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Documentaries

The Staircase

The Staircase is the second documentary by the Academy Award winning documentary filmmaker, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade. Airing in 2004, the film’s subject is author Michael Peterson who was tried for the murder of his wife Kathleen. Peterson allowed the filmmakers complete access to his life and home throughout the trial in order to present his authentic self to the public despite the verdict at trial. To me as a viewer, this showed his honesty and the fact that when certain aspects of his personal life were uncovered he didn’t shy away from them he allowed everything to be unveiled and completely took ownership for whom he was which made me believe that he was innocent.

 

Presently Peterson is awaiting a re-trial after many appeals being denied by the court. The rise of the ‘owl theory’, which concludes that Kathleen Peterson was attacked by an owl that is what is responsible for her head injuries and effectively, her death, is a theory that many believe to be fact not fiction which has caused controversy in his case. Also, it was revealed that some small owl feathers were found in her head wounds, which the expert witness failed to mention in court. The evidence given by one particular expert witness, dealing with the autopsy, is one of the main reasons why Peterson was granted a re-trial as they provided miss-information to the jury, which may have swayed their vote.

 

There are many important factors in this case that led me to want to include this in the research for this brief with the primary element being that of corruption. The fact that key witnesses gave false testimony while testifying under oath is absolutely disgusting to me and how anyone can justify twisting the truth just to win a case when an innocent man’s life is at stake is beyond anything I can comprehend. This one verdict has completely derailed Michael Peterson’s life as this has defined him – everything prior to that moment, all of his achievements are discounted and discredited which makes me realise that this documentary paints the picture of a true injustice.

 

The Jinx

The Jinx: The Life and Death of Robert Durst is my favourite crime documentary (and I admit that I have watched it for a total of six times) that follows the life and crimes carried out by billionaire, Robert Durst. Directed by Andrew Jarecki who also directed a feature film based on Durst’s life entitled ‘All Good Things’, which is what led to this documentary when Durst himself, thinking an interview would be a good idea to show his side of the story, approached the producer of the 2010 film. Durst was tried for the murder and dismemberment of neighbor, Morris Black, as well as being accused of killing best friend Susan Berman (which he is currently awaiting trail for after being extradited back to LA after facing gun charges in New Orleans) and has also been linked to the disappearance and or death of his first wife Kathie Durst. Being acquitted for the murder of his neighbor Morris Black’s, while he was ‘on the run’ staying in Galveston, Texas and masquerading as a deaf mute female was absolutely baffeling to me especially since he admitted to the dismemberment on the stand during to the trial, claiming Black was murdered due to ‘self defense’.

 

The documentary comes to a shocking end when Durst’s microphone was still hot when he went to the bathroom after his final interview with Jarecki, he muttered the words that will follow Durst forever, “What did I do? Killed them all, of course.” This was the result of Jarecki confronting Durst with a letter Durst wrote to best friend Susan Berman that had been discovered by her stepson that led him to believe that Durst sent the letter to the police that led to the discovery of her body which, in his words, “could only have been written by the killer”. This discovery was made as the documentary was filming which brought great excitement and suspense to the film as it presented the uncovering of new evidence linking him to yet another murder which completely shocked not only the audience but the makers of the documentary themselves as the entire time Jarecki treated Durst just like anyone else and was open to what he had to say but it becomes apparent that this puts everything into perspective for Jarecki and his team as in the final interview Jarecki is incredibly nervous (as would anybody be) about confronting Durst with the idea that he wrote the infamous ‘cadaver note’. Packed with suspense, intensity, emotion and the uncovering of the truth made this documentary something that will stay with me forever.

