Review: Murder on a Sunday Morning

Directed by: Jean-Xavier de Lestrade
Written by: n/a
Starring: Brenton Butler, Patrick McGuiness, Ann Finnell
Released: 2002 / Genre: Documentary / Country: USA / IMDB
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On the morning of May 7th 2000, a husband and wife left their room at the Ramada Inn on University Boulevard in Florida. At around 7.45am they were approached by an unidentified male who intended to rob them. Within moments, the wife had been shot in the head and the shooter had fled.

On that same morning, Brenton Butler, a 15-year old local boy who attended Englewood High School, left his house at around 9.45am to apply for a job at Blockbuster Video. He was stopped by a police officer who was looking for “black males”. Taken to the location of the crime, the husband of the deceased identified Brenton as the culprit. The police ignored two other eye-witnesses who said Brenton was not the man seen in the vicinity of the Ramada Inn.

Brenton was then interrogated by police for 12 hours without his parents being notified. It was only after Brenton’s mother and father issued a missing person’s report that they were allowed to see their son.

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However, the police were happy. They had forced a written confession from the 15-year old. Brenton would claim to his defence attorney that he was coerced into signing the confession, that he did not write it or speak the words that were written. He would tell his attorney that the police harassed him, ignored his rights, and beat him in order to force a confession. The defence attorney would try to prove these claims using photos taken of Brenton at the time of the arrest. These images showed large bruises to his stomach and right eye. Nevertheless, Brenton was charged with the murder and faced a lifetime in jail.

Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s Oscar-winning documentary Murder on a Sunday Morning follows public defenders Patrick McGuiness and Ann Finnell as they build a case to restore Brenton’s freedom, and shows the unfolding courtroom drama as McGuiness puts the police officers on the stand. It’s a powerful and unsettling film about inherent flaws within police procedure, institutional racism, inept investigation and the pressures placed on police from the media. It is also a deeply moving portrait of an innocent young school boy bullied by police detectives and his family who can only look on helplessly. But what really places this documentary amongst the very best is the enthralling depiction of a defence council’s processes in building and delivering a case.

murder on a sunday morning, patrick mcguiness, public defence lawyer,

On initial viewing the audience is unaware if Brenton Butler committed the crime or not. Lestrade exhibits the evidence in much the same way the jury receives it only we are placed on the side of the defence, watching McGuiness and Finnell work with the evidence to build their case. All the while Brenton’s mother and father struggle to keep their spirits up as well as the spirits of their son. We quickly have an inkling that the police got the wrong guy yet we learn that Brenton signed a confession and was identified by the victim’s husband who was stood next to her at the time of the shooting.

But McGuiness, a seasoned campaigner whose weathered face speaks of the endless hours put into his craft, knows something doesn’t add up. He’s careful when interrogating the victim’s husband, knowing that the man lost his wife, but also realising that he may have been mistaken when identifying his client. He notes that the police first asked the man to identify Brenton from 50 feet away while he sat in the back of a police car – McGuiness alludes to the suggestiveness of that situation, the assumed guilt of anyone in police custody. He also wants to question how Brenton could be positively identified given the original description of the attacker – someone who was five to ten years older than Brenton, someone who was three inches taller, someone who was wearing different clothes.

When the police detectives take to the stand it becomes clear that certain procedures were not adhered to while others were completely ignored. Finger prints were not taken from the victim’s purse which was found later, facts supposedly stated by Brenton in his written confession were never verified, and the weapon used in the shooting was never found leaving no connection between Brenton and a gun. The accusation that a police officer threatened Brenton and then beat the young boy is a harrowing and frightening proposition. The likelihood is that it did happen although the detective in question has always denied this.

Ultimately, Lestrade’s film is a damning indictment of police procedures. As McGuiness tells us – in the face of media scrutiny over the murder of a white woman by a black man, the police hurried through their investigation, accepting the husband’s identification of the culprit while ignoring two others who said Brenton was not the shooter, in order to promote a sense of efficient professionalism. Instead of protecting the public, the police took the first African-American man they saw and tortured him into signing a confession. To the media they could promote the idea of a job well done. But crucially, they were sending an innocent man to jail while leaving a cold-blooded murderer on the street with a gun that had already been used in anger. Which is more frightening: what the police did to Brenton, or what they didn’t do for the community?

Whether you know the outcome or not, McGuinness’ determination and guile pulls you into the story while the future of a 15-year old hangs in the balance. Taut and tense, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s brilliant film is both gripping drama and revealing expose. Documentary film doesn’t get much better than this.

Review by Daniel StephensSee all reviews

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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