Inside Thirteen recently spoke with Roger Weisberg, producer and director of No Tomorrow, which takes a look at the tragic murder of Risa Bejarano, a principal subject of the recent PBS film Aging Out, and the chilling death penalty trial that followed.
Here, Weisberg discusses what compelled him to make the film and explains how his experience with the trial informed his own opinion of the death penalty.
No Tomorrow airs Monday, March 21 at 9 p.m. on THIRTEEN.
For more about the film, including background information, discussion questions, and other resources, check out the No Tomorrow Viewer’s Guide.
Inside Thirteen: Why did you feel the need to make this film?
Roger Weisberg: About five years ago, PBS broadcast our previous documentary, Aging Out, about teenagers who have to fend for themselves after leaving the foster care system. One of the principle subjects of that film was Risa Bejarano. Less than a year after the film was completed, she was brutally murdered, and our film about Risa’s transition out of the foster care system ended up documenting her last year of life. This documentary initially fell into the hands of the homicide detectives investigating the case, and then into the hands of the district attorney. When the D.A. opted to pursue the death penalty for Risa’s killer, he decided to use our film in order to heighten sympathy for the victim, Risa Bejarano, and hatred for the defendant. All of a sudden we discovered that our work was being used for a purpose for which we had never intended, and we felt compelled to make a follow-up film about this chilling death penalty case and the role that our film played in the trial.
IT: In the film it is mentioned that the prosecution edited Aging Out to heighten its impact on the jury. To what extent did you feel the material was manipulated?
RW: The district attorney initially showed the entire film about Risa’s transition from the foster care system to living on her own. Then, in his closing argument, he re-edited a small portion of the video in order to highlight the happiest moments in Risa’s life – attending her senior prom, participating in her high school graduation, heading off to college with several scholarships. These uplifting moments were put into a montage, and then the D.A. edited statements that he was able to surreptitiously capture from the defendant in jail where he was bragging about being a killer. The juxtaposition of these comments by the defendant with our imagery of Risa’s accomplishments had a powerful effect on the jurors. The last image the jurors were left with after he showed this montage was Risa’s bloody body at the crime scene. We knew that he intended to use our film in the penalty phase of the trial, but we were surprised to learn that he took the liberty of re-editing the film to heighten its impact.
IT: It’s said in the film that there is value to the potential and the message of death row, and Risa’s foster mother says at one point in the film that “if there was more of the death penalty, there wouldn’t be as much crime.” Yet, Juan Chavez does not seem daunted by receiving the death penalty; he almost expects it. What are your thoughts on this – would some other punishment have been more effective for troubled youths like Chavez?
RW: There is a huge debate over whether the death penalty is a deterrent, and that’s what Risa’s foster mother Dolores was hinting at when she suggested that if the death penalty was more broadly applied, there would be less crime. There really is no conclusive proof whatsoever that the death penalty in fact is a deterrent or that young people like Juan Chavez are even aware of the death penalty.
In terms of alternatives, there are two – the preferable alternative is to be able to reach troubled youths at the first sign that they are going off the rails. Juan Chavez, much like Risa Bejarano, grew up in an abusive home, suffered from neglect and sexual molestation; and was surrounded by street gangs, which became the only family that embraced him. If the juvenile justice system, the mental health system, the educational system, or even the Church was able to reach this young man before his behavior became so pathological, there’s no doubt that there would have been an opportunity to turn him around before he committed this horrible act. Given that that didn’t happen, the alternative to the death penalty that many states have is the imposition of a penalty of life without parole. That’s a way of punishing somebody, arguably more severely than putting them to death – having to spend the rest of their life incarcerated with no possibility of parole. It protects the community forever, and it satisfies the hunger of the public for retribution for these heinous crimes. So, we do have an alternative to the death penalty that is effective and is vastly less expensive. It’s kind of counterintuitive, but imposing a sentence of life without parole costs taxpayers significantly less than the death penalty.
IT: Having worked with Risa on Aging Out, do you think she would have been at ease with the outcome of the trial?
RW: Risa was someone who believed in second chances. She was someone who herself was given a second chance. The people who knew Risa best, her closest friends, tell us that she never would have supported the death penalty. Risa’s siblings were all in gangs and caught up in this lifestyle that’s sadly too common in many poor neighborhoods of Los Angeles, and she understood that this environment often leads to violent crime.
IT: Did making this film change your thoughts on capital punishment and the death penalty?
RW: To be honest, I initially was opposed to the death penalty on pure moral grounds, but when Risa was murdered and we dove into this story, I really understood in a new way the impulse to want to punish the perpetrator of this kind of crime in the most severe way possible. I was sympathetic with people who, like Risa’s foster mom, favored the death penalty because she wanted this young man pay for his crime. Even though I learned to recognize that that’s a very legitimate human response, the more I learned about the administration of the death penalty, the more I became convinced that it is not a legitimate public policy. The way it is administered is just too inaccurate. There have been so many men and women on death row who have been exonerated. It’s too costly, it’s too discriminatory, and it doesn’t deter. For all of those reasons, my initial moral aversion to the death penalty was reinforced by what I learned about the way the death penalty is applied in this country.
IT: How big of a role do you think choice played in the case of Juan Chavez’s life vs. Risa Bejarano’s life? Is it a question of nature vs. nurture?
RW: A lot of people looking at Risa and Juan Chavez compare the two and argue that Risa grew up in these horrible circumstances but she made choices to improve her life. Meanwhile, Juan Chavez grew up in equally horrible circumstances, surrounded by abuse and neglect, and made choices that put him squarely down a destructive, murderous path. I have to question whether Chavez really did have choices. As one of the experts said, he didn’t choose to be abandoned by his father, he didn’t choose to be abused by his mother, he didn’t choose to go on the streets to find the only family that would accept him. He didn’t choose to be born with mental health problems. I think to say that Chavez acted on pure free will and therefore is fully responsible for his actions is an oversimplification that does not take into account the role that his troubled upbringing played in his life. None of this background excuses his heinous behavior. I do think that people like Juan Chavez deserve to be severely punished, and the community definitely deserves to be protected from them, but I don’t think that as a society, we deserve to kill him.
IT: What message do you hope viewers will take from this film?
RW: It probably was summed up best by the comment of Bryan Stevenson, who got the last word in the film. He said that the question is not: does Juan Chavez deserve to die for what he did? – the real question is do we deserve to kill? So, I think that if you had to boil it down to one single message, I would hope that even those viewers who think that Juan Chavez deserves to die, would conclude that we don’t deserve to kill him – that the application of the death penalty is just too too inaccurate, too unfair, too discriminatory, and too costly for us to continue to have capital punishment in this country.