A Murder in the Park
A Murder in the Park, documentary, rated PG-13, The Screen, 2.5 chiles
The story sounds like a John Grisham novel. One hot summer night in 1982, teenagers Marilyn Green and Jerry Hillard were gunned down in Chicago’s Washington Park. A man named Anthony Porter was arrested for the crime, then tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. In 1998, David Protess, a professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, hired a private investigator and gathered a group of his students. Together they examined evidence; spoke with a key witness, who recanted the statement he had given the police; and identified a new potential suspect, Alstory Simon, who eventually confessed to the crime. Just days shy of his scheduled execution, Porter was exonerated and released from prison, and Simon was locked up.
But, as the saying goes, the devil is in the details. This film by Christopher Rech and Brandon Kimber reveals that rather than championing justice, Protess and his students may actually have thwarted it. Their work was flawed in numerous ways. The students neglected to locate and interview any additional witnesses, for example, and thus come across as naive and lazy. Protess and the private eye, Paul Ciolino, utilized suspect, even unethical tactics that in many other cases are attributed to corrupt law enforcement individuals — improper interrogation and investigation techniques, questionable legal representation, bad evidence — in an attempt to get the results they wanted. They elicited a confession from Simon, who maintains in interviews shown here that he is innocent and was strong-armed (he was eventually exonerated, but only after 15 years behind bars). This will probably get your blood boiling.
Too bad Rech and Kimber’s filmmaking is utterly artless. The cinematography makes it feel more like an episode of Dateline or a low-budget cable-TV true-crime drama. They use amateurish reenactments; some questionably chosen crime-scene photos and archival footage; melodramatic narration; seemingly endless excerpts from transcripts, articles, and books; and a pervasive and ham-handed score. Protess (who was suspended by Northwestern in 2011), his students, and Ciolino declined to be interviewed, which leaves the film feeling unbalanced. Rech and Kimber do not mention the numerous exonerations similar to Porter’s that have been upheld (the production company, Whole Truth Films, is affiliated with a group that supports and protects police officers wrongly accused of misconduct), and they apparently didn’t want to touch issues of race and class with a ten-foot pole.
It’s no secret that our criminal justice system is broken. Studies suggest that between 2.3 and 5 percent of individuals currently in U.S. prisons are innocent. While Protess and the Medill students were instrumental in ending the death penalty in Illinois, their crooked methods make this fact feel more like “one step forward, two steps back.” And after all that, we still don’t know who shot those two teenagers in 1982. — Laurel Gladden
Anthony Porter and Alstory Simon