IN THE EXECUTIONER'S SHADOW

A STORY OF JUSTICE, INJUSTICE, AND THE DEATH PENALTY

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JERRY GIVENS

Jerry conducted 62 executions, 37 by electric chair and 25 by lethal injection, for the state of Virginia. He was the state’s chief executioner and believed in the work he was doing; “I used to believe I was doing the right thing to take the life of a bad guy, but I no longer see it that way." Jerry's perspective on the death penalty was greatly influenced by his early childhood. When he was 14 years old, he witnessed the murder of a girl he liked at a party. This documentary will follow the journey from his first execution to an event that shook the very core of his belief in the justice system.

In 1985, Jerry came within days of executing Earl Washington Jr., a man with an I.Q. of only 69 (that of a 10-year-old) who was wrongfully convicted for the rape and murder of Rebecca Lynn Williams, a 19-year-old mother of three, in Culpeper, Virginia. The police claimed that after two days of questioning, Washington confessed to the murder of Rebecca, and several other crimes, but there were many inconsistencies in his testimony. Improper forensic science, flawed serology, and Earl's testimony put him on death row. 

Earl spent over 17 years in prison - many of them on death row. It was Earl's fellow death row inmate who alerted two Virginia lawyers that worked with capital prisoners about Earl's case which helped Earl to secure a stay of execution. Earl came within nine days of being executed by Jerry Givens. Earl remained in prison another six years before being released and waited an additional six years for the Governor to issue an absolute pardon. It was the advancements in forensic tools and DNA analysis that led to Earl being cleared and exonerated of all charges.

 

Ever since this event, Jerry remains haunted by the possibility that he could have executed an innocent man: “If I was responsible for executing an innocent person, that makes me no better than a murderer on death row."


VICKI AND SYL SCHIEBER

Vicki and Syl Schieber share the story of how they struggled to forgive the man who murdered their daughter. Shannon Schieber was a doctoral student in Philadelphia when someone broke into her apartment whereby she was raped and killed. The Schiebers' candidly reveal the difficulties they’ve faced and continue to face daily.

Four years after her murder, police finally apprehended the killer in Colorado and extradited him to Philadelphia where the prosecutor pushed hard for a death penalty conviction. The Schiebers' advocated for life in prison without parole, believing nothing would be resolved by taking another life.

In honor of their daughter, Vicki speaks, writes, and teaches about why she believes the death penalty is wrong no matter how horrific the crime. We gain insight into the Schiebers' as Vicki describes her meeting with the family of her daughter’s killer and other prisoners on death row in an attempt to grasp why people commit such horrific crimes. In a final quest for closure, Vicki and Syl hope to meet their daughter’s murderer.


Karen Brassard

On April 15, 2013, Karen Brassard, her husband, daughter, and best friend were all hospitalized after a terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon. Her best friend lost both her legs. They were among the 264 people injured and 3 killed in the Boston Marathon explosions. 

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Seventeen-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the Boston bombers, was arraigned on July 11, 2013. He faced 30 federal charges, 17 of which carried the death penalty. He entered a plea of “not guilty.” Karen wavered daily about what fate the teenage suspect should receive. Karen and her husband supported capital punishment before the bombing, but “that was in the abstract.” Like many, they hadn’t thought about it in the real sense; Karen faced the very real situation of having an influence on whether someone lives or dies. Since the attack, Karen questions the very core of what defines justice through a very personal lens. We follow Karen as she searches for answers, attends the trial, and reflects on the verdict.