citybeat (2006-25)

Dead Men Walking

One day, two executions

Movie on the Square

Local high school students film a documentary about the old Market House

Wednesday, June 14

Dead Men Walking

Across the state and country, however, many are questioning the propriety of these death sentences, and citing both cases as evidence of flaws in Tennessee’s capital punishment system.

“What the Alley and Reid cases have in common is doubt,” says David Elliot, communications director for the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. In Alley’s case, the state has yet to release physical evidence it withheld during the trial that could now be DNA-tested to either confirm or deny his professed alibi. Reid, on the other hand, is severely mentally ill, having been diagnosed with paranoid-type schizophrenia. To execute him, some say, would be to violate the principle that if you cannot understand the punishment, it should not be imposed.

“Both of the cases point to longstanding problems with the administration of the death penalty, both nationwide and in Tennessee,” Elliot says. “First, all too often people are on death row despite questions about their guilt. And second, all too often those facing execution are severely mentally ill. It’s strike one and strike two against Tennessee.”

Don Bosch, a local criminal-defense lawyer who has handled a number of local death-penalty cases and served on the National Association of Defense Lawyers Death Penalty Committee, says he’s observed a variety of similar abuses in the system. “The problem with the death penalty is that it requires perfection in the judicial system, and we are, as a species, imperfect,” he explains. “Although the system works very well, it can’t ever be perfect, and death is the one irreversible punishment that we mete out. Accordingly, I think it’s wholly inappropriate to ever impose it.”

Appeals are on the table for both offenders, and there’s a possibility that the executions will not be carried through. However, such decisions are often not made until the last possible minute. In the case of Alley’s previous execution date in May, for instance, Gov. Phil Bredesen granted a temporary reprieve on his sentence just hours before it was scheduled to take place. Kip Williams, who was serving as chairperson of the East Tennessee chapter of the Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killing (TCASK) at that time, recalls feeling both relieved at and unsatisfied with the decision. His organization responded with a statement that a “temporary reprieve” wasn’t good enough: “We are grateful tonight that the Governor has done the right thing. We are disappointed, however, that critical DNA evidence has still not been turned over….”

Whether next week’s scheduled executions proceed or not, parent organization TCASK, based in Nashville, is calling for a longer-term solution. In the meantime, it recommends a moratorium on the death penalty, a time-out during which the state can thoroughly examine both the ethical and economical ramifications of capital punishment and explore the feasibility of alternative punishments, such as life in prison with no possibility of parole.

Executive Director Randy Tatel points to New Jersey as an example of a state that recently adopted such an approach with startling results: A cost study showed that it has spent $253 million dollars more pursuing the death penalty than it would have had it pursued the alternative of life in prison without parole alone. “And they have 10 people on death row. We have over a hundred. How many hundreds of millions of dollars has Tennessee wasted on the pursuit of killing killers?” Tatel asks.

That’s money that could be channeled toward law enforcement or victim service, adds Robert Hoelscher of the Austin, Tex.-based organization Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation. “The death penalty does not serve victims because it diverts scarce resources away from what it could be doing—assisting other victims or promoting public safety,” he says.

Hoelscher also argues from experience that the death penalty does not, as it’s often characterized, bring a sense of closure or healing to the families of murder victims. When he was 7, his own father was brutally murdered behind the counter of the 7-11 convenience store he owned.

His mother found the body. The police caught the offender, a 17-year-old teenager, four hours later, and Hoelscher remembers his mother’s reaction to the murder to this day. “She called his parents two days later and told them that she forgave their son,” he says. “She understood their pain because she had two sons of her own. I’ve always carried that with me. There’s no way I could ever support capitol punishment, when my own mother made such a compassionate gesture toward the parents of the individual who took away her husband, my dad.”

If next week’s executions proceed as scheduled, vigils will be held across the state, including here in Knoxville. Check TCASK’s website, , for times and locations.

Movie on the Square

The movie, a 28-minute doc following the history of Downtown’s Market Square from its rural beginnings in the 19th century through the burning of the Market House in 1959, is the end result of West High School instructor David Drews’ inaugural Media High School. An after-school program for local high-school students, Media High met throughout the spring semester at Lawson McGhee library. Drews hopes the class will continue next year, and perhaps evolve into a summer institute where students can avail themselves of a broader media-arts curriculum.

