I’ve been watching a spate of crime documentaries recently; as regular readers will know, I adore gangster movies and love documentaries so it’s a perfect match, plus it’s research for my next book. In case you’re also interested, here are some recommendations from the multitude I’ve watched over the last few weeks.
The Central Park Five
In 1989 New York was a very different place; racial tensions were high, violent crime was a fact of daily life, and the gulf between rich and poor divided the city. I was there for the first time in 1990 and the sense of danger was palpable: Port Authority was a no-go area, I was told not to walk around at night, and even Central Park had become notorious. The reason for this was that the previous year the city was appalled when a young female jogger was found raped and brutally beaten in Central Park.
The crime drew widespread media attention and the police force were under tremendous pressure to find the culprits and bring them to justice. Five young black men were eventually tried and convicted of the crime. However the young men’s confessions, the primary prosecution weapon against them, were coerced and they were innocent.
This documentary shows the events that lead to this miscarriage of justice: how the boys were intimidated, repeatedly denied due process, and left to rot in jail. The film also gives a real sense of New York at the time, a completely different city to the sanitised safe tourist attraction it is now. Well worth watching.
Whitey: United States of America v James J. Bulger
Having spent twelve years on the FBI Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list and sixteen years on the lam, notorious crime boss Whitey Bulger was finally apprehended on June 22nd 2011. In November 2013 Bulger was finally convicted on charges of murder and racketeering and is now serving two consecutive life terms.
Bulger was the head of the Winter Hill Gang in Boston in the 1970s. He was highly intelligent and mercenary, eliminating other criminals, intimidating business owners, shaking down drug dealers, donating money and arms to the IRA, and committing many murders, but all the while seeming not to draw too much attention from law enforcement.
Bulger was famously the inspiration for Jack Nicholson’s character Frank Costello in The Departed, a crime boss who is also an FBI informant. This film goes a long way towards proving that Whitey himself was working with the FBI during his active years and they essentially sanctioned his criminal activities in exchange for valuable information. It show how government departments colluded with a criminal to serve both their interests, although law enforcement officials repeatedly deny this during the film. The film is directed by Joe Berlinger who has previously won acclaim for his Paradise Lost documentary series and it’s riveting.
The Staircase is an eight part documentary series first aired in 2004 and it covers the trial of Michael Peterson, a Vietnam veteran and author living in North Carolina. Peterson called 911 on the night of December 9th 2001 to say that he had found his wife lying dead in a pool of blood at the bottom of the stairs. When police arrived to check out the scene it looked more like a homicide than an accident and Peterson became their prime suspect.
Initially the accusation seemed unbelievable; by all accounts the Petersons were a very happy couple, they had a large family with three biological and two adopted children, they were successful and monied, and there seemed to be no motive. But as the series progresses, facts come to light that turn everyone’s opinion upside down. Peterson appeared to be leading a double life and there is a suspicious death in his past that may have bearing on his trial.
Over six hours we see the lead-up to the trial, how Peterson’s lawyers put together his defence using focus groups, forensic experts and traveling extensively to interview many people from Peterson’s past. For anyone interested in the law, it’s a fascinating look at the legal process in the US and shows how much money is required to mount a defence, a fact which doesn’t escape Peterson who notes that if he were poor, he would probably have been convicted immediately.