Let me be clear: In no universe am I a professional movie critic, as you will see by reading this post. But I am a wrongful conviction lawyer and law professor, and I know a good teaching tool when I see one – plus, I love movies. Crown Heights (2017), based on the real-life exoneration of Brooklynite Colin Warner, effectively communicates the difficulty and sheer force of will it takes to overturn a wrongful murder conviction. I highly recommend it for its entertainment and educational value.
Here are a few thing things I especially appreciate about the movie:
- While a two-hour film cannot possibly replicate the passage of twenty-one years behind bars, the movie – and Lakeith Stanfield’s exquisite portrayal of the innocent Colin Warner – gives the viewer a sense of how slowly the wheels of justice turn and an innocent convict’s many transformations while adjusting to an unjust incarceration.
- The story also realistically demonstrates how incredibly difficult it is to muster enough evidence to overturn a conviction – a task that feels ridiculously impossible in comparison to the ease with which the government gained the conviction in the first place.
- I loved the focus on Colin Warner’s dedicated friend, Carl King (wonderfully played by Nnamdi Asomugha). In so many wrongful conviction cases there is an unsung hero in the background – perhaps a relative, friend, or community volunteer – who, like Carl King, receives no personal gain but willingly sacrifices much to bring an innocent person home.
There is a scene in the film that absolutely devastates me, given my profession. Colin’s friends and family painstakingly raise enough funds to hire a private attorney for one of his appeals. As the attorney stands to present Colin’s case to the judge, the camera’s viewpoint is from the back of the courtroom, where Carl King silently and helplessly watches, and then . . . never mind, no spoilers here. Suffice it to say that this moment is a forceful reminder of what a solemn responsibility it is for a lawyer to take on an innocence case. I pray that I may always rise to the occasion.
With 2.3 million people in the U.S. behind bars, and with as many as 100,000 of them innocent of the crimes with which they are charged, Colin Warner’s wrongful conviction was anything but an aberration. What went wrong in his case? Simply put, the police and prosecutors did not do their jobs. What can citizens who are concerned about justice do? Pay attention, know the issues, use the ballot, volunteer time and resources, and show up when asked. Thank you, director Matt Ruskin, for animating Colin Warner’s ordeal and making his story accessible. Most of all, thank you, Colin, for your willingness to share one of the worst experiences imaginable so that others may not suffer as you did.