 

Being the type of person that has that obsessive strain in her DNA, I fully utilise that and did very much so with this case. For months, I researched and researched Durst and his many links to murder. In some respects I like to think of myself as a little detective scouring the web for any new information about Robert Durst. In many ways this documentary revolutionised true crime documentaries and cemented it in pop culture, as it has become an obsession that has swept the nation. This spark of interest in uncovering the truth and being exposed to true and real events in sometimes more enjoyable for me than watching movies as it really allows me to be emotionally invested and urge me to want to help which leads me to think about so many other things happening in our society. This documentary shines a light on the idea of entitlement and money giving you power because there are so many instances in this case where I think Durst wanted to get caught, to challenge the system simply to prove that money can make you get away with murder and make that person believe that they’re untouchable.

 

Making A Murderer

Making A Murderer is the most recent crime documentary to become an international phenomenon after The Jinx: The Life and Death of Robert Durst. The documentary was directed by Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos and aired December 18 2015. Making a Murderer explores the story of Steven Avery who served eighteen years in prison for the sexual assault attempted murder of Penny Beerntsen, before being exonerated in 2003. In 2005, he was arrested in connection with the murder of Teresa Halbach, a local photographer, and later convicted in 2007. The series also covers the arrest, prosecution, and conviction of Avery’s nephew, Brendan Dassey, who was also charged in the murder. The series was filmed over the course of ten years and exposes the audience to many twist and turns making it one hell of a ride.

 

The reason why I am not only looking into crime documentaries but have chosen these projects in particular is because they all highlight and shine a light on the justice system and how in some (if not all) cases there is mass corruption at the forefront. In Avery’s case there was the prospect of a conspiracy theory being brought into question by his attorney and, as he was pleading not guilty, the idea that police officers were planting evidence in order to get Avery convicted was a key part of the case. After all ten episodes had aired there was controversy surrounding the series as it was reported that vital parts of evidence were ‘left’ out’ of the documentary, not allowing the audience to have all of the information to decide whether they agreed with the guilty verdict the jury arrived at. As a viewer, each episode raised many concerns with both parties, those being Avery and the police handling the investigation, as certain information would be shared to sway you one way and then you would be hit with the compelling nature to feel the opposite. This is the only documentary where I have ever felt conflicted about a defendant’s innocence, which proved to be very unsettling, and quite a ride as my mind was constantly changing throughout the series.

 

The Central Park 5

The Central Park Five is in my opinion one of the best crime documentaries ever! Directed by the legendary Ken Burns and his daughter Sarah Burns and her husband David McMahon the film aired in 2012 and shocked the world. The infamous Central Park Jogger case was the subject of this documentary and takes us through the journey of how five teenagers came to be wrongfully convicted in what I can only describe as a highly racist case. The New York Times described the attack as “one of the most widely publicized crimes of the 1980s.” The five defendants spent between six and thirteen years in prison.

 

The documentary presents analysis to suggest that the police should have connected Matias Reyes, who eventually confessed to the crime, to the case at the time that it happened. DNA evidence identified him as the sole contributor of the semen found in and on the rape victim. How the police failed to miss this extremely vital piece of evidence I have no idea but if you watch the film it soon becomes apparent that as the case gained media attention the police become desperate to find the ‘perpetrators’ even if it meant exploiting young boys who were innocent. Watching the interrogation tapes where it is so clear how the officers are bullying and manipulating the boys into falsifying confessions and even placing blame on each other which is even worse as not a single one of them had done what they were being accused of doing but that just didn’t seem to matter.

The five convicted juveniles sued New York City in 2003, nine years prior to the release of the documentary, for malicious prosecution, racial discrimination, and emotional distress. Ken Burns said he hoped the film would push the city to settle the case against it. The city settled the case for $41 million in 2014, after Bill de Blasio became mayor. As of December 2014, the five men were pursuing an additional $52 million in damages from New York State in the New York Court of Claims.

Fuelled with pure drama and raw emotion, this documentary extracted such strong emotions from me that I don’t often develop when watching documentaries as some fail to emotionally engage with their audience as they simply just state the facts and don’t fully attempt to tell the story. This documentary links to the organisation ‘Black Lives Matter’ which is definitely something I will be focusing on later on in this project as this case was a huge act of racism and massive protests took place to free the boys and really just seek justice as this case gave America the chance to prove their justice system was fair but instead it only exposed its corruption.

