“Fourteen Days In May” — Justice’s Senseless Backstop That Can Never Play Fair
Don Cabana, warden at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in 1987 when death row inmate Edward Earl Johnson was placed in the gas chamber, is asked about the man’s possible innocence. You hear him mutter some words about justice being done, that he has trust in the system that puts convicted criminals on death row. But his face, his mannerisms, the oddly dispassionate way he articulates his answer, tells a different story.
Indeed, as the interview takes places while he is driving, his eyes, behind big round spectacles, staying transfixed on the road ahead, you sense him wanting to evade the journalist’s gaze. If he doesn’t look, he doesn’t have to believe what his mouth is saying. For this man knows his inmate, the prisoner he would strap to a chair and poison only a few days later, was wrongly convicted. The system had failed them both. Johnson would pay the ultimate price while Cabana would carry that guilt for the rest of his life.
Cabana is speaking to producer/director Paul Hamann for the feature documentary, Fourteen Days in May. The 90-minute film, which features unprecedented access to Edward Earl Johnson in the two weeks leading up to his execution, was made for BBC television and broadcast in the late 1980s. Amongst its many admirers in the years since, acclaimed documentary maker Louis Theroux names it as one of his key career influences. It’s tough to watch but essential viewing.
In no way sensationalised, its depiction of a death row inmate’s final two weeks reveals a meticulously orchestrated system that’s in place to kill. A chilling account of industrialised death. At the centre of it all is the mild-mannered, polite and quietly spoken Edward Earl Johnson, a young man incarcerated for seven years for a murder he says he did not commit, counting down the days praying for a stay of execution.
Edward was convicted of murdering Marshall J. T. Trest and assaulting an elderly woman named Sallie Franklin. On the morning after the murder, the sheriff had paraded many of the local black male youth in front of Franklin who said Edward was not the one who assaulted her. The main evidence used to convict Edward was a confession, seemingly attained under duress, when two white police officers took him out into secluded woodland and allegedly recorded his confession on tape. Only the written version would be seen in court. Edward attests he was so sacred he was going to be killed, he said whatever the white officers wanted him to say.
Hamann’s mostly restrained focus — apart from a noteworthy moment when he breaks the fourth wall — looks at both warden Cabana’s clinical process and Johnson’s prison existence, living with the unimaginable knowledge of his life’s end date.
Busily, Cabana goes about his duties — the bureaucracy involved in an execution, the ironic appearance of health and safety protocol, eerie practice runs, his heartfelt if somewhat ludicrous plea to staff to ensure the prisoner and his family have respect and dignity. Meanwhile Johnson, comparatively, experiences an extraordinary sense of, on the surface at least, serenity.
Perhaps most macabre isn’t the sight of a rabbit enduring the gas chamber’s toxic miasma, its caged panic reflected in a manic if pointless charge for the escape route, but the sun-kissed wide shots of white men on horseback forcing a group of largely black men into hard labour by the roadside. In this racially-charged example of failed justice, it is this image that lingers. It’s a contemporary portrait of American society that echoes a slave era past. A similar parallel can be drawn from the archaic practice of serving the death penalty to convicted criminals. As it persists, there will always be a sense that justice in certain American states has a futile, senseless backstop that can never play fair.
It puts warden Cabana’s appeal to staff to uphold Edward Earl Johnson’s dignity, the charitable last meals and extended time with close family, into brutal context. What is all this posturing if not some kind of perverse window dressing. It’s hardly benevolent if it’s a pretext for destruction. You’re left with an unshakable conviction. Had all the time and effort put into preparing for, and carrying out, the process of killing a potentially innocent man been transferred to his court case, life might have prevailed over death.
As it is, the valiant efforts of Edward’s lawyer Clive Stafford Smith are in vain, his appeals for a stay of execution dismissed with the same sense of contempt as the police officer who told Edward’s alibi “Big Mary” to “go home and mind your own business” when she came forward saying she was with him at the time of the murder, therefore he couldn’t have done it.
Originally published on Top 10 Films.