On June 6, 2004, the world woke up to learn that President Ronald Reagan died. On that same day, an unidentified young woman was found shot in a Los Angeles alley, but few people noticed. Ultimately, the police were able to identify this Jane Doe as Risa Bejarano, who was known to millions of Americans as the subject of our PBS documentary, AGING OUT, about teens leaving foster care.
We sent the homicide detective a copy of AGING OUT, because he thought that our film about Risa’s last year of life might help him solve this brutal crime. After Juan Chavez, was apprehended and charged with the murder, the District Attorney also requested a DVD. At first we were happy that our film could speak for Risa and give her a voice in the trial, but when the prosecutor decided to seek the death penalty, we became increasingly ambivalent. As filmmakers who knew and loved Risa Bejarano, we wanted her murderer to be severely punished, but we’ve always been morally opposed to the death penalty. Our misgivings about the use of our documentary were heightened by the prosecutor’s manipulation of the film in his closing argument. He reedited AGING OUT, using audio clips of Chavez bragging in jail over images of Risa’s happiest moments and achievements. He then ended his reedited version of AGING OUT with a crime scene photograph of Risa’s bloody body, leaving the jury with what they described as one of the most powerful and emotional moments of the trial.
Since the jury returned verdicts of life without parole for two other murders committed by Chavez and the death penalty only for the murder of Risa Bejarano, we felt compelled to explore the role that our film might have played in the jury’s verdict. Using the suspenseful trial of Juan Chavez as the narrative spine of the film, we added the voices of a few of the country’s leading death penalty experts.
In addition to the film-within-a-film phenomena, what distinguishes NO TOMORROW from other death penalty films is the fact that the defendant is not sympathetic and his guilt is not called into question. In essence, viewers are placed in the same position as the jury and are forced to assess the death penalty after being presented with a portrayal of the perpetrator as a monster and the victim as a model student who was admirably struggling to build a successful life. It’s easy to be against the death penalty when there is doubt about culpability, but we hope NO TOMORROW will persuade viewers to oppose the death penalty even in cases like the Chavez case – and the majority of capital murder cases – where the defendant is neither sympathetic nor plausibly innocent. Even if some viewers still feel that the death penalty is a legitimate human response to the most heinous crimes, we believe NO TOMORROW will convince them that it’s too imperfect, arbitrary, discriminatory, and costly to be a legitimate public policy.