Oriana Zill de Granados is the Productions Director at the Center for Investigative Reporting. She is an investigative journalist and documentary filmmaker with more than 15 years of experience with network, public, and cable television. Since joining CIR she has developed and managed documentaries for PBS Frontline, ABC News Peter Jennings Reporting, CNN Presents, and ITVS Independent Lens. She was a producer and writer on the Frontline series "Drug Wars," which received the national Peabody award and an Emmy award, and Frontline's "The Enemy Within," about America's response to the threat of homegrown terrorism. She spoke to EXPOSÉ via phone about producing "Death is Different."
EXPOSÉ: How did you get involved with this particular story about death penalty attorneys and Stephen Henderson's reporting on them?
Zill de Granados
: At the Center for Investigative Reporting we collaborate with the producers at EXPOSÉ in helping to select which investigations are going to be featured on the program for the year, and we helped this year in deciding on various shows. One of the shows that had been selected was Stephen Henderson's piece. [His] piece highlights how difficult it is for death penalty defense in some states around the country, and how death penalty defense is really not being funded equally in various states -- which means that if you're on death row in Texas, you're probably going to get a state-funded lawyer who's going to run your case, where if you're on death row in Mississippi, you're going to get a county lawyer/public defender who doesn't really have the resources that are necessary to do an adequate defense according to the standards that have been laid out by the Supreme Court. And we thought that piece was a really important piece, a really interesting piece and really of national importance, and that's how we decided to select it.
What appealed to you particularly as a producer, to produce this piece?
My history in investigative reporting has generally been focusing on criminal justice issues. One of the biggest projects I ever did was a 3-year investigation about the war on drugs [Frontline: Drug Wars
] where my job was really to focus on the criminal justice aspects of it and both the federal and local prosecutions in the war on drugs and whether they had been effective. I sort of made a career out of looking at the criminal justice system, and the federal involvement in that. A lot of the stories I've worked on have had to do with federal prosecutors and whether they are doing their job correctly. Last year I did a documentary for Frontline [The Enemy Within
] about whether federal prosecutors were prosecuting the war on terror in a just and adequate fashion and what those prosecutions looked like, and we focused in on one particular prosecution of an alleged terrorist.
Could you talk about the process of getting to know your subjects, particularly Stephen Henderson?
Stephen is an incredible character, a really wonderful person, a very interesting journalist who has had a lot of different, varied experiences around the country. So he was really a joy to work with. Luckily I didn't find it difficult to get along with him and work with him. He's a very easygoing person, which is not always true. When you're filming people, in general, I find many, many people are not comfortable with the camera, they tend to change their personality when they're on camera and it becomes a difficult process to get them to relax and also to get them to just be themselves, to be open. In this kind of documentary, we are really trying to capture the action and the feeling of what it was like to do these stories, so they're a lot of different issues that are involved with that. You have to get the journalist to be themselves. Basically try to help you visualize the things that happened to them while they were doing the piece, and we always try to focus not only on the serious aspects of the piece, but also the more, lighter aspects, the fun parts. But also we try to focus on what happened behind the scenes to make this story different from other stories. So all of those elements you're trying to juggle at once and it is a little complicated, particularly with this story because Stephen actually traveled around the country to do this story. So we had to decide with a limited amount of days that we could film, where we were going to go, and there were a lot of places we needed to go, so the filming was quite a marathon. We were all exhausted when it was over.
Could you talk a little bit more about Stephen Henderson, his background, what impressed you about him?
[Stephen's] whole career has been devoted to what I would call "public service journalism" -- really trying to educate people about the problems in our society and what can be done to fix them. He's now an editorial writer at the Detroit Free Press and he went back there from his job covering the Supreme Court in Washington because he grew up in Detroit, and Detroit is what being called, sort of a 'failed city.' It's having a lot of problems, as are many large cities in the U.S. He really felt that he should go home and he should help his city. And I think that everything he's done in his life has been to follow this public service journalism model.
What are the particular challenges/rewards to doing EXPOSÉ-style documentary filmmaking?
It's funny, but I generally take on a project in the same way each time, which is really trying to gather a combination of both the investigative material, which tends to be the more dry and more sort of fact-based material, and a combination of that with action and moving and people walking and living their lives and doing things, and I always try to balance that in the pieces that I do. It's very difficult, it's actually one of the hardest parts about editing investigative work, is to balance the fact-based information that you are trying to portray, you're trying to give to the audience, plus the more entertaining, character-driven narrative, and I always try to gather quite a bit of both, and then balance it, and I actually found the EXPOSÉ process to be very satisfying. I think a half an hour is actually a very good length, and it allows you to do both pretty nicely. I found it to be a very good, very satisfying process.
What appealed to you about this particular story?
As I think most people, I always try to put myself in the position of the audience. And I think most people probably have a working knowledge of death penalty and may be aware that there are some problems. Especially in recent years there has been quite a bit of news about people being taken off death row because of DNA evidence, etc. but I did not really understand the process and the way it works, and I kinda knew that everybody has the right to a defense attorney. But I really didn't understand the way it works, and so I was really blown away to find, to learn about how unequal the process is in various States across the nation and how kind of essential it is that people do get a very, very good, well thought out, well planned out defense, when they're on death row. Not only because of the various prosecutorial issues that have come up in recent years, but also because there is numerous, numerous cases in the Supreme Court that has demanded that this be so . . .
I think that this EXPOSÉ piece, I hope it really helps to educate people about the death penalty and how it is actually conducted. I think it is very important that people be aware, that if we are going to decide to take people's lives, that it's being done in the right way and I think, I hope, I'm hopeful that both Stephen's story and our story about Stephen's story will help to get the word out.
I was also really, really impressed with the devotion of some of the defense lawyers in these cases. They were probably some of the most inspiring young people I've ever meet in my life. I hope people understand that there are people out there really giving their lives to do good for society, and I think that's an incredible discovery.
Photo: Courtesy of Oriana Zill de Granados/CIR