On August 15th, 1982, as the festivities of Chicago’s annual Bud Billiken Day Parade petered out and the city grew quiet under a blanket of seasonal heat, teenagers Marilyn Green and Jerry Hillard were gunned down near a Washington Park swimming pool. Testimony from six eyewitnesses put the spotlight of suspicion on Anthony Porter, whom the police eventually charged for the two murders, plus a handful of ancillary offenses. One perfunctory trial later, Porter found himself on death row awaiting the tender mercies of lethal injection—that is, until 1998, when Northwestern University professor David Protess and his students revisited Porter’s case and wound up getting his sentence overturned.
The story of how Protess’s class freed Porter and saved him from the needle makes for good courtroom drama. The corollary narrative to Porter’s exoneration makes for a jaw-dropping exposé on justice mishandled. Alstory Simon, another Chicago area man, took Porter’s place on death row after confessing to shooting Green and Hillard, but funny thing about Simon: He didn’t do it. Christopher S. Rech’s and Brandon Kimber’s documentary A Murder in the Park not only makes a strong claim for Simon’s innocence, but a harsh indictment of the judicial system that swapped out a murderer for a blameless man. The film is organized and composed, meticulous and thorough, and above all else incredibly persuasive. You’ll recognize that Rech and Kimber have a slanted bias, but you’ll be hard-pressed to dispute their findings.
You’ll also be bored out of your mind. There’s little that’s technically wrong with A Murder in the Park. Viewers with zero knowledge of Porter’s and Simon’s respective stories won’t feel lost in the film’s rigid, detail-rich structure, which is both competently made and smartly organized. At worst, viewers may feel condescended to by Rech’s and Kimber’s insistence on reminding us of so many details and identities any time they appear on camera, but A Murder in the Park calls on so many different experts and participants in the Porter/Simon travail that the gesture almost feels necessary. The film’s big stumbling block isn’t its surfeit of information—it’s just a slog to get through.
A Murder in the Park is a documentary, after all, and documentaries are supposed to research and chronicle. By their very nature, they tell nonfiction stories through the articulation of fact. But great docs strike a balance between illumination and engagement, and A Murder in the Park thoroughly accomplishes the former thanks to fastidious examination of the particulars surrounding Porter’s exculpation and Simon’s conviction. Police corruption, hypocrisy, coercion, glory-seeking and grievous abuse of the laws meant to keep criminals behind bars and protect law abiding types are just the minute pieces that comprise A Murder in the Park’s whole. What Rech and Kimber have uncovered through their efforts is nothing short of appalling (though their clumsy reenactments of both the killings and the subsequent investigations are almost moreso).
But that doesn’t make it exciting. The movie works best when the lens focuses on Simon himself, choking on his emotion while telling the tale of how Jack Rimland, Simon’s attorney, and Paul Ciolino, the private eye hired by Protess to “gather evidence” against Simon, persuaded him toward incarceration. These moments lend A Murder in the Park a layer of humanity that makes its recorded abuses resonate. Ensconced within the film’s standard documentary framework, that element almost feels neglected. Rech and Kimber deserve great credit for crafting a searing courtroom presentation with impressive, convincing power, but their procedural coldness leaves the real victim of this travesty off on the sidelines.
Directors: Christopher S. Rech, Brandon Kimber
Starring: Dexter Hammet, Kevin Adelstein, Joseph Alex
Release Date: June 26, 2015
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine and Badass Digest. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65% Vermont craft brews.