The Perils and Pleasures of Making a Documentary Film
In 1998, Pamela Yates and Peter Kinoy of Skylight Pictures set out to
produce a documentary film that would explore the crossroads where the
abstract constitutional ideals that guide our criminal justice system clash with the emotional realities of people facing loss of their liberty. With that decision, Kinoy and Yates embarked on a journey that led them deep into the hearts and
minds of five public defenders. That journey culminated in Presumed Guilty.
For weeks, they traveled all over the country, scouting offices of public defenders in different cities and trying to convince them to allow cameras into their offices and even into closed-door discussions with clients and other attorneys. In many places, such as Hennepin County in Minnesota, Peter and Pamela were grilled relentlessly by public defenders with well-honed confrontational skills, and felt as if they had been put on trial themselves.
"We were presenting our case against 15 antagonistic public defenders, each one with their own arguments about why this project could never work."--Peter Kinoy
After eventually choosing the Office of the Public Defender in San Francisco, one of the most active in the country, they soon realized that every element of the criminal justice system is a fiefdom unto itself. Convincing the public defenders to allow cameras was only the first step.
The County Sheriff's Department had told Yates that she was not ever to take a camera into the holding cells behind the courtrooms, where prisoners wait to be brought before the judge. But on one occasion she was filming Public Defender Jeff Adachi when he had received a final offer from the prosecutor for defendant Lam Choi. As he was headed to a holding cell to communicate the offer to his client, he invited Yates in with him. As it was such a rare opportunity for access to the protected realm of attorney/client privilege, she decided to take a chance.
However, when the Sheriff's Department found out she had been in the holding cell with a camera, they demanded the videotape and told her that she had been banned for life from the City and County Jails of San Francisco. Jeff Adachi intervened and took the blame for allowing Yates into the holding cell. The scene she shot turned out to be one of the
emotional peaks of the film. Eventually, Pamela regained the trust of the Sheriff's Department.
The Filmmakers Build Relationships of Trust in the Confrontational World of the Criminal Justice System
Pamela Yates experienced the perils of entering the realm of attorney/client privilege. She had obtained special permission from Public Defender Jeff Adachi to meet defendant Lam Choi alone in jail to ask some questions about his upcoming trial. Adachi agreed with the caveat that she not ask Choi any questions about his case. During the interview, Choi unexpectedly said that he had killed Vietnamese gang boss Cuong Tran. Adachi was extremely upset when Lam told him about the interview. Yates thought that since Adachi was planning a "self-defense" defense that he and Choi had agreed it was alright to admit the crime. Yates was afraid that Adachi would ban her from the public defenders office. However, when she showed Adachi the tape, he could see that Choi had confessed without being asked if he had committed the crime. Because of this, Yates was allowed to continue following the case, although it took time for her to regain Jeff Adachi's trust.
Peter Kinoy discovered that the career of his father, Arthur Kinoy, as a constitutional lawyer opened many doors, providing him with an unforeseen entreé into the world of criminal defense attorneys. When Kinoy started scouting public defenders' offices around the country, the attorneys he met told him what a big influence his father had been in their lives, either because they were his students at Rutgers University or because they followed his work in constitutional law. Kinoy was pleasantly surprised to find his filmmaking career overlapping with his father's life in the law, creating a new bond between them.