Mark Reviews Movies

A Murder in the Park


3 Stars (out of 4)

Directors: Shawn Rech and Brandon Kimber

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for disturbing crime scene photos and reenactments, drug material and brief language)

Running Time: 1:31

Release Date: 7/3/15 (limited); 7/10/15 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | July 9, 2015

There are times when A Murder in the Park attempts to be a sweeping indictment of a perceived widespread crisis. The attempt is subtle, but it's noticeable. The film works nonetheless, because its primary focus is on a fairly clear case of corruption that led to a single instance in which justice was thwarted in the name of activism. This is, to understate the situation, troubling, although it's important to note that this instance is apparently representative of only itself. It's important to emphasize that because the film wants it to signify much more.

The film opens with a whirl of information that pieces together a familiar story. A man was convicted of a crime and sentenced to death. Decades later, a team of students, led by their professor, went through the details of the crime and discovered that some things in the investigation were faulty. They raised these concerns to the public. The legal system responded. The man received a stay of execution—about 48 hours before his execution—and was released from prison. Another suspect emerged, was tried and convicted, and went to prison. The case was solved, and justice was served.

We've heard this story or some variation of it so many times—of rushes to judgment, faulty or unethical police work, poor legal representation, bad evidence, and the like—that we've started to take their veracity as a given. After all, we trust that the people scrutinizing these cases decades after the fact are seeking the truth, that what they find is accurate, and that their endeavor would be at least as—if not more—thorough than the initial investigation. It would have to be, because, if they're wrong, a criminal would go free. The potential consequences of an erroneous result would seem to demand that no error can be made.

Directors Shawn Rech and Brandon Kimber come out swinging. There were many errors in the group's investigation. The biggest one was assuming that Anthony Porter, the man initially convicted of murdering two people one night in 1982 at a public pool on the South Side of Chicago, was innocent of the crime. He wasn't, say the directors and many others who would know this. The police arrested the right man. The judicial system worked. By the way, that means Alstory Simon, the man who was later convicted of the double homicide, is innocent.

The film is meticulous in presenting its argument that Porter committed the crime. There are interviews with witnesses who were there that night. The filmmakers present animated diagrams that lay out where each person was and what their sightlines would have been. There are reenactments of the crime, the witnesses reactions, and how Porter was caught fleeing the scene by police but let go because they couldn't find a weapon. Everyone who was there flat-out says it: Porter killed those two teenagers.

How was he freed? Well, David Protess, who was a professor at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, and some of his students were working on the Medill Innocence Project, which would look into contested murder convictions throughout the state of Illinois to determine if justice was served. They investigated Porter's case, got a key witness to recant, and recorded a confession from Simon. It's all cut and dry, right?

The film then goes step by step to explain the corners Protess and his students cut in order to get the result they seemed to want. They ignored other witnesses and claimed that the man who recanted was "the only witness." They went to the scene of the crime and determined that views would have been obstructed by pillars. The detectives who led the '82 investigation—none of whom were interview by Protess or any of his students—and witnesses have no idea what those obstructions could be, because they didn't exist when the crime was committed. A private investigator named Paul Ciolino seems to have taken some of the same steps to force confessions and recantations that the Innocence Project condemned in a memorandum about bad police practices. The filmmakers go down the list of transgressions, as Simon explains what led him to confess to a crime he says he didn't commit.

In a neat trick, we get dueling diagrams and reenactments, too, showing how illogical the group's findings would have been, how many details were unaccounted for, and how it creates an imaginary person in order to fill in at least one of those blanks. It's such a successful technique of breaking down the group's failings, in fact, that we find ourselves skeptical of the film's method.

There's good reason for skepticism. The film argues, in an ominously conspiratorial way, that the Innocence Project had an agenda—namely to stop capital punishment in Illinois. Indeed, Porter's case, along with others, eventually led Gov. Pat Quinn to abolish the death penalty in the state, after Gov. George Ryan had put a moratorium on it after another of the Innocence Project's investigations.

The film and some of its subjects seem obsessed on the end of the death penalty. They even go so far as to throw haphazard suspicion on that other case—and here's the irony of it all—without a shred of evidence that we should question the group's findings on it (A cursory glance of that particular case shows that really isn't any reason to question it).

It's a bit hypocritical for A Murder in the Park to criticize one group's agenda when the film has its own less-than-hidden agenda. Still, that doesn't diminish the otherwise fine investigative work that the film highlights.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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