lies in how we want to be regarded as a society. What can be inferred from the way a society punishes its violent outliers? It can reasonably be asked about one who takes the life of another, “Does he deserve to live?” And that question might be met with another, “Do we deserve to kill him?”

Support this documentary film by making a tax-deductible donation to:

- Rick Stack

Great First Week!!!

What a Great First Week!!! We reached a big milestone:

$10,000 in 4 days!

If you haven't had the chance to make your donation yet, check out our campaign at:

THANK YOU TO:  Kevin, Reuben, Kristian, Kari, Ray and Betty, MadtownProductions, Mac, Karen, Amanda, Michele, William, Sandy, Adam, Miranda, Cris, Caitlin, Pat, Red Rock Films, Joel and Adrienne, Santa Fe Rising, Richard, Carla, Mary Jo, Robert, Bud, Jennifer, Bill, Khaki, Madelyn, Nina, Brittany, Bruce, Ron, Sharon, Lisa, Randall, Jeff, Marrc, Allison, John, Diana, Jennifer, Stephen, simpson, Valerie, Ruth, Ronald, Lois, Kelsey, Barbara, and several anonymous contributors for your support.

HELP US keep the momentum, going and keep spreading the word! We couldn't do this without you!