Film Review: A Murder in the Park

Bland nonfiction aesthetics can’t fully quell the outrage elicited by this documentary about the injustices surrounding a famed Chicago death-penalty case.
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Miscarriages of justice don’t come much more startling than those found in A Murder in the Park, Christopher S. Rech and Brandon Kimber’s documentary about the 1982 case of Anthony Porter. Convicted of gunning down a couple in Chicago’s Washington Park, Porter was sentenced to death, only to then be exonerated two days before his 1999 execution thanks to the efforts of Northwestern University journalism professor David Protess and his team of students and private investigator Paul Ciolino. Protess and company’s success at getting Porter’s conviction overturned was the tip of the spear that killed Illinois’ death penalty—a decision that hinged on the concurrent prosecution and conviction of Alstory Simon for the murders originally pinned on Porter. As Rech and Kimber’s film exposes, however, it was that decision which was the true disgrace, since even a cursory look at the actual evidence indicated that Simon had nothing to do with the crime, and that it was extremely likely that Porter was, in fact, the killer.

A Murder in the Park is thus the story of a legal (and ethical) mess of epic proportions. It’s also, alas, a work of dreary aesthetics. From newly recorded talking-head interviews, to archival photos and video footage, to dramatic recreations and diagrammatic graphics, Rech and Kimber employ nothing but stock nonfiction filmmaking techniques, all of which are handled with a perfunctory attention to fluidity, gracefulness or compelling drama. The result is a film that resembles a cable-TV news program, replete with repetition of the same few key arguments in order to make sure that its primary points aren’t lost on any viewers. By placing an emphasis on functionality over any sort of artistry, the directors often turn their material into a slog, even as their actual material proves tailor-made to inspire righteous indignation.

That’s because the evidence presented by A Murder in the Park strongly suggests that the original case against Porter was strong, and that the basis for overturning it–which hinged on Protess’ false contentions about the facts at hand, as well as a videotaped confession by Simon–was shoddy at best. In particular, Simon’s admission of guilt was a manufactured affair obtained through coercion by P.I. Ciolino, who strong-armed Simon via, among other things, “testimony” recordings that had been staged with actors. Nonetheless, persuaded by Protess’ falsehoods and pressured by a media landscape intent on confirming the narrative that Porter was an innocent man who’d been heroically saved from death row, the courts found Simon responsible for the crimes, even as it turned a blind eye to the fact that Simon’s own defense attorney was hired through, and in league with, Protess and Ciolino.

The fact that justice ultimately prevailed, at least with regards to Simon, allows A Murder in the Park to end on a relatively upbeat note. Yet even that conclusion can’t overshadow the preceding horrors detailed by the film, which stemmed from a litany of legal and moral breakdowns almost as shameful as the actual murders committed in Washington Park. It’s a saga that’s infuriating on so many levels, even the directors’ bland storytelling methods can’t quite squelch its outrage-inducting power.

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