A Broken System is a new, 45-minute documentary by filmmaker Kohl Harrington. The film consists of interviews with people whose lives have been deeply affected by the death penalty, including Juan Melendez, Aba Gayle, Bill Babbitt, Ron McAndrew, and Don Cabana.
Melendez speaks of how he was wrongfully accused and sentenced to death in Florida. His accuser, the real killer, framed him. Racist police and judges ignored important evidence that supported Melendez’s innocence and it wasn’t until the case was transferred to another County that Melendez had any prayer of release. He was released not long after.
Gayle tells us of the pain of losing her youngest daughter, Catherine, to murder. At first, she says, she was filled with hatred and rage, but then, through a spiritual awakening, began to forgive her daughter’s murderer, and then become his friend. She now works to abolish the death penalty. Condemned men, she emphasizes, are not monsters, but human beings just like the rest of us.
Babbitt talks of his heart-wrenching experience with the death penalty: Babbitt’s younger brother, a mentally ill Vietnam Veteran named Manny, murdered Leah Schendel, and Babbitt soon figured out that Manny was the perpetrator. In exchange for telling the authorities about Manny’s crime, Bill was told that Manny would not be executed and that he would receive help. However, their promise was false and Manny was sentenced to death and executed. Babbitt felt betrayed by the American justice system and since then has been working hard to educate people about the reality of the death penalty.
McAndrew, a former Florida prison warden, describes his experiences as both executioner and observer, and those experiences in the execution chamber literally haunt him. Of the condemned men, he says they will sometimes come to him in the middle of the night and just sit on the edge of his bed. ‘They never say anything,” he says, “but I know why they’re there.” Although he supported the death penalty whole-heartedly as an entering warden, his position began to shift as he witnessed the horrible ways in which the electric chair and lethal injection can kill someone. He relates the story of how, one night as he drove home from the prison, having just completed an execution, he saw a protester holding up a sign that said but one word: barbaric. Remembering how the previous night’s execution (that of Pedro Medina) had gone so badly, McAndrew rolled down his window and said, “Brother, you are absolutely right.”
Cabana, a former Mississippi warden, also speaks of the horrors of the death chambers. His stories and words are similar to McAndrew’s. Like McAndrew, he is not a soft guy, rather a tough one, but he is still deeply affected by the horrifying executions that he both helped with and administered. He also talks of feeling “unclean” after executions-that despite his best efforts to “scrub and scrub and scrub” the feeling off in the shower at three a.m., he never could quite get clean.
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