Dir:- Jean-Xavier de Lestrade
Feat:- Brenton Butler, Patrick McGuinness, Ann Finnell, Duane Darnell, Michael Glover, Jim Williams, James Stephens
Following in the footsteps of documentary movies like The Thin Blue Line or the Paradise Lost trilogy, the Academy Award winning Murder on a Sunday Morning examines failures in the American justice system, that have ultimately led to a young black male being prosecuted for a crime he hasn’t committed. On the morning of the 7th of May 2000, a retired couple, Mary Ann & James Stephens, were approached by a young black male in the parking lot of a Ramada Inn in Jacksonville, Florida. The husband and wife from Toccoa, Georgia were on vacation and had just been returning from breakfast when they were intercepted by the stranger who proceeded to point a gun at them and demand that Mrs Stephens hand over her purse. Moments later Mrs Stephens was dead from a shot to the face, her husband was in shock, but otherwise unharmed, and their assailant had scarpered with both the murder weapon and Mrs Stephens purse.
As all of this was taking place fifteen-year-old Brenton Butler was getting ready to go and apply for a job at his local Blockbuster Video outlet. Instead of applying for the job he ended up in the back of a Jacksonville PD squad car, whereby he was taken to the scene of the crime and hastily identified, by the sole eyewitness to the murder, as the shooter. Taken to the police station Butler was held for twelve hours by officers who seemed utterly convinced of his guilt, yet had no solid evidence to pin Butler to the crime. It is at this point that the case goes from being a routine murder/armed robbery investigation to a glaring miscarriage of justice. What transpires in the twelve hours that Butler is held in police custody is in effect the subject matter of Murder on a Sunday Morning.
Director-Producer team Jean-Xavier de Lestrade and Denis Poncet had developed a production company called Maha Productions that specialised in making documentary films that examined aspects of international judicial systems. Immediately prior to their work on Murder on a Sunday Morning, they had been examining the legal campaign for international recognition of the atrocities carried out in Rwanda during the 1990’s in a television documentary entitled The Justice of Men. The two men happened to be in Florida in May of 2000 with a film crew, as they were carrying out preliminary research for a documentary film focused on the American justice system. Until the Butler case it seemed as if the project had no clear identity, with de Lestrade and Poncet trying to insinuate themselves into various law firms to get access to trials, but not really having the narrative hook around which they could structure a film or television series. On meeting the public defender, and effectively the star of Murder on a Sunday Morning, Patrick McGuinness, de Lestrade and Poncet were introduced to an eerily vacant and expressionless young man, that would turn out to be Brenton Butler. Ultimately, it was this inscrutable image that the young Butler presented to the filmmakers that got them engaged in his case, with both de Lestrade and Poncet unable to excise the boy’s face from their minds.
Throughout the film Butler is almost a silent cipher, both inscrutable and emblematic of the way in which black voices are still routinely silenced in American society.
What follows from this initial kernel of curiosity and interest is one of the more unusual examinations of legal process that has been committed to celluloid. Effectively given unlimited and unprecedented levels of access to the trial, through the defence attorneys McGuinness and Finnell, de Lestrade and Poncet were able to catalogue the construction of a case, that would go on to prove the innocence of Butler and indict the Jacksonville Police Department for a grievous miscarriage of justice.
Central to the power of the film is the relationship that is established early on between the viewer and the principle defender, Patrick McGuinness. This chain-smoking, hyper-focused, eloquent and fearsomely righteous individual is pretty much the first figure the viewer is introduced to in the film, as well as the figure who has the last word. It is McGuinness’ skepticism that propels the initial investigations into the negligible evidence that the officers have amassed. Also, it is McGuinness who first comes to express doubt about the veracity of the eyewitness identification. Unlike in Morris’s The Thin Blue Line whereby the director of the documentary is carrying out an investigation into the facts of a case that has been tried a long time prior to the completion of the film, de Lestrade and Poncet were not actively carrying out an investigation, but rather observing the inquiries of McGuinness and Finnell. This is an important distinction because in Morris’s movie the film becomes structured specifically around Morris’s understanding of the facts of the case, as he discovers them, with Morris effectively adopting the McGuinness role and using his camera to point up the hypocrisy of the principle figures involved in convicting an innocent man. In Murder on a Sunday Morning there is less of a sense of the film as a construction and statement of the truth, but rather as a literal document of the trial and legal process around Butler’s case. This makes Murder on a Sunday Morning seem a far more transparent film than it actually is. It is very easy when faced with the slow unfurling drama of McGuinness’ probing and pushing into the shoddy police work around the case, to forget that in effect there is only really one side of the case that these filmmakers have full access to. Thus no matter how panoptic it may appear the documentary has a very obvious bias, which shouldn’t diminish its message any, but that makes it impossible to tell both sides of the story.
