In the footsteps of a dead man walking
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.
No clemency: A. J. Bannister’s funeral in A Death in the Family