St. Louis native co-produces documentary looking at death penalty ‘In the Executioner’s Shadow’

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Rick Stack co-produced the documentary “In the Executioner’s Shadow.”

Bill Motchan , Special to the Jewish Light

Missouri gained national attention Jan. 3 when Amber McLaughlin became the first transgender woman executed in the United States. In early February, another execution is scheduled in Missouri, one of 29 states with the death penalty. Rick Stack, a Jewish St. Louis native, is committed to abolishing capital punishment. He co-produced a documentary on the subject, “In the Executioner’s Shadow,” that will air at 10 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 17, on KETC-TV (Channel 9 PBS).

The Jewish Light recently spoke with Stack, 70, to get a preview of the upcoming showing of his documentary.

When did you first take an interest in advocacy against capital punishment?

After graduating from law school at UMKC (University of Missouri-Kansas City), I worked in the public defender’s office in Jackson County, Missouri, and I saw mistakes made large and small every day in the criminal justice system. And it brought home to me, how can we take life based on such a flawed system?

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How did “In the Executioner’s Shadow” come about?

My collaborator was Maggie Burnette Stogner, an award-winning filmmaker. She heard me give a book talk on “Grave Injustice,” one of two books I’ve written on the subject (the other is “Dead Wrong”). She came up to me and said, “Your research and your work is the stuff of documentaries. Do you want to collaborate?” And in a heartbeat, we had a partnership.

Have there been unexpected reactions from audiences who have seen the documentary?

One gentleman at a town hall meeting in Oregon sat quietly through the question-and-answer session afterward. He stood up and said, “I came here tonight very much pro-death penalty.” Then he added: “My brother was recently murdered, and my family is still in great pain, but after seeing this documentary, now I’m conflicted.”

Elyse Max, co-director of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, calls the climate in the state “a killing spree” and said your documentary is important because it gets up close with people affected by the death penalty who aren’t the victims. How did you create that tone?

Our title character (a former executioner), this poor soul is doing the dirty work for all of us. So we all live in his shadow. That sets it in context, whether you’re pro-death penalty or anti-death penalty.

During production, you had a chance to meet with Sister Helen Prejean (author of the bestseller “Dead Man Walking”). What did you learn from her?

She’s one of my heroes. It was like interviewing (retired Cardinals slugger) Albert Pujols. I asked her about her greatest takeaway from the filming of her book. She said Tim Robbins, who wrote the screenplay, taught her the difference between art and propaganda. Propaganda tells the audience what to think, hits them over the head. Art asks the right questions.

All of the major Jewish denominations oppose how the death penalty is carried out in the United States. Can you talk about Jewish values and your work?

It’s at the core of my values. My favorite rabbi, Yitzhak Hankin, who is also my cousin, is retired now but served in a congregation in Eugene, Oregon. He gave me a wonderful perspective on Jewish faith and the death penalty. He said the death penalty just creates more victims, more mourners and that it would be much more humane if we looked at the punishment from a civil perspective rather than a criminal perspective.

How do you decompress after working on a very sobering, often grim subject?

I try to live a good life, helping other people. I’ve got a wonderful family. I’ve a got a beautiful wife, two adult children, and I’m rich with friends and friendship. I play ping pong, and I’m still playing softball.

Last year, you were inducted into the University City High School Hall of Fame. What was that experience like?

It was a thrill and really gratifying. When I met the other inductees, I thought, “Whoa, these people have made really wonderful contributions to society.” At the end of my remarks, I refuted the words of one of my favorite philosophers, Groucho Marx, who once said “I wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would have me as a member.” The U. City Hall of Fame is a group that I’m very proud to be a part of.

Rick Stack’s next book will be a comparative study of how different religions, ethnicities and cultures comfort their mourners.