 

Paradise Lost

Paradise Lost: The Child Murders of Robin Hood Hills was directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky and aired in June 1996. This story covers the trials of three teenage boys who came to be known as the ‘West Memphis Three’ in West Memphis, Arkansas. Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin were the three teenagers accused of the murder and sexual mutilation of three young boys. The film was followed by two sequels: Paradise Lost 2: Revelations and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory.

Following a successful decision in 2010 by the Arkansas Supreme Court regarding recently uncovered DNA evidence, the ‘West Memphis Three’ reached a deal with prosecutors. On August 19, 2011, they entered Alford pleas, which allow them to assert their innocence and were sentenced to time served, effectively freeing them.

 

For this case the primary link that led to these boys’ arrests was that of their physical appearance (that of a gothic aesthetic) and the type of music they listened to such as Metallica and other heavy metal bands. This proved so strange to me as well as the way in which the prosecutor went on to use their ‘religion’ as a means for the murders and that were part of a satanic ritual. Although no concrete proof was entered into evidence by the prosecution and it was clear that some of the ‘witnesses’ they called upon gave false statements that were simply fabricated to adhere to their ‘story’ (as one actually admitted to it whilst on the stand) the boys were still found guilty.

 

The Thin Blue Line

The Thin Blue Line is a 1988 documentary that was one of the first crime documentaries’ to spark the phenomenon that is ‘true crime documentaries’. Directed by Errol Morris, this film that depicts the story of Randall Dale Adams, a man convicted and sentenced to life in prison for a murder he did not commit presents the way in which the justice system failed Adams. After his sentencing, eventually Adams’ case was reviewed and he was released from prison approximately a year after the film’s release.

 

The documentary itself proved to be quite slow and usually the ‘acted out’ parts add drama and suspense as well as a sense of realism to the story, however in this case it was just the same scene repeated over and over again which deemed to be rather pointless and unnecessary, leading me as a viewer to become marginally bored. The story itself proved to be completely circumstantial and evident that some ‘witnesses’ only came forward due to there being money involved and only picked Adams out of a line-up simply because he seemed to fit the bill. It still shocks me at just how much they got it wrong when all of the evidence pointed to the real perpetrator, David Ray Harris, who was eventually convicted of the crime of shooting and killing the police officer. This was one of the first documentaries to ever lead to a man’s innocence being uncovered as Adams’ case was reviewed after the release of the documentary.

 

Murder On A Sunday Morning

Murder on a Sunday Morning is a documentary directed by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade that was released 2001 and won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2002. Its subject is the Brenton Butler case, a criminal case whereby a fifteen-year-old boy was wrongfully accused of murder. Brenton Butler was arrested and tried for the 2000 murder of a tourist in JacksonvilleFlorida. The prosecution’s case relied heavily upon a positive identification made by the victim’s husband, and on Butler’s confession, which the teen claimed was coerced. The film follows Butler’s defence team building their case for his innocence, which is what the jury found him to be in this case. The fact that the major reason for Brenton’s arrest proved to be simply because he was black absolutely disgusted me which is my main reason for including it in my reason on the rebellion against the corrupt system because it is not something made up, it is real and must be stopped. The fact that the husband of the victim just plucked him from off the street as Brenton was walking past the motel is just shocking to me and the fact that this stuck and even went to trial is just ridiculous.

In my opinion this was the start of the craze behind true crime documentaries as this was a case that shocked so many people, me included. The discrimination, evidence of police brutality and racism clearly depicted in this case has fuelled my response to this theme and to explore the organisation ‘Black Lives Matter’ as this project progresses as this is something that I am very passionate about.

 

 

Natasha Perkin

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