This two-part series sees veteran presenter Sir Trevor McDonald come face to face with some of the world’s most dangerous criminals as he gets exclusive access to one of America’s oldest and most notorious prisons.
Housing 1900 inmates, 12 of whom are on death row, Trevor spends two weeks in the dark and forbidding world of Indiana State Maximum Security Prison. He hears from men who know what it is like to live under the shadow of the death penalty and even the date and time they will die.
He makes many visits to I Cell House, which houses Death Row. He meets a man whose crimes are so heinous that they even shock the other killers on the row; a man who was paid to kill two people; the inmate who killed a policeman and a man who killed his wife and two young daughters.
He comes to understand the bitter tensions on the row amongst the inmates and witnesses some extraordinary encounters, including the warden coming face to face with a prisoner whose life he’ll, ultimately, be responsible for taking.
Many of the death row offenders are convicted of the most heinous of crimes and in one memorable encounter hearing details of one prisoner’s crimes becomes almost too much for Trevor.
These documentaries also follow Trevor as he meets inmates in the wider prison facility serving long sentences for unspeakable crimes. One man tells Trevor that he is serving 170 years behind bars after killing two elderly ladies when he was just 13 years old.
Plus, Trevor, visits the chilling room where the executions take place. He sees the holding cell where prisoners spend their last few hours alive and the bed where they are strapped down and injected with a fatal dose of chemicals. And he meets the man most likely to be the next to be executed.
The second week at Indiana State Prison sees Trevor step into a cell with a killer who talks openly about killing a woman and her four-year-old daughter.
Fredrick Baer has been on death row for seven years after being convicted of the two murders. He had always maintained his innocence. Trevor visits Baer with Superintendent Wilson, the man who will one day oversee his execution.
Trevor asks Baer what he thinks of Superintendent Wilson. Baer says: “It’s not actually Mr Wilson that’s taking my life, it’s the State of Indiana. He’s a good guy. He’s a fair person. He’ll listen, he’ll understand and he’ll exercise judgement on what he has to do fairly. He’s not discriminatory towards anybody and I’ve got to respect that.”
Trevor also asks Superintendent Wilson how he comes to terms with executions. He replies: “I’ve come to grips with it by virtue of meeting with my religious leaders, my particular church and how the church feels about it. I’ve also asked God for forgiveness for my feebleness in that I may not always understand what his intentions are for us.”
Trevor then steps inside Baer’s cell, which is adorned with pictures of Diana, Princess of Wales. Baer tells Trevor that he spends his days with his pet cat and writing to his pen pal girlfriend in Germany.
But Trevor knows that Baer, who slit the throat of a woman and her four-year-old daughter, provokes outrage and disgust amongst the other killers on death row.
The programme features footage of Baer denying the murders at the time of his arrest and he explains to Trevor that an abusive childhood and the death of his sister lead him into a life of crime.
As Trevor and Baer sit on Baer’s tiny bed in his cell, he tells Trevor: “I’ve been a thief all my life. That’s all I’ve ever been. I’m not proud of it, but I’m not going to sugar-coat it. I’m a thief, I’ve always been a thief. I started stealing matchbox cars at kindergarten. I’ve been stealing all my life.”
Baer says his sister was in an abusive relationship and was murdered, and that was the final straw for him.
Talking about his crime and the afternoon he murdered the young mother and her daughter, he says: “I walked up to the home and under the ruse of being lost I knocked on the door and asked to use the phone. A little kid answered the door, so my first thought was, ‘Can I use the phone.’ Her mum came to the door and I asked to use the phone.
“I was withdrawing from meth and…I just wasn’t there. My intention was to rape her (the mother) and I couldn’t go through with it. I’d gone too far to back out now. I knew I was headed back to prison. And I guess I thought if I killed them, nobody would ever know, and so I cut their throats.
“I cut both their throats. I was a cold-hearted son of a bitch.”
Baer tells Trevor that he always remembers the names and the birthdays of his victims, because he feels as though he is a part of their lives.
Trevor says: “You’re not a part of their lives because they have gone on. They have died. They have been killed.”
Baer replies: “I’m a part of their family’s lives. I’ve killed a little kid in the worst possible way that can be imagined. You can’t even imagine how I feel.”
Trevor says that meeting Baer has made him revise his thoughts on the death penalty. He adds: “I’ve never believed in the death penalty myself. I’ve always been against it, and I probably still am. But when I think about what you’ve done, I begin to understand why people feel it should be the appropriate sentence for crimes like yours. Do you understand that?”
And Baer admits: “I do deserve to be executed. There’s no way around it. If a person does what I’ve done, they should be executed.”
Also in this episode, Trevor goes inside the death chamber. Superintendent Wilson shows Trevor the route that the prisoners take as they leave death row and make their way to the building where they will meet their end.
He sees the sparse holding room where the condemned man will spend his last few hours. Superintendent Wilson explains that some pass the time watching television, while others just sit quietly, meditating.
Trevor sees the gurney where the prisoners are strapped down and injected with a lethal cocktail of chemicals. He sees the room where people can watch through a window as the death sentence is carried out.
Superintendent Wilson explains that most of the prisoners accept their fate and get on the gurney, but one inmate was completely passive and had to be carried from his cell.
Superintendent Wilson says: “We do everything we can to make sure the offender’s comfortable. We talk to him to make sure he understands the process…we try to be there for him. Once he’s placed on the gurney he’s allowed a final statement. An actual death warrant is read to him, so that he understands why he’s in this position, and, at that point, then we start the execution process.”
Trevor also visits the more privileged part of the prison where inmates live in a dorm with cubicles instead of cells. He talks to John Serwatka, who is serving life with no possibility of release after being paid to kill two innocent people he never knew.
And, Trevor meets the convicted killers who, after a period of good behaviour, are allowed to keep pet cats in their cells.
Dennis Leer tells Trevor that his cat, Rascal, is like his child because he has raised her since she was a kitten. Leer explains that the worst part of being in prison is losing your loved ones. He explains that his mum has died while he has been in jail. He tells Trevor that having a pet has given him something to love.
Trevor witnesses a total lock-down in Cell House C – the largest cell block in the prison - after one prisoner was beaten so badly by another inmate that officers thought he was dead. Inmates are locked up for 24 hours a day following the attack, partly for their own safety but also, prisoners feel, as a punishment. Leer describes the atmosphere to Trevor and recalls one time when lock-down lasted for 11 months.
He says: “You’ve got to deal with it and find something to do to keep you occupied. Otherwise you might go crazy. Some guys do. I’m lucky, I’ve got a TV and Rascal. She helps me pass my time. She doesn’t like lock-down though. She wants to get out of the cell and run around.”
As Trevor’s time at the prison comes to an end he reflects on everything he has seen, saying: “The memory of what I saw and heard here will stay with me for the rest of my life.”