On October 31, 2001, a journalist was killed in the parking lot of his newspaper. Two years later, a 19 year old man named Chuck turns himself in, confessing to the murder, and naming another man, Ryan, in the process. The police confession tapes reveal that Ryan maintains his innocence, and in fact his confusion, throughout the entire interview. Worse, they also reveal that Chuck doesn’t seem to know much about the murder either, though investigators are keen to spoon-feed him details.
The American “justice system” is an oxymoron. The system is broken and I’m not sure it’s serving anyone on either side of the bench. Perpetrator, victim, guilty, innocent, everyone’s getting fucked.
Ryan is charged with second degree murder despite there being no physical evidence. Chuck testifies in court against him, suddenly a very polished and credible witness, totally confident in details that he had no prior knowledge of. Ryan’s lawyer seems lost and incompetent. The other lawyer bullies him on the stand. The jury finds him guilty, sentences him to 40 years in prison. His family, in the stands, sobs.
There’s a certain amount of shock and numbness that I imagine comes with hearing your kid be sentenced to a lengthy prison term, knowing you’ll be dead before he gets out. Ryan’s dad, Bill, marinates in his grief for just 24 hours before realizing that if anyone’s going to save his son, it’s him. Because Bill has never wavered in his conviction that Ryan is innocent.
The justice system has washed its hands of Ryan. He’s rotting in prison, watching his youth waste away. The courts won’t have anything more to do with him. So let’s all take a minute to stop and wonder: if your life depended on your father hustling for you – would you be free, or would you be locked up? Because lots and lots of people accused of crimes don’t have loving families taking care of them. I’d be behind bars for sure. But even if you have a father in your life, does he have the time, the experience, the resources to do this? To learn the law, re-examine the evidence, walk the crime scene, track down the witnesses? Does your father have enough flex time in his job to do this, enough money in the bank account to pursue this, enough energy and persistence to do this year after year (after year after year)?
No “justice system” should rely on lay people to chase that justice. That is not a fair system. Ryan is languishing behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit and yet in many ways he is lucky: he has people who visit him, people who believe in him, people who prop hi up when he’s low. When you’re in prison, stripped of every possession, every freedom, the only way you can be rich is rich in people, rich in loved ones who will pick up that collect call from a federal institution and lend their support.
Ultimately, a documentary like this is a shock to the system. We like to exist in our little bubbles, believing that the world is relatively good, and safe. But if this can happen to Ryan, it can happen to me, or to you. The system needs fixing and we all should be motivated to see that it is. Cops who force false testimony should be fired, made examples of. Prosecutors who do shady things, including fabricating evidence and violating the Constitution, should be fired, made examples of, not promoted to judge as he was in this case. And we, as people, need to value justice above easy arrests or empty charges or wins in court. Yes, we like to believe the bad guy is off the streets, but that only works if it’s the actual bad guy, and that means doing a lot more police work – hiring the right kind of police officers, and then making sure they have the necessary resources, the necessary training, and redefining their jobs as finding the truth instead of finding someone to blame.
And here’s the worst part, guys. This documentary is dedicated to seeing Ryan set free. It is a testament to the hard work and persistence of his family. But if Ryan didn’t commit the murder, who did? There is still an innocent man who was beaten to death as he left work. His murderer is still out there. This victim has not seen justice. His case is unsolved – that’s what happens when concentrate on convictions instead of guilt. The wrong guy got sent away, his life was ruined, and terrifying, a killer has been allowed to walk among us, and possibly to kill again. So even if you’re never wrongfully arrested, we are all a little less safe when these things happen and the nightmare reality is: they happen all the time.