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Murder on A Sunday Morning

Docurama // Unrated // April 29, 2003
List Price: $24.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by J. Doyle Wallis | posted May 2, 2003 | E-mail the Author
Murder on a Sunday Morning is a Oscar winning (2002, Best Documentary Feature) documentary that aired as part of HBO's America Undercover series. Its story concerns Brenton Butler, a fifteen year old African American who was identified as the killer mere hours following a robbery that turned into a slaying in May of 2000 in Jacksonville, Florida. The victims were an older white couple, the Stevens, who were returning to their hotel room after breakfast, were held up, and Mrs. Stevens was shot dead while Mr. Stevens stood mere feet away.

Seemingly, the arrest was simple- Police quickly took a vague description of the robber, a young black male, dark shirt, long shorts, hat, and began to look around the surrounding area where they eventually picked up Brenton Butler. They took him to Mr. Stevens, who fingered Brenton as the robber. Back at the precinct house, detectives say Brenton openly confessed to the murder after some questioning. However, Brenton had a spotless reputation before that fateful morning, and it soon becomes apparent that the investigation was conducted in a very shady manner. Brenton claims his innocence, that his confession was forced, and that he was beaten by the detectives. He has the bruises to prove it.

Right away, Breton's public defender, Patrick McGuinness, smells a rat- a few of them- and quickly blames lazy racist officers (including the black ex-linebacker detective who got the confession and is the son of the sheriff) who only wanted a quick solution to a public relations nightmare, an elderly white couple robbed and one callously killed by some random black thug. (Something that isn't mentioned in the doc is Florida's problem around this time with tourists being robbed which soured the states vacation industry.) Brenton was black. He was out walking. And, according to McGuinness, that was all they needed to warrant picking him up in the first place. Following his identification- from 50 feet away by a distraught elderly man who'd just seen his wife shot in the face- all they needed was their confession and they'd get it by force if they needed to. So for the defense, it is the simple case of a young black man, going to Blockbuster to get a job application, and being a victim of an overzealous and corrupt team of detectives.

Murder on a Sunday Morning takes place primarily in the courtroom (its pretty much like an astute version of a Court TV/Dateline special) and Patrick McGuinness and his colleague as they set up their defense, taking the cameras along every step. The prosecution is only seen in court. The only witnesses we see outside the court are the pro-defendant side, mainly Brenton's church going parents. McGuinness has the kind of assured swagger that marks him as either a lawyer or a car salesman, and his delivery one-on-one to the doc cameras is exactly the same as his delivery to the courtroom jury- he is always selling his case. He comes across as impassioned and sharp, a testament that the image of bored or ill-educated court appointed lawyers, thankfully, isn't always true. I wont tell what the cases outcome is, but suffice to say, with the docs P.O.V. being the defense of an unjustly accused black boy, it is pretty easy to guess. So, that noted, McGuinness is a very interesting figure as he begins to badger the detectives (ironically with similar anger inducing/insulting coercion tactics detectives use to gain a confession) and poke holes in the prosecutions case.

While it tells a socially important and fascinating story, Murder on a Sunday Morning is unfortunately executed in an unflattering light- that of the bland courtroom. I'm a bit confused over the film garnishing awards since, while it does succeed in presenting its story and the basic flaws in the law enforcement system, it largely lacks personality and any sense of tension or deeply insightful revelation. It is an excellent story, but in term s of documentaries, it just didn't strike me as one of the greats or among the best I have seen. Unlike superior docs along similar subject lines like Paradise Lost and Brothers Keeper, we never really get to know the accused. Brenton Butler is merely a stone faced, quiet kid whose time on the stand is almost all mumbling incoherence and his only real emotional moment comes late in the film when his eyes tear up as his mother testifies. While we get all of the essential details, the doc falls prey to predictability due to its point of view and a dryness due to largely confining itself to the courtroom semantics.

The DVD: Docudrama

Picture: Non-anamorphic Widescreen. As I said earlier, it is pretty much a video production and looks like a edited installment of Court TV. The video is presented as fine as it can be, as sharp and dynamic as the video is likely to appear. But, again, the choice in equipment may have made the films budget lower and easier to maneuver, but it certainly doesn't help improve the staleness of the courtroom setting. I realize it may sound a little unfair to bring up aesthetic complaints when it comes to a documentary, but for me they became a little distracting and added to the coldness I felt.

Sound: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo. More or less your basic documentary audio presentation. A serviceable track that gets the job done. Dialogue heavy, of course, and mainly centered.

Extras: Chapter Selections--- Ten Deleted Scenes. I honestly didn't feel any of these scenes added a tremendous amount. Interesting, but it was clear to see why they were missing from the final cut. As one would expect, the most compelling pieces are in the feature. --- Interviews (30 mins) Basic interviews with all of the principles following the docs conclusion. ---Written Confession. The actual confession Brenton supposedly wrote/dictated to the detectives.--- Director Bio--- About Docudrama text info, catalog, including some trailers to other Docudrama releases--- DVD Credits.

Conclusion: Its fair to say the documentary genre isn't about pizzazz (unless you are Errol Morris) so the transfer here does fine since there really isn't anything to "Wow" over in terms of audio or visuals in the first place. An engaging story and some decent extras make this a worthwhile purchase for documentary fans, though no one extra is so great that I would suggest purchasing the DVD over, say, renting it or watching the film on HBO if they play it again.

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