Documentary on race, class and death penalty makes Oscar shortlist

A deeply personal short documentary that explores how race and class can affect the outcomes of death penalty cases is on the shortlist for an Oscar nomination.

Last Day of Freedom is one of 10 films that have made it to the final stage before final nominations are unveiled in January next year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced Monday.

The 27-minute animated documentary, directed by Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman, tells the story of a man who turned his brother into the police after he suspected he had killed an 78-year-old woman named Leah Schendel.

An all-white jury ultimately decided Manny Babbitt—who was black—would face the death penalty. He was put to death in 1999.

Watch the documentary in its entirety below.

Last Day of Freedom unravels Babbitt’s history and explores complex and systemic criminal justice issues using a reported 32,000 drawings.

Babbitt was a Vietnam veteran who fought at Khe Sanh, a 77-day battle recognized as one of the most brutal confrontations in the Vietnam War. Babbitt came back to the U.S. with PTSD and was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.

Two jurors who sentenced him to death later changed their minds. The trial lawyer later announced his defense was “inept.” And thousands of other veterans announced their support, including more than 600 other fellow Marines who endured the 1968 siege at Khe Sanh, according to a 1999 New York Times article.

“Mr. Babbitt, who was awarded the Purple Heart in a rare prison ceremony [in 1998], has become a rallying point for Vietnam veterans of all political stripes,” The Times reported. “They are convinced that Mr. Babbitt—who wrapped a leather strap around Ms. Schendel’s ankle, reminiscent of the way soldiers tagged the dead—attacked her in a flashback, a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder, which was caused by two tours of duty in the war.”

Reports from around the country have found people of color are more likely to be sentenced to death when the victim is white.

Babbitt’s court-appointed lawyer admitted in court papers that he ”failed completely in the death penalty phase” of the trial. The lawyer didn’t seek out dozens of potential witnesses willing to discuss his client’s mental condition to corroborate his psychiatric defense, The Times reported.

 

Bill Babbitt holds photos of his brother, executed killer Manny Babbitt, during a rally opposing the death penalty in California. Photo dated January 12, 2005.Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Bill Babbitt holds photos of his brother, executed killer Manny Babbitt, during a rally opposing the death penalty in California. Photo dated January 12, 2005.

Babbitt’s brother Bill reported him to the police with the hope Manny would finally receive mental health care. Instead his call to the police led to a public attorney.

“We wanted the story to be told from the perspective of someone who’s directly impacted,” co-director Hibbert-Jones told KQED, the San Francisco public broadcasting network that aired the documentary on Sunday.

Hibbert-Jones said it was important to her “to show you a perspective that you don’t usually hear, and you don’t usually see, that allows the viewer to walk in Bill’s shoes,” she said, referring to Babbitt’s brother who made the call to police to report him.

Manny Babbitt died by lethal injection on May 4, 1999, one day after his 50th birthday. He chose not to have a “last meal” and asked prison officials to donate the $50 allotted for his last meal to homeless Vietnam veterans, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

If Last Day of Freedom makes the final list of nominees it will be announced at the Oscar ceremony to some 37 million viewers. They’ll momentarily learn about Manny Babbitt’s story and a criminal justice system that didn’t seriously consider the mental health issues he developed after fighting in the Vietnam War.

The 88th Oscars ceremony will be held on Feb. 28, 2016.