An English instructor, Drews also teaches a filmmaking class at West. He notes that though several area schools offer classes in video production, film studies and the like, the West High filmmaking program is the only one of its kind.

“This is expressly about filmmaking, narrative and non-narrative,” Drews says. “Every year, I have at least 20 eager kids sign up for my class at West, so I knew there were sure to be students beyond West who were interested in filmmaking.

“And this is a media-saturated generation—cable, video games, the Internet,” he continues. “There’s no better way to become media savvy than actually making films.”

Media High met for 12 after-school sessions over the course of six weeks during spring semester, then went for an intensive full-time (9 to 5) schedule for two weeks at semester’s end. The program was open to all Knox County high-school students; class members Carmen Shepherd, Matthew Friedman, Michael Culpepper, Jonathan Magoon, Ian Edwards, Alexa Carter, Jamison Stallsworth, and Jessica Walker hailed variously from West, Bearden, and Powell High.

Their film is an engaging work tracing Market Square’s first 100-some-odd years, primarily through the prism of the Market House which formerly occupied the center of the Square. Along with plenty of rare period photographs, MS:EB&F features a mix of interviews with old-timers and folks with family ties to the Square, as well as local experts like McClung archive director Steve Cotham, and Metro Pulse ’s own Secret Historian Jack Neely.

It proceeds chronologically, with succinct white-on-black onscreen text outlining the historical events and photos that are described in more vivid detail by the interviewees and photographs that follow. The music is nice, too, featuring period-appropriate pieces throughout each section of the documentary, some of them played on piano by class member Jessica Walker.

The Market House fiddlers of the late 1800s, the roots of country music and the Midday Merry Go Round all make appearances onscreen. Cotham recounts that a local judge once sent his sons to sell vegetables on the Square, for fear the city might try to close the Market House due to sparse wintertime usage: “The story goes that they didn’t sell a single vegetable.”

Another interviewee, remembering her time on the Square as a young girl, recalls the Market House with its commingling aromas of fresh fish, diverse produce, and sweaty vendors and patrons as being “very odiferous.”

A native of Maryland, Drews says he chose the film’s subject matter in part due to his own childhood memories of the Lexington Market in Baltimore, but also as a means of boosting Downtown. “It’s important for young people to be involved in center-city activities,” he says. “And Market Square is the most dynamic part of that. Teens are very familiar with (Market Square concert series) Sundown in the City. It’s amazing how interested they became in this building that stood for over 100 years in the place where people now dance and eat. They made it their own.”

And Drews is quick to emphasize that though he pre-selected the topic, the work was the students’ own. “They were self starters,” he says. “They exceeded expectations, and my expectations were high.”

Every one of the kids put in time on every step of the filmmaking—”to get an authentic experience,” Drews says—from shooting the 20 hours of raw footage (mostly digital video, some 16 mm) that went into the doc to editing the footage into a series of six chronological rough cuts. The final cut, however, was done mostly by Ian Edwards, a precocious West High senior who plans on attending film school at Florida State after he graduates later this year.

Anderson, a fan of directors Wes Anderson and Werner Herzog, says he’s been making his own films since age 8. “I’d like to get into film production as a career,” he says. “And I’d like to come back here, because film in Knoxville needs a boost.”

Whether Media High will see more Ian Andersons come through—or even so much as produce a Market Square (Part 2 )—remains an open question. This pilot year of the program was sponsored by the library, which received funding via a grant from the Jane L. Pettway Foundation, an organization established to benefit the library, among other things.

If he can find new funding sources, Drews would eventually like to see Media High offer summer courses in narrative and non-narrative cinema; digital photography; radio journalism; and documentaries. “The first thing was to get a pilot out there to show what the students can do,” he says. “Now having done that, we hope to attract both public and private funds.”

Market Square: Earth, Brick, and Fire will screen on each night of the annual Movies on the Square movie series, as a prelude to the main feature, beginning Friday nights in late summer. Anyone interested in the Media High filmmaking program can contact Nelda Hill at Lawson McGhee Library.


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