“The Penalty” is a documentary exploring the impact of the death penalty in Ohio premiering at First Community Church on January 6. The screening is followed by a discussion with director Will Francome and attorney Allen Bohnert. Credit: Courtesy of Will Francome

Director Will Francome brings to light one of America’s most divisive issues in his latest documentary, “The Penalty,” which makes its Columbus debut this weekend.

The feature-length documentary uncovers the human costs of capital punishment by following the stories of three central characters affected by the death penalty in the course of four years, including an alumnus of the Moritz College of Law, Allen Bohnert.

“The Penalty” takes an in-depth look at stories that have dominated headlines in the United States, humanizing capital punishment by following Ohio’s botched execution of Dennis McGuire; the wrongful conviction of Damon Thibodeaux that led to 15 years on death row; and the family of Darlene Farah, whose daughter Shelby was brutally murdered in 2013.

The death penalty is not really serving [families],” Francome said. “We were always told that it’s for the families –– to give them closure. But we think that for most of them, it does exactly the opposite. It prolongs their grief, it prolongs their time in court [and] it prolongs their having to deal with it.”

Francome said the idea behind “The Penalty” grew out of his previous work “One For Ten,” a series of films that profiles 10 wrongly convicted people on death row. From that project, Francome knew there was a larger story to tell, one that focused on a different aspect of the issue.

There’s been many great films about someone who sits on death row, but we wanted to show that there was more than that, that it affected families, it affected the exonerees and the lawyers,” he said. “It was so much more than that sort of classic image of a person sitting behind the glass and waiting for their death.”

In the case of Allen Bohnert, assistant public defender for the Southern District of Ohio, his role began in 2014, two weeks before the execution of McGuire and the first-ever use of a lethal-injection method.

A screenshot from “The Penalty”, a documentary exploring the impact of the death penalty in Ohio premiering at First Community Church on January 6. Credit: Courtesy of Will Francome

Francome said Bohnert’s role wasn’t originally slated to be a driving story throughout the film, but after his client, McGuire, endured an unprecedented degree of suffering during his execution –– it took 26 minutes to pronounce him dead –– Bohnert immediately became a source to be followed. “It’s a story that could be any of my colleagues all across the country who do this kind of work, who represent unpopular clients [and] who do it to the best of our abilities,” Bohnert said. “There’s always a price to be paid for the work that we do because the work that we do is toxic.”

McGuire’s botched injection resulted in a 3 1/2-year hiatus of executions in Ohio, which ended in July 2017.  

As the execution of Ohioan Raymond Tibbetts approaches on Feb. 13, “The Penalty” is being screened throughout Columbus as a push for a favorable clemency decision for Tibbets and a way to encourage Gov. John Kasich to stop the execution.

“I just want [the audience] to really consider how the death penalty affects America and where it fits within society here,” Francome said. “I really didn’t want to make a film that preaches too hard one way or the other. I wanted it to be something that feels more balanced and allows people to come in and make their own decisions after they watch these few stories and consider how it’s affected the people within the film.”

Four screenings of “The Penalty” will take place in Columbus on Friday, Sunday and Monday including a showing at the Moritz College of Law’s Saxbe Auditorium at 9 a.m. Monday. Francome will hold a discussion after each screening and Bohnert will be present at Monday’s showing to answer questions from the audience. Admission to all screenings is free.