“On Death Row”

Werner Herzog ODR

In Werner Herzog’s TV documentary series “On Death Row”, American prisoners on death row are given the unique opportunity to tell their story to a broad TV audience. The Metro Kinokulturhaus showed episodes three and four of the first season as part of the Werner Herzog retrospective. I went to see these screenings and wrote a summary with subsequent personal opinion.

Episode 3

Joseph Garcia and George Rivas

Polunsky Unit is a state prison in Polk County in the US state of Texas. The 300 exclusively male prisoners await their execution on death row. Joseph Garcia and George Rivas are among those imprisoned in this institution.

They are both members of the notorious “Texas Seven,” a group of convicts who escaped from a high-security prison in Texas. It was the largest jailbreak and the second largest criminal manhunt in the history of the state of Texas.

Werner Herzog first asks George Rivas about his life story up to his “legendary” outbreak. According to Rivas, he was a specialist for “soft” robbery attacks – “soft” because he tried, with all possible means, not to harm anyone which he succeeded in doing until his escape from the high-security prison.

Joseph Garcia ended up in the same high-security prison because he had stabbed a man with a “butterfly” (a special folding knife). He still claims to have acted in self-defense. However, those who were active in the investigation of his case paint a very different picture, one which describes Garcia as a cold-blooded murderer. Garcia also tells Herzog about his life and speaks about the imminent execution by means of deadly injections.

George Rivas describes the escape and the subsequent getaway down to the last detail. The manner in which he relates the events makes him easily recognizable as the head and mastermind of the group.

Because he failed to follow an order issued to him, a police officer was killed – a result of using his gun in the first place. The above-mentioned principle, which Rivas had consistently lived up to until then, was broken, the result being the imposition of the death sentence.

The legal situation in Texas led to the death penalty being passed on all other members of the “Texas Seven”, whether or not they contributed to the death of the policeman, including Garcia, although he could credibly demonstrate that he was not even near the crime scene at the time the policeman was murdered.

George Rivas is fully aware of his deeds and has no hope that the death penalty will be lifted, he looks to his imminent execution with composure. The situation is quite different with Joseph Garcia. He hopes that his regularly recurring vision, in which he is presented with a birthday cake at the age of 99, becomes reality.

Episode 4

Hank Skinner

Hank Skinner was sentenced to death by fatal injections for three murders. He is also an inmate of the aforementioned Polunsky Unit. At the time of filming, Skinner had already spent 17 years on death row and should have been executed years ago, however fate has been gracious in his case.

Hank Skinner’s story is one of the more curious, since he has managed to have his case re-opened. He deliberately aimed to get on death row because at the time of his trial he had an attorney who wanted to see him condemned at any cost and therefore simply did not allow the admission of important evidence. Once on death row, Skinner hired a better lawyer and made sure that his case was re-examined. With success.

He gives Herzog a detailed account of the procedure on the actual day of execution, since he is one of very few who have experienced an “almost execution” and therefore he knows the individual steps very well. He talks about the special unit that transported him to the execution area in a special car from the Polunsky Unit to Huntsville (the Polunsky Unit does not have an execution room) and about the five hours that passed like minutes between the time of pick up and the actual execution.

And, of course, about the wonderful moment when his lawyer announced the good news of a postponement about an hour before the execution, followed by the unbearable 20 more minutes that passed until finally the governor confirmed the stopping of the execution by telephone. It is only the governor and the minister of justice who have the power to order this.

Change of scene. Werner Herzog meets a newspaper editor who published the murder story at the time. They travel together to the crime scene, and the editor reports the tragic events of those days in chronological order. Hank Skinner, according to the charges brought against him, killed his girlfriend with a blunt object to the point of being unrecognizable and stabbed her two handicapped children with a filleting knife. This, at least is the ruling to this day.

Skinner himself cannot remember having committed this act. According to the court doctor, he was so drunk on this day and at the same time under the influence of medication and drugs that he could not even stand upright. However, in this condition, he somehow managed to go to a female friend, to have an injury to his left hand tended to.

To this day, Hank Skinner waits for the test results of the evidence, which could finally be admitted and examined at the re-opening of the investigation. Apparently, this evidence could exonerate him and lead to another offender. There are DNA traces on the murder weapon that are not his.


Herzog’s series “On Death Row” is a unique journey to a place of pure despair – so nothing for the faint of heart.

The bleak nature of the visitors’ cell, the peeling, faded paint on the walls, and the madness (paired with hopelessness), staring out of the interviewees’ eyes, are anything but easy to digest, at least for me. Nevertheless, these pictures also have a certain fascination, which hypnotically intrigues me.

The background music is a perfect match for the images, underlines the alternating emotions between disgust and fascination. There are even moments when you really feel compassion with the person behind the glass. Especially in the case of Skinner. I did some research online, as Hank Skinner was waiting for the results of the investigation at the time of the shooting – that was 2012 – and I was very eager to find out what these results might be and what influence they might have on Skinner’s current situation.

I found out that this evidence mysteriously disappeared just before they could be investigated. Hank Skinner said in the interview that his first attorney had had an agreement with the prosecutor – to have him sentenced for these murders at any cost.

This is not a fictional story, this is real life, and nothing is more spectacular than real life.

I have watched five further episodes of this series since then. There will certainly be more to follow, and I now understand why Herzog enjoys cult status.

Rating: worth seeing!

Translation from German: Serena Nebo


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Werner Herzog ODR Werner Herzog ODR Alchetron CC BY-SA 3.0