No Tomorrow

Early on the morning of June 6, 2004, Los Angeles police received a call about gun shots at the corner of Garfield Place and Rawlings Avenue.   Responding to the call, they discovered the bullet-ridden body of a young woman, shot 13 times at point blank range.

At first, police suspected the victim was a Jane Doe, but she was soon identified as 18-year-old college student Risa Bejarano, Before her violent end, her story represented a rare, if tenuous, triumph over extreme adversity.  After an impossibly difficult childhood marked by abuse and neglect, Bejarano had landed in a supportive foster home, graduated high school with a 3.5 average, and was attending UC Santa Barbara on a scholarship. Though she still battled demons—including a meth habit that had developed when she worked nights in high school—Bejarano was determined to make a life for herself. 
Compounding the tragedy of Bejarano’s death was the fact that she knew her murderer, Juan Chavez, an 18-year-old gang member with whom she had become romantically involved. Bejarano was the only person able to connect Chavez to another double murder he’d committed, so he decided to eliminate her, too. 

No Tomorrow, which debuts on PBS this weekend, follows Chavez’s capital murder trial, which was unique in at least one notable way: Bejarano had been the principle subject of a feature length documentary film.  Directed by Vanessa Roth and Roger Weisberg, the PBS film chronicled the struggles of teenagers leaving the foster care system. Prosecutors, eager to secure not just a guilty verdict but a death sentence for Chavez, instantly seize upon Aging Out—what better way to humanize a victim than with an entire documentary film? Though initially supportive, Roth and Weisberg grow uncomfortable with the idea that their documentary might be used to condemn another young person to death—particularly someone who, like Bejarano, had come up through the foster care system.

No Tomorrow is a follow-up to and, in some ways, also a retelling of Aging Out. Scenes from the original film are played, but the context is radically different: they’re now being used to build a case against Chavez, to highlight Bejarano’s nobility in contrast to Chavez’s cruelty. Weisberg and Roth also enlist a number of criminal justice experts, lawyers, and activists to weigh in on the subject of the death penalty U.S.—and, in particular, the process by which capital sentences are decided upon. Weisberg and Roth interview six of the original jurors on the Chavez case, each of whom articulately and compassionately explains their final verdict. Indeed, perhaps the only comforting aspect of this film is that the jurors seem like decent, humane and intelligent people.

It’s an uncomfortable task to criticize a project as earnest and well-meaning as No Tomorrow, but for a film about one of the greatest debates of our age, the film feels oddly listless. It's dutiful rather than urgent, academic rather than passionate.  No Tomorrow may even prove tedious to those who care passionately about the death penalty. All the familiar arguments both for and against the practice—it’s a deterrent; it’s an inefficient way to spend taxpayer dollars; it disproportionately affects the poor and people of color--are diligently presented, analyzed and assessed.

Perhaps in an attempt to be even-handed, Weisberg and Roth have created a documentary that, all too often, feels like a high school debate: Expert A makes an argument in favor of the death penalty; Expert B critiques this particular argument; repeat.  This plodding rhythm quickly grows tiresome, especially given the film’s inordinate 90-minute length. It’s especially taxing if you’re someone who’s already familiar with the issues at hand, and the arguments made by both sides in the debate.  It also doesn’t help that several of the interview subjects mechanically spout fixed talking points.

There are, at least, a few colorful subjects among the wonks. NYU Law Professor Robert Blecker spouts a few lines that might make Donald Rumsfeld blush (example: “The answer to the question why we’re the only Western democracy with the death penalty is because we’re the only Western democracy that’s acting like a Western democracy.”) And there’s lawyer Aundre Herron, has the line of the night when, discussing the socio-economic factors that contribute to crime, “People are groomed for death row like the Kennedys are groomed for Congress.”

All too often, though, No Tomorrow is unnecessarily dry and didactic. There’s more at stake here than our titillation, but there’s also no reason a subject so vital and, yes, so dramatic should be presented so dispassionately.

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