Tuesday, March 17, 2009

"Brother's Keeper" (1992) is a docudrama about possibly abusive prosecution


Brother’s Keeper” sounds like a New Testament concept, based on the Old Testament story of Cain and Abel, a quote from which opens this docudrama about a bizarre and aggressive prosecution of an elderly man for the death of his brother in central New York State in 1990.

The film, directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, was originally released in 1992 by Creative Thinking International but IFC issued the “10th Anniversary” DVD in 2002, in full screen format. The production companies were American Playhouse, Hand to Mouth, and Docurama (“everything else is fiction”). The film has also been shown on PBS.

The four Ward brothers (Delbert, Lyman, Roscoe, and William), in their 50s and 60s, ran a primitive hairy and hog farm near Munnsville (near Syracuse). They were illiterate and unable to relate to the modern world socially. They lived in a cluttered (really!) one room shack and slept together. In June, 1990, William died, and Delbert was accused of second degree murder by the district attorney. The authorities tried to claim mercy killing, and later a wild theory of “sex gone bad”. The first half of the film shows the men working on the farm, interspersed with interviews of the attorneys. The film is also punctuated with television news reels. Winter shows up half way through the film, which soon moves into a courtroom drama phase. The public has become skeptical of the prosecutions grandstanding, which it gradually comes to believe is politically motivated (much like the 2006 Duke Lacrosse case pursued by now disgraced DA Mike Nifong). At one point, the defense attorney refers to the victim and defendant as having “schizoid personality” although that characterization seems incorrect with such a degree of disability. The greatest value of the film is to show that states need to follow great care in designing criminal procedure to prevent abusive prosecution. For example, states should limit the ability of grand juries to indict without proper separate police procedures first.

The DVD includes a ten-minute short “The Wards Take Manhattan”. The filmmakers say they lived on the farm for a year to make the movie, and then take the three men to New York City, and the men have difficulty understanding the City.

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