Director: Jean-Xavier de Lestrade
By Marilyn Ferdinand
One Sunday morning in May 2000, the Stephenses, a Georgia couple in their 60s who were vacationing in Jacksonville, Florida, left their room at a Ramada Inn for some coffee. They were confronted by a man who demanded money and, tragically, Mrs. Stephens was shot and killed. With little to go on besides a description of the killer—young, skinny, black, wearing dark shorts and a t-shirt, and carrying a Derringer-type weapon—police stalked the neighborhood near the motel for someone who fit the bill. Patrol officers spotted 15-year-old Brenton Butler, skinny and black, walking on the street and decided to stop him. They asked him if he lived in the area (yes) and if he would mind talking to the investigating officers to offer any information about the neighborhood he might have (no). Butler got into the squad car and was driven to the motel. Mr. Stephens took one look at Butler seated in the back of the squad parked 50 feet away and identified Butler as the killer. Police brought Butler closer to Stephens and asked him if he was sure. “Yes. I wouldn’t send an innocent man to jail.” That ended the police investigation. Butler signed a confession and was put on trial for first-degree murder and armed robbery.
When news of the arrest was broadcast, Jacksonville public defender Patrick McGuinness was driving to his office. He recalls thinking that this young man had thrown his life away and the life of his victim. But McGuinness would soon have a change of heart: “As I learned more, I became increasingly angry.” He and Ann Finnell, a 23-year veteran of the Jacksonville public defenders office, made righteous use of their anger to defend Brenton Butler to prevent a travesty of justice from taking place.
Murder on a Sunday Morning, winner of the 2002 Oscar for best feature documentary, poses the kind of story that must have had a natural attraction for French director De Lestrade, sharing as it does similarities with Les Misérables, Victor Hugo’s classic tale of criminal justice run amok. Of course, the fictional Jean Valjean, who is hunted relentlessly by police inspector Javert when he escapes from prison, did commit a crime. But, his crime (stealing bread for his starving family) and his punishment (eventually, a death sentence when his escape attempts were taken into consideration) reflected a repressive society that was willing to condemn a man just for being poor and trying to take care of his family. In the Stephens case, Brenton Butler was brought into the criminal justice system for the crime of being black near the scene of a crime, thus, the more ironically apt French title, The Ideal Culprit.
As Finnell eloquently puts it near the beginning of the film:
Officer Martin came in and candidly admitted that the only reason Brenton Butler was even stopped that morning was because he happened to be a black male walking in the neighborhood. Now think about that. That means for every African American in Jacksonville, Florida, if they happen to be walking down the street lawfully going about their own business, not doing anything wrong, that they are subject to being stopped and asked to get into a police car, and driven away from what they’re doing, and subject to being shown to the victim of a crime with the possibility that that victim would identify them under the most suggestive of circumstances, that being that they happen to be sitting in the back seat of a police car and most victims would think that they wouldn’t be sitting in the back seat of a police car unless they had done something wrong, right? So that’s where we are today in Jacksonville Florida, and I personally find that to be disgusting and reprehensible.
The film offers straightforward coverage of the pretrial preparations and trial itself from the point of view of the defense. McGuinness and Finnell are shown examining evidence collected at the scene of the crime, questioning the man who found Mrs. Stephens’ purse in a dumpster on his daily rounds of collecting aluminum cans for recycling, marking the time it would take for Butler to get to the crime scene from his home based on when his family saw him in the morning, and so forth—in other words, conducting their own investigation. The police didn’t check the purse for fingerprints, and they never recovered the murder weapon. Butler’s attorneys also tore into the confession, wondering why a young man on his way to fill out a job application at a local Blockbuster would bother after just making off with $1,200 of the Stephenses’ vacation money. Nothing added up.
De Lestrade takes us seamlessly through the knowledge and logic the defense attorneys used to reconstruct what happened after Mrs. Stephens died. Tourist killings in Florida were making the news domestically and internationally (no doubt, this is why De Lestrade learned of the case), and the police needed to put people in jail to protect the tourism industry. With a witness ID, the system could move swiftly to conviction and incarceration. Lazy, more inclined to believe a white witness than a black defendant, and skilled at getting confessions through intimidation from black defendants through a black enforcer, Det. Michael Glover, the police acted with impunity to railroad Brenton Butler. Their shoddy work and cruelty—including a beatdown by Glover of Butler—make McGuinness’ disrespectful attacks on their professionalism and character a pleasure to watch.
Particularly satisfying is McGuinness’ cross-examination of Det. James Williams, who wrote the confession that Butler signed, one that he claimed was in Butler’s own words but finally was forced to admit was his own creation. McGuinness relates in one of his typically interesting and caustic comments to the filmmakers that he and Williams talked before the testimony in the hallway. Williams, no fan of the public defender, sarcastically remarked on McGuinness’ smoking “another one of your cancer sticks.” McGuinness replied, “I always like a cigarette before sex,” accurately predicting that he was going to screw Williams in the courtroom.
It’s sad and sobering to see the Butler family deal with their ordeal. Brenton is stoic until his mother takes the stand to testify to his whereabouts on the morning of the murder. As she starts to cry, the camera moves to her son, his face wet and streaming with tears. His father prays with him from across the thick glass in the prison visitors room and says, “God don’t make mistakes,” a belief that many people, including me, would find hard to take given the circumstances of this trial. Frighteningly, the indifferent police work meant a real killer was still out on the streets able to kill again. Again, McGuinness makes this point for us. I admit, I’ve gotten so used to documentary directors narrating and inserting themselves into their films (the curse of Michael Moore), that I was jarred—in a good way—by De Lestade’s decision to let his subjects do all the talking for themselves.
Since Brenton Butler was tried and exonerated in less than an hour, we’ve seen some big changes in race relations in the United States. But the pushback has been hard, and this case is sadly echoed in the recently passed Arizona law that could see a lot of innocent people stopped, like Butler, for walking while Latino. The question of police torture and forced confessions is alive, if being given a low profile in the cowed media, in Chicago, as the trial of former Area 2 Commander Jon Burge for allegedly torturing more than 200 criminal suspects (many of them black) between 1972 and 1991, to force confessions is underway. The judge in Butler’s case, when thanking the jury for its service, called the U.S. criminal justice system the best in the world. That may be true on paper, and the judiciary worked in this case, but we’ve got quite a ways to go before we can truly claim that reputation.