Updated: Mar 19
Amicus will be publishing a series of reviews and comments on the way capital punishment is presented within the media. Covering books, films, peer-reviewed articles and mainstream news, our work will cover the whole spectrum of public exposure to this violent form of justice. We hope that this will provide some context to the work that we do and raise awareness of the inherent injustices that face ordinary people on death row as well as recommending some good books and films along the way. If you have any questions about the project, the content or about our work then please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Fear of 13 ((The Fear of 13. (2015). [Online]. Directed by David Sington. England: Dox Productions Ltd [Viewed 23rd February 2021]. Available from Netflix)) - Review by Emily Edwards
“True storytelling is the telling of life,” says former Death Row inmate Nick Yarris in the documentary The Fear of 13. Yarris is a compelling speaker: expressive, authoritative, and convincing. His skill for storytelling and his flair from drama are perfect for director David Sington, as The Fear of 13 is based entirely on the subject’s testimony. The film essentially offers a 90-minute monologue in which the former Death Row inmate recounts his 23-year experience in prison for a murder he did not commit.
Yarris’s story offers a sobering account of a troubled man. He talks directly to the camera about his life of petty crime (mostly auto related thefts) and substance abuse that led to a string of run-ins with the law. His narrative sets the mood by explaining the eerie silence of the Pennsylvania prison, which he describes as being developed by Quakers who created confined cells that deprived inmates of sound and sunlight. Yarris explains that the prison’s “no speaking rule” offers the deadliest effect on inmates, as it heightens isolation and leaves every prisoner alone with their thoughts. The years of incarceration and isolation have taken their toll on Yarris, as he delivers his narrative with markers of paranoia.
When the monologue reaches the murder for which Yarris was wrongfully convicted, the film’s narrator makes some surprising omissions in his tale. Few, if any, details of Yarris’s defense appear in his story. His testimony tells more about a trial that preceded the murder case and he explains how he was acquitted of a string of charges while the murder trial loomed. The absence of information pertaining to Yarris’s trial is curious, especially since the DNA evidence becomes crucial to his exoneration.
The subject approaches the story of his conviction for the 1981 rape and murder of Linda Craig in a roundabout way. Yarris starts his tale with a tangential account about an escape from his guards during a routine transfer. He talks about running away during one cold night and evading the police by stealing a car and other peoples’ belongings, which he pawned for quick cash. The story doesn’t invite the audience to like Yarris; rather, he boldly frames the narrative by sounding like a career criminal who doesn’t stand accountable for his actions. This first impression comes in hand as the film progresses and The Fear of 13 asks the viewer if a person like this can find redemption.
The film finds its most powerful episode in the section of Yarris’s monologue that explains the point at which he lost all hope in the case. He recalls submitting a request to cease all appeals and expedite his execution. This chapter of The Fear of 13 chillingly and effectively conveys the hopelessness and despair of Yarris’s experience in isolation. However, Yarris’s account never sounds like a response to a question, and one never hears the filmmaker pose a query or interject. The dramatic delivery of the story also comes a decade after Yarris’s exoneration, so one senses that the subject has reframed and reshaped memories by reliving this trauma repeatedly in his mind. The choice to give the subject full reign of the story feels intermittently manipulative as gaps in the narrative go unquestioned.
Yarris is a born storyteller and his narrative hits every emotional tenor about the hell one endures in isolation—doubly so when one serves for a wrongful conviction. The film doesn’t make a direct case against the death penalty or confinement, nor does it preach about a broken legal system, but it doesn’t need to do so because it lets a victim relate the experience in his own words.
Key Quote: It's a strange phenomenon when you felt good for their leaving because you knew all along you had stole a lot of their life away"