The Real Impact Of Pop Culture Portrayals Of The Death Penalty

Colin Miller, a professor at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago who’s been kind enough to riff off some of my Pop Culture and the Death Penalty Project posts, points out something fascinating: if you’ve been impacted by a movie about the death penalty, you can get kicked off a jury:

In Blackmon v. State, 7 So.3d 397 (Ala.Crim.App. 2005), during death-qualification, two juror were struck because they indicated that The Green Mile had an impact on how they view the death penalty. Fictional films might distort factual reality. They might distort legal reality. They might simplify complex issues. But they matter…Based upon the work of the Innocence Project, most people know that many convictions are houses of cards built on faulty eyewitness identifications and coerced confessions. And while many might not be aware of the current public defender crisis, surely it has seeped into the public consciousness that impoverished young defendants with neophyte lawyers are receiving something less than the Platonic ideal of representation. A juror is death-qualified when he is willing to impose the death penalty. But is that juror qualified to deal with the consequences of his decision to impose death? What if a witness for the prosecution recants his testimony? What if an alibi witness appears? What if DNA evidence points to another suspect? What if this evidence comes after the execution? Is the juror qualified to deal with his choice to impose death? Is anyone qualified?

If there’s anyone in the audience who’s worked a death penalty case, on either side, I’d be curious to hear if it’s come up. But it’s a reminder of something important. A lot of our conversations about pop culture presume that it’s either not very good at making a definitive case for issues, or that it gets bogged down when it goes too didactic. It’s worth remembering that pop culture can play a useful role in complicating issues rather than simply clarifying it. Casting doubt on accepted wisdom is at least as important a as writing party platforms.