In the foot­steps of a dead man walk­ing

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Tv -

WHEN Bri­tish di­rec­tor Stephen Tromb­ley set out in 1992 to make The Ex­e­cu­tion Pro­to­col, a doc­u­men­tary about Mis­souri’s use of a ma­chine- con­trolled lethal in­jec­tion sys­tem for cap­i­tal pu­n­ish­ment, Alan Ban­nis­ter had al­ready spent nine years on death row.

Three years later, Tromb­ley was back to make Rais­ing Hell: The Life of A. J. Ban­nis­ter, a 90- minute fea­ture that mounted an ap­par­ently com­pelling ar­gu­ment that Ban­nis­ter — who never de­nied shoot­ing Dar­rell Ruest­man in 1982 — had done so dur­ing an ar­gu­ment and not, as po­lice al­leged, as a paid as­sas­sin.

Al­though Tromb­ley pre­sented new ev­i­dence to the state gov­er­nor and the US Supreme Court days be­fore the sched­uled time of ex­e­cu­tion, 12.01am, De­cem­ber 7, 1994, Ban­nis­ter’s mother Alice had said her farewells and was pre­par­ing to wit­ness her son’s death when word came that the Supreme Court had voted to stay the ex­e­cu­tion.

The six- three vote gave hopes of a re­trial, but th­ese were soon dashed and in Oc­to­ber 1997 Tromb­ley and his team were back at the Po­tosi Cor­rec­tional Cen­tre hop­ing for yet an­other re­prieve ahead of Ban­nis­ter’s sec­ond sched­uled ex­e­cu­tion on Oc­to­ber 23.

De­spite the enor­mous pub­lic at­ten­tion and sup­port gen­er­ated by Tromb­ley’s films and le­gal opin­ion that Ban­nis­ter had not been given a fair trial, on this oc­ca­sion the gov­er­nor would not be de­nied.

This is the un­set­tling story of Ban­nis­ter’s ex­e­cu­tion as seen by his fam­ily, state- ap­pointed pub­lic wit­nesses ( ap­par­ently in Mis­souri you can ap­ply to view an ex­e­cu­tion) and the vic­tim’s brother, Rod­ney Ruest­man, an Illi­nois po­lice­man who had con­tacted Mis­souri au­thor­i­ties to sug­gest his brother had been the vic­tim of a con­tract killing, a crime that car­ried the death penalty rather than the ex­pected charge of sec­ond­de­gree mur­der.

The viewer has to work hard to vi­su­alise th­ese de­tails as A Death in the Fam­ily makes lit­tle ref­er­ence to Ban­nis­ter’s 15 years on death row, in­stead tak­ing up the story just one day be­fore the ex­e­cu­tion.

Again, there was hope. In­ves­ti­gat­ing of­fi­cer Mar­shall Matthews broke the po­lice code to de­clare there was no ev­i­dence to sup­port the sher­iff’s claim that Ban­nis­ter had con­fessed to be­ing an as­sas­sin.

Strapped to a gur­ney in the prison’s hospi­tal wing, Ban­nis­ter mouthed ‘‘ I love you’’ to his wife as the lethal drug en­tered his sys­tem. He was de­clared dead at 12.05am.

The long jour­ney home to the fam­ily farm and ceme­tery in a small Illi­nois com­mu­nity is cap­tured in un­bear­ably sad black- and- white pho­to­graphs.

A year on, the pain has not eased as Ban­nis­ter’s fam­ily and friends re­con­vene for a memo­rial ser­vice and again face the cam­eras. None of them can make any sense of how his death rep­re­sented jus­tice.

Karen Dearne

No clemency: A. J. Ban­nis­ter’s fu­neral in A Death in the Fam­ily

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