In 1999, Anthony Porter was set to be executed by the state of Illinois for a double homicide he committed in 1982. However, just days before his execution, the efforts of a journalism class at Northwestern University, led by professor David Protess, exonerated Porter given the emergence of a video tape that featured a man named Alstory Simon confessing to the murders. These events and their aftermath are the topic of A Murder in the Park, a gangbusters piece of questionable journalism that shuttles on screen a seemingly endless bevy of witnesses, police officers, family members, and peripheral figures in such a quick-witted fashion that directors Christopher S. Rech and Brandon Kimber’s cloying music cues and manipulative reversals could almost go unnoticed. The filmmakers are adept at presenting the expansive course of events, which span nearly 30 years of arrests, prosecutions, and acquittals. The filmmakers begin here, as if Porter’s release signals a victory for justice and hard-fought evidence for the faults of the death penalty. However, Rech and Kimber’s film is actually about re-proving Porter’s guilt and claiming that Prowess, along with a private investigator named Paul Ciolino, badgered and bribed witnesses to give false testimony under duress and promised them monetary compensation for the book and movie deals that would shortly follow.
The major points of the case are proficiently rendered by the filmmakers through a series of diagrams and reenactments, though their bias in the matter is reflected in how the reenactments favor testimonies of the police in defense of Simon. The film goes to painstaking lengths in order to prove that Simon’s testimony came following misconduct by Ciolino, who brandished his weapon, falsely promised the protection of an honest lawyer, and even rehearsed Simon’s confession with him before he gave it on camera. The talking-head testimonies supplement the reenactments, along with a directive score that consistently attempts to make scenes intense, dangerous, lamentful, or triumphant depending on where the filmmakers’ allegiances lie. Among the film’s suspicious claims is that Porter hatched the plot to frame Simon with Protess from prison, though Porter is never shown addressing these accusations on camera, even though he’s featured in several interviews with the filmmakers. For a film hell-bent on stating that Protess and his students were simply interested in proving Porter’s innocence with little regard for the case file or testimony from all eyewitnesses, there’s little introspection conducted by the film itself, much less an explicit address of the filmmakers’ interest in the proceedings. Moreover, nascent issues, such as the license of those backed by institutional power to engage in fear-mongering tactics, are largely ignored altogether.
The film’s best moments come in Simon’s interviews from prison, as he emotionally recounts how he was bullied and manipulated into a confession, given that he was both high on cocaine and in financial straights when he agreed to cooperate. While the filmmakers’ prowess as rhetoricians is thoroughly backed by a concisely presentation of emails, phone calls, and affidavits, A Murder in the Park wholly relies on a conventional and mundane formal approach, which is barely a step above a Dateline or 48 Hours special by appealing to emotional allegiances. Rather than stripping the material bare and seeking to present facts free from its own tactics of coercion, the film’s wholly complex and provocative social pleas slip too frequently into the seedy realm of journalistic exploitation.