A Murder in the Park Dir. Christopher S. Rech, Brandon Kimber

[IFC Films; 2015]

Styles: documentary, true crime
Others: The Central Park Five

Like true crime? Here’s a good one for you. Double-homicide, Chicago, 1982. Detectives arrest a man, Anthony Porter, named by four eyewitnesses as the shooter. He’s convicted, sentenced to death. Then, in 1999, he’s released; conviction overturned by the work of Northwestern University journalism students whose professor, a now-famous man named David Protess, has his students re-investigate death penalty cases as class projects. They determine that one of the eye-witnesses in the ‘82 case couldn’t have seen what he said he saw. They also uncover who they believe to be the real shooter, and soon after their work goes public, this second suspect (a soon-to-be tragic figure named Alstory Simon) is shown on video confessing to the murders. Anthony Porter, in prison at this point for 17 years, is released 50 hours before his scheduled execution. The journalism professor declares, loudly and often, that justice has been served.

Pretty exciting stuff, and it really happened.

And if that had been all that happened, the story would still have made for a good little documentary. But, of course, it wasn’t. A Murder in the Park begins by taking us briefly through these events, not hesitating to present them in the manner of a convincing narrative, only to turn that narrative on its head. We are initially presented with what feels, especially in light of all the present-day cases of the railroading of minorities by various justice systems, to be a satisfying case of a wrongly convicted black man finally receiving his due from the system. But that’s only the beginning of the story. After taking us through the known history of the Anthony Porter case, directors Christopher S. Rech and Brandon Kimber set about completely reversing it. Anthony Porter, their doc alleges, is guilty after all; David Protess, the Northwestern professor, is as corrupt as a House Republican, so opposed to the death penalty (or possibly just in love with his own crusader reputation) that he’ll do just about anything to stop an execution. Rech and Kimber don’t just allege that Protess and his students were wrong; they spend an entire film painstakingly proving it.

The story of Porter’s release is a powerful one. It rings a positive tone in today’s political climate. You want to believe that he is innocent, if not because of the evidence, then because of the general need to see law enforcement officials answer for what seems to be an endemic mistreatment of the poor and minorities. All of this makes it difficult to hear what A Murder in the Park asserts: Porter did it, and Protess arranged, for his own personal gain, to get him off and put Alstory Simon in prison in his place.

But Rech and Kimber are thorough and convincing, and the point they wind up making is at least as powerful as the need to see an innocent man released from death row. What A Murder in the Park truly asserts is that justice has to be viciously thorough if it’s going to effective. Facts and thorough investigation have to trump tidy narratives that get men off of death row if we’re talking about guilt, innocence, life in prison and death — regardless of what you think of the death penalty.

So how do the directors convince? Essentially, by doing a better re-investigation of the murders than the journalism class undertook in the 90s. Rech and Kimber conduct interviews with every witness to the original crime, not just the ones who fit the narrative they were looking to prove. They interview every detective and prosecutor who worked the case, all of whom are visibly shaken that their original work was so shamed 17 years after they conducted it. The opposite tactic, of picking and choosing facts, is exactly what Rech and Kimber accuse Protess (and especially the proudly unscrupulous private detective he hired) of doing: interviewing only those witnesses whose stories seemed to gel with the outcome they wanted.

This doc’s only major fault is its visual style: Rech and Kimber recreate the events of the crime using seedy, dark-toned images and dramatic re-enactments, which unfortunately ensures that their detective work looks indistinguishable from your average A&E channel true crime series. But those failings, if you can ignore them, pale in comparison to what this doc aims to stand up for: the necessary blindness of justice.

There’s an (arguably) even bigger question at work: that of veracity in media as a whole. If, as this doc alleges, David Protess and his private eye were able to railroad Alstory Simon, an innocent man, into confessing to a murder he didn’t commit, then we need to accept this doc’s premise (convincing as it is) that his videotaped confession was coerced by the PI. But any documentary asking its audience to believe what it says over another piece of film is making a tall order: in the end, wasn’t the work of Protess’ class (and his private eye) just as convincing in 1999 as A Murder in the Park is attempting to be in 2015? In other words, when dealing with anyone (Protess, Rech and Kimber, the original homicide detectives) who’s interpreting evidence, where do you draw the line between facts and faith? Between actual memories and the reconstruction of them for investigatory purposes?

Whatever the case (and for what it’s worth, I believe Rech and Kimber far more than I do Protess, who resigned from Northwestern in 2011 after allegations arose that he falsified legal documents), A Murder in the Park raises vivid, necessary questions, and for that alone it should be seen. It’s intrepid journalism that aims to correct the wrongs of earlier, sloppy journalism, and its success outweighs its sensational tactics.

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