This is a fundamental problem with all documentary film, however. More than with any other genre of cinema, documentary asks the viewer to invest in the truth of a cinematic depiction, whilst frequently manipulating an audience into certain ways of thinking about a topic. Every documentary film has an angle upon the ‘truth’ of what is being depicted, but few documentaries reveal this angle in its entirety, instead allowing the editing process to reconstruct moments of reality in such a way as to tell the narrative that the filmmakers wish the viewer to concentrate upon. Even the most ‘objective’ processes of documentary film (such as the non-edited film of an event or occurrence) are ultimately a construct of the director. De Lestrade and Poncet try to approach the material in a linear/chronological fashion. They take the news footage of the incident as a starting point and then introduce McGuinness and Finnell into the mix and show how they have doubts upon the events of the day. They then go through the stages of the trial, with moments where the film goes off at a tangent, or digresses to focus attention upon a pertinent detail that may have hitherto been overlooked. The viewer is invited into the Butler family home, the local church and the community to which the Butler’s belong, but the viewer’s involvement isn’t filtered through the direct awareness of the filmmakers role, or the camera’s presence, but rather through the displaced identification with McGuinness, the person to whom the Butler’s have pinned their hopes. What the film subtly establishes is a sympathy and empathy for Butler and his situation, based almost entirely upon the growing convictions of the prosecutor and the bonds established between family, prosecutor and filmmaker. It makes for a wholly compromised documentary, but, perhaps, a far more satisfying and involving film.
There are at least three significant elisions within the film, one of which is an aesthetic choice on the part of the filmmakers, the other two being more likely forced upon the filmmakers as a result of their investment in the Butler side of the affair. The aesthetic choice, which is also one of the defining characteristics of the movie as a whole, is in filming Brenton Butler almost entirely without hearing him speak. This seems to stem from de Lestrade and Poncet’s initial impression of Butler as a completely detached and self-contained individual. It also serves as a wonderfully sharp metaphor, seeming to demonstrate how Butler’s voice has been silenced, or denied him by the injustice of the Florida legal system. Also, it points up the problems of presentation that the defence attorneys have to face, with Finnell diplomatically describing Butler as a male teenager, with all the sullen uncommunicativeness that may suggest. Of the two omissions that were clearly foisted upon the filmmakers, the most awkward one is the lack of access to the victim’s family and in particular her husband. The film has to rely on the testimony of James Stephens and his cross-examination by McGuinness, to give an impression of this central facet of the story. This negation of the victim’s narrative, allows the filmmakers to focus upon the other ‘victim’ of the film, namely Butler himself. It also allows the filmmakers to opt for a detailing of the trial process from the point-of-view of the defence, showing not only the trial, but how a good defence attorney would probe and shape the evidence to get at the hidden ‘truth’ of the matter. This is an important formal decision as it allows the film to be authoritative despite the fact it is clearly one-sided. It seems as if the film stands as a direct riposte to the lies of the police investigation and a rebalancing of the justice system in the way it works its own biases so thoroughly into the fabric of the narrative. In this manner it is really no loss that we fail to get access to the police side of the story.
NABBED: Can you tell me which of these words are Butler’s and which of these words are your own.
The film is at its most entertaining and horrifying in the sections during which Jim Williams, Michael Glover and, the particularly odious, Duane Darnell are caught in McGuinness’ crosshair. McGuinness is a perfect cinematic subject, with a showman’s appreciation of the camera. Prior to each of the cross-examinations, he gives a little insight into his strategies for breaking down the individual testimonies of all the police officers involved. Often these are hilariously candid little bon mots, such as when before dealing with the arrogant and sleazy Officer Darnell, McGuinness tells the camera that in response to a gibe from Darnell about his smoking, he told the officer he always likes to have a cigarette before sex. McGuinness comes prepared, knowing full well that the officers in question have already displayed a pronounced track record for laziness, sloppiness and cutting corners. Having the ammunition of his knowledge of their incompetence, he routinely embarrasses the officers during his cross-examination of them, forcing them into a corner where they either have to renounce their flawed narrative and look like a liar, or affirm their narrative knowing full well how preposterous it now looks. McGuinness compares this process to the stern disciplining of a puppy that doesn’t know where to do it’s business yet.
Amongst the many irregularities in the Butler case there is the unquestionable fact that the police jumped on the first suitable black suspect they came across, with no evidence to link him to the crime other than the colour of his skin. Disturbingly there is proof of violence being used to force a confession from Butler, with the very fact that a large, intimidating police officer like Michael Glover, regardless of his ethnicity, admittedly took Butler into a secluded area of wood on his own, supposedly to find the murder weapon, becoming a damning indictment of their investigation, in and of itself. The neglect of responsibility for the case demonstrated by lead officer Jim Williams is gobsmackingly ignorant, with Williams effectively confessing to the fact that nobody monitored Darnell or Glover whilst they were in the interrogation room with Butler. It’s this final detail that points up the significant legacy of the Butler case, as shortly after his acquittal new regulations were drawn up to make it a requirement that all police interviews were to be filmed, as standard procedure. In the film’s hastily constructed post-script further information comes out regarding the case, which shows that McGuinness’s office actually provide the police with the relevant information to catch the real killers, Juan Curtis and Jermel Williams. Intriguingly the story that is told about the shooting reveals that James Stephens eyewitness testimony was somewhat more than suspect, as his wife apparently was able to fire her cup of coffee into the face of the shooter Juan Curtis, which may go some of the way to explaining the bizarre circumstances of the shooting. In the aftermath of the case the Butler family settled a claim against the Jacksonville PD out of court, for approximately $775,000, whilst all three police officers involved in the case were either demoted, or left the force. Undoubtedly the lasting impact of this quiet, isolated young man’s struggle with a distorted justice system, is in the increased procedural requirements that all US police forces have to fulfill before bringing a case to trial.