On May 7, 2000, in the parking lot of the Ramada Inn in Jacksonville, Florida, 65-year-old Mary Ann Stephens is shot in the head before her husband's eyes. Ninety minutes later, 15-year-old Brenton Butler is arrested. For the investigators and the media it's just another messed-up youth, just another wasted life.Written by
Both an indictment and a pat on the back for the justice system
On the morning of the 7th May 2000, Mary Ann Stephens and her husband were accosted by a young black man who held them up at gunpoint, taking her purse and shooting her at point blank range. A matter of hours afterwards police pack up 15 year old Brenton Butler after the husband identifies him on the street. Butler is interviewed and signs a confession which he says he was forced to sign. This film follows Public Defenders Ann Linnel and Patrick McGuiness as they defend Butler on all charges.
I watched this film expecting some form of fireworks akin to a fictional courtroom thriller these were not forthcoming, I was misled by the advertising. However the outcome is a stronger film because it is not an extraordinary case, or one that is unusual. This is alarming due to the nature of the investigation which is lacking at best brutal at worst. The fact that McGuiness does more investigation than the police is worrying simply because I refuse to believe that every court appointed attorney is as professional as he is depicted here or as thorough. I'm sure many in his situation must grow numb to the numbers of young black men who pass through the courts daily.
Having mentioned his colour, I was pleased to note that the film never played the race card once. Even the fact that the husband could clearly care less which black kid he picked wasn't played up. This is helped by the fact that one of the officers involved in the courtroom is black, but it is refreshing to look at the courtroom scenario without having someone shout `racist' every 2 minutes. The focus of the film is very much on the process of the trial. As such, McGuiness is a likeable and honest guide, his interviews are scattered throughout him working the court and he makes interesting observations. His actual work in court is very sharp and he is very skilful attorney. I suspect the angelic light that the film casts him in may not be totally true but he is certainly not the other side of the spectrum as many of the others here are. It is alarming to see officers completely neglect their duties simply because they have already made their minds up.
As a documentary this is a solid film that does very well to condense the trial down without doing it a disservice. The only area I felt it could have done better with was in presenting a balanced view of the trial the prosecutor is only really in objectives and a brief closing statement. I can't help wondering if a film about `a black man being prosecuted by an unjust system' winning the Oscar was a little to do with the politics of Hollywood, but regardless I'm glad this won.
Overall this is not a wild legal ride in fact the details of the case are not that extraordinary (in terms of the crime). However this is the film's strength it shows how easy it would be for one man to be locked up in jail for life, how twisted the system can be but also, happily, how the system works just fine when it is not abused or perverted.
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