Review: The Penalty

The Penalty (2017)

Directed by: Mark Pizzey & Will Francombe

For many Europeans, the death penalty can sometimes seem an unimportant issue. But while the death penalty has been banned in Europe, 2016 alone saw 3,117 death sentences and 1,032 executions worldwide. The USA, where the death penalty is still legal in as many as 31 states, is currently the world’s seventh biggest executioner. The worst offenders continue to be China, Iran, and Iraq where the authorities often use executions as a political tool. For example, in 2016, thousands of people were likely to have been executed in China, but the numbers remain classified.

The Penalty brings us face to face with all the human rights issues raised by capital punishment. In this feature documentary film, co-directors Pizzey and Francombe present the lives of three individuals, each fatefully touched by the death penalty: a mother seeking justice for her murdered daughter, a man recently exonerated for a crime he did not commit, and a lawyer fighting against the increasingly inhumane executions. The personal sympathy which the audience is able to feel for each of these people plays out in stark contrast to the bureaucratic and media-obsessed nature of the American judicial system.

As the film begins, we are confronted with a community suffering from the loss of a young girl who has been murdered. We see how people in the neighbourhood are angered by this senseless act and want the offender to be given the death penalty. However, as the story progresses, the anger turns against the state, as the family is forced to spend their lives in and out of courtrooms, constantly reliving the pain of their loss in an effort to get justice.

The effect on her family and the apparent lack of sympathy from the authorities brings the mother, Darlene, to believe that the death penalty is no longer justifiable or necessary. Her story concludes with a political battle between two state attorneys, one for and one against continuing to pursue the death penalty. The public vote is overwhelmingly against, demonstrating that a fundamental shift in public opinion has started to take place in America. The idea of an “eye for an eye,” which for so long has dominated the political and judicial landscape in certain parts of America, is beginning to lose its hold.

Perhaps the most powerful story is that of Damon Thibodeux. Thibodeux was wrongfully convicted of the murder of his cousin and spent 15 years in solitary confinement on death row, before his exoneration through DNA testing. His story leads us to question police interrogation tactics. The police manipulated Thibodeux, whom they viewed as an “easy target”, into making a false confession. For example, the police were allowed to tell Thibodeux that he had failed the polygraph test. Even then, his confession was inconsistent with the crime in numerous ways. Furthermore, only 54 minutes of the entire nine-hour interrogation were recorded and investigators found no forensic evidence linking him to the murder. Despite this, Thibodeux was convicted and sentenced to death. His sentence shows how much influence a confession has on a jury, who generally believe no one would ever confess to a crime they had not committed, and the film does a good job of highlighting this critical issue.

Following his release, Thibodeux became an active speaker for legal reform to reduce the chances of wrongful conviction. The film brings to light the awful mental torture he must have endured waiting for death every day for fifteen years, and emphasises a key argument against the death penalty, which is that irreversible mistakes can be made. Since 1973, 150 US prisoners sent to death row have later been exonerated, while many others have been executed despite serious doubts about their guilt.

The third story presented by Pizzey and Francombe allows them to give us the point of view of a lawyer fighting to put an end to the death penalty and to the growing number of botched executions. The lawyer’s presentation as a good and honest family man makes his disgust at the inhumanity of capital punishment all the more convincing. The film focuses on one particular case in which a man is sentenced to death by means of a drug that failed to pass medical tests. The tension builds until it is revealed that the execution will proceed. The convicted man is thus subjected to a long and agonising death.

In this section of the film we see the death penalty as wholly immoral, cruel and degrading. It not only violates the right to life but also the prohibition of torture. We see the role of lawyers in a deeply flawed system, and the tremendous stress experienced by those involved in the case. We see how utterly deplorable it is that the prosecutors will apparently stop at nothing to ensure a death sentence is carried out. Towards the end of the film we hear the lawyer saying that if any individual had committed as many murders as the state, they would no longer be at liberty to do so. Pizzey and Francombe have created a film that shows how absolutely essential it is that Amnesty International’s campaign to ban the death penalty worldwide is successful.


The Penalty is currently being screened throughout the world. For more information visit

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