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MURDER ON A SUNDAY MORNING

Review by Michael Jacobson

Director:  Jean-Xavier De Lestrade
Audio:  Dolby Digital Stereo
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Docurama
Features:  See Review
Length:  111 Minutes
Release Date:  April 29, 2003

“The following events took place in Jacksonville, Florida…”

Film ****

Murder on a Sunday morning is as engrossing and as dramatic a courtroom thriller as you’re likely to see…yet it isn’t based on some novel by John Grisham.  It’s a true story unfolding before our eyes about a case that started out as a simple open-and-shut instance of homicide that unraveled into a bizarre and unsettling mess of police incompetence, corruption and brutality.

Making the story hit home even more for me was the fact that it took place here in my hometown of Jacksonville.  It’s rather amazing to sit down to watch a film, and the first things you see are places just a few minutes from where you live, and as the events are unfolding, to continually see landmarks and locations that you grew up around.  But no matter where this story might have taken place, the drama is harrowing and involving.

The background in a few short strokes:  in May of 2000, a tourist named Mary Ann Stephens was shot dead in an armed robbery by a black suspect in front of her husband.  Two and a half hours after Mr. Stephens gave a description of the man and the events to the police, they apprehended a 15 year old black male, Brenton Butler.  Mr. Stephens made a positive identification, and by the end of that day, the police had a signed confession from Butler and were charging him for the homicide.

An open and shut case?  Hardly.  When public defender Patrick McGuinness is brought in on behalf of Mr. Butler, his investigation slowly opens up a bigger and bigger can of worms that suggested that the villain in the drama was not Butler, but the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, particularly three key detectives who seemed at best lazy and at worst downright dishonest.

To start with, Brenton Butler was at least ten years younger and several inches shorter than the man Stephens had described, despite the later positive ID (made when Butler was cuffed and in the back of a police car).  Mrs. Stephens’ purse was found on the opposite side of town in a dumpster (and for those who don’t know Jacksonville, it’s the largest city in America according to area…from one side of town to another can be an hour’s drive, and Butler was on foot).  No gun was ever recovered.  No forensic evidence was taken at the scene of the crime or from the purse to connect Butler to any of it.

But that’s not the most disturbing aspect.  One of the detectives, Michael Glover, took Butler into the woods near the scene of the crime purportedly to look for the discarded gun…deep enough to be away from any nearby eyes or ears.  Butler returned with a swollen eye and bruises on his abdominal area.

The confession itself was actually written by another detective, and Butler signed it, but protested to McGuinness that he did so only after he had himself and his family threatened by the officers.  To make matters more intriguing, Michael Glover is a black man himself…and not only that, but the son of Jacksonville Sheriff Nat Glover.  Even MORE interesting is that Michael Glover managed to obtain his post as a homicide detective at about the same time as Nat was elected to HIS post.

These items all come to over the coarse of the trial, which is the heart of the movie.  Though McGuinness tried to get the State to drop the charges after the photos of Butler’s physical abuse, they refused because the honor of three police officers was at stake.  It was clear that Butler’s fate was going to be wrestled over til the bitter end.

Over the course of the film, we get close to the chain-smoking McGuinness and his staff as well as Butler’s parents…deeply religious people who are frequently seen comforting their son with prayer and faith.  We get to see the three principal cops on the stand, and react to their cool, polite responses to McGuinness’ grilling.  Finally, we see Brenton Butler on the stand himself; a fifteen year old kid who may be going to jail for the rest of his life because the system found it too easy to discard him.

This is an intense and electrifying movie to experience, where every new development becomes something the audience hangs on to because it’s very clear how much is in the balance.  We look at a seemingly good kid and can’t help but think he wouldn’t have committed the act…yet we look also at men who were sworn to uphold the law, but decided that one identification and one neat confession that THEY wrote and had the suspect sign was good enough for them.  As McGuinness grimly pointed out in his closing argument, the fact that no further investigation was ever done meant that a murderer was likely still at large in the community.

As with most courtroom dramas, the climax is the verdict, which for the sake of those who would discover this film for themselves, I will not reveal.  But I would add that it wasn’t the end of the story.  One more big surprise awaits when you think all is said and done.

Director Jean-Xavier De Lestrade allows the drama to unfold without injecting it with an overkill of style.  He correctly identified that the story itself was the attraction, and not the technique.  Murder on a Sunday Morning is a tremendous documentary achievement in the best sense of the word, when you realize that when most filmmakers start a documentary, they have no idea how their story will end…they have to wait and watch just like the rest of us.  It earned a well-deserved Oscar for Best Documentary of 2001 (remember back when the Academy gave that award to REAL documentaries instead of carefully written and staged pieces of fiction?).

This engaging film correctly identifies something that is a problem not only in MY community, but everywhere, lurking underneath the surface and sometimes difficult to expose for what it really is.  But the solution isn’t there, yet.  Ultimately, that’s up to each and every one of us.  At least calling the problem by its correct name is a step in the right direction.

ADDITIONAL NOTE:  Sheriff Nat Glover is, at this time, running for Mayor of Jacksonville, and is considered by many to be the front-running candidate.

Video ***

This movie was shot on video, but actually comes across quite well on a non-anamorphic widescreen transfer.  The typical limitations of video aren’t nominally apparent; no undue grain or softness or lack of detail.  Coloring comes across well, and most scenes are well lit so as not to have separation issues.  Very nicely done.

Audio **

The stereo soundtrack is as good as can be expected for a film that’s pretty much powered by the spoken word.  Dialogue is generally clean and clear; there is an instance or two where the filmmakers couldn’t get close enough to their subject to mike them more clearly, but given the nature of the picture and the locales in which it was shot, that’s understandable.  The audio is perfectly serviceable, nothing more or less.

Features ***

The disc contains ten deleted scenes for those wanting to see more of the courtroom procedures and such, including the jury selection, Brenton’s father on the stand and other items that were probably left out for time and tightness.  Reflective interviews with McGuinness and his assistant that were recorded after the film came out are included, as well as a look at the actual handwritten confession, a biography on director De Lestrade, and promos for other Docurama titles.

Summary:

There are no ifs, ands or buts about it…you MUST see Murder on a Sunday Morning.  It’s as emotionally charged, absorbing and electrifying a documentary as ever captured on film.