The brief for "Boston DA" -- the working title for FRONTLINE's two-part
"Real Justice" series -- was to get beyond the stereotypical sound bite coverage
of criminal justice, usually seen in the form of a lawyer reading a
well-prepared statement from the front steps of a court house.|
We wanted to understand how the system works on a day-in, day-out basis, as
opposed to the occasional high-profile cases -- O.J., William Kennedy Smith,
Louise Woodward -- that the media latches onto. We wanted to understand the
system better by getting closer to the people who work within it.
I was already well-versed in the joys -- and frustrations -- of filming court
cases. In the early 1990s, I made a series called "The Trial" about the
criminal justice process in Scotland. It was the first time cameras had been
allowed to film trials in the UK and we spent nine months negotiating the rules
before we were even allowed into the courtroom with a camera.
We had always wanted to build on that experience and make a similar series
about the criminal justice process in America. Our decision on location was
based on a number of factors. First we needed a state that allowed cameras in
the courtroom. Massachusetts filming guidelines are framed in a way that is
very favorable to the presence of cameras. A defendant must show 'serious risk
of prejudice' for the camera to be excluded, not impossible if the footage was
being shown nightly on the news but much harder to prove if the footage is
being screened at a later date -- as we were planning to do.
Second, we needed the support of a local DA's office. When we approached
Ralph Martin's office in Boston the immediate response was "Yes, we'd be
interested, please tell us more about what would be involved." Those two
factors moved Boston straight to the top of our short, short list.
And finally, we wanted a city which offered us a sense of place --
somewhere the audience, particularly the British audience, would be able
to recognize and identify.
In July 1999 we began speaking to every assistant district attorney -- about
140 in all -- on a unit-by-unit basis. These discussions ranged from the
modus operandi of some of Boston's more vicious criminals to an assessment of the
Boston Red Sox chances of making the playoffs. In other words, while we were
looking for busy areas and DA's who we thought would work well on film, we were
also trying to get a feel for the motivations and passions of those working in
the DA's office and the justice system as a whole.
We met with the presiding judges of all the courts where we hoped to film, as well as the cream of Boston's defense bar, taking recommendations from each lawyer
as to who they would most like to be defended by, should they ever get into
trouble. (This question was inspired by my mother, a lawyer, who would always
be able to tell me who she was most likely to call on to defend me, if I ever
needed defending in court!)
The Boston Police Department gave us permission to film officers at work on
the streets and behind the scenes preparing cases with the DA's office. One of
the most important structural lessons I've learned is the pivotal nature of the
relationship between the police and DA's office. Getting the police cooperation
made an enormous difference to the project, giving a much truer sense of the
system as a whole. It meant we weren't just confined to the courtroom but could
film the all-important discussions that take place in the corridors and
precincts around the courthouse. And in many ways, it's in the corridors
around the courts where "justice" is carved up and deals done; the courtroom is
just the rubber stamping of the back-room process.
Associate producer Leeanne Vinson and I shot virtually the whole series
ourselves using the latest generation of digital video (DV) cameras. Shooting
on DV is a liberating experience because you don't have to have a cameraman in
tow, and you can hang out waiting for something to happen without having a
major impact on the budget. It also meant we could shoot events at very short
notice. This increased our flexibility and access to people and stories we were
following. But we were careful to use documentary sound-recordists -- crucial in
terms of maintaining craft standards and retaining a true documentary feel to
We knew Roxbury District Court had great energy and atmosphere. The judges
were receptive to the idea of documentary filming and the courthouse was
constantly busy with a wide range of interesting cases. I met
Viktor Theiss on an early scouting trip and knew immediately he would
be a great subject for filming. He has enormous energy and really cut a swath
through his workload, which I knew would come across well on film.
Leeanne Vinