State-sanctioned executions in America have recently returned to the forefront of the country’s collective consciousness. With the execution of Crips gang cofounder and reformed anti-gang activist Stanley “Tookie” Williams and the execution of disabled 76-year-old Clarence Ray Allen in California in recent months, the debate over capital punishment and the Eighth Amendment provision against “cruel and unusual punishment” has once again garnered the spotlight.
A 1999 documentary directed by Errol Morris (“The Fog of War”) called “Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.” powerfully depicts the bizarre story of a self-proclaimed execution equipment entrepreneur. Morris allows Leuchter to tell his own story, following him on a trip across America inspecting state prison execution equipment. Eventually Leuchter and the film crew embark on a surreal journey to Auschwitz, in Poland, where Leuchter ultimately becomes absorbed in his own delusions. He was discredited during the trial of German revisionist-historian Ernst Zundel due to his embarrassing lack of credentials. In his testimony, under the auspices of scientific inquiry, he denied the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz.
At the time the film was made, Leuchter was involved in the “manufacture of execution equipment,” which took him from electric chairs to lethal injection machines to gas chambers to gallows, without any formal education or training. “I came into the field from a backdoor standpoint because I was concerned about the humanitarian aspects of death by torture,” Leuchter notes when discussing his profession.
Leuchter’s involvement in executions was spurred by his concern “with the deplorable conditions of the hardware that’s in most of the states’ prisons.” After allegedly being asked by the state of Tennessee, which denies ever contacting him, to inspect their electric chair, Leuchter’s extraordinary career in the operation of executions in the U.S. followed an unexpected and off-the-wall path. It began, according to Leuchter, when New Jersey granted him a contract to design and build a lethal injection machine that would spare human involvement in the process of killing inmates.
“Now, what lethal injection has to do with electrocution is beyond me. Simply because I’m capable of building an electric chair doesn’t mean I’m capable of building a lethal injection machine. They’re two totally different concepts,” Leuchter says. “The reasoning here is that I built helmets for electric chairs, so now I can build lethal injection machines. I now build the lethal injection machines so I’m competent to build the gallows, and since I’m building gallows, I’m also competent to work on gas chambers because I’ve done all the other three.”
As Leuchter explains this progression, he stands on the scaffold of the Illinois gallows, gingerly holding a sandbag tied to a rope that he will drop through the mechanical trapdoor, in order to “test the machinery.”
The pace of the film, along with the cinematography and the director’s ability to capture and crucially define Leuchter through his own admissions to the camera, emphasize the weight and morbidity of Leuchter’s chosen profession, which is juxtaposed with Leuchter’s unceremonious and matter-of-fact manner of discussing his work. Leuchter, a squirrelly man with yellow teeth and thick, black-rimmed glasses, remains, through the course of the film, nonchalant about his involvement in the execution of human beings. His wife, Caroline Leuchter, explains, “It wasn’t that he killed people – he just made things that killed people.”
Leuchter maintains throughout the film that he is involved in manufacturing execution equipment for humanitarian reasons. “I am a proponent of capital punishment, not capital torture.”
As the film progresses, these statements become hypocritical. He visits Auschwitz and blithely chips plaster off the walls of gas chambers where some 500,000 people were executed. The director increasingly takes on a larger role, intervening to express his disbelief at Leuchter’s disposition, which he depicts through the footage of Leuchter rummaging around inconsequentially in what Morris describes as hallowed ground. It is interesting to glean the two different reactions of Morris and Leuchter, and the contrast serves to vividly express the rate of Leuchter’s delusions, which go from mildly creepy to completely crazy.
“Mr. Death” is a compelling documentary that offers insight into the human psyche, the penal system in America, and the nature of the Holocaust, reaching through time and space to discover those haunted places where the truth is ambiguous and there is no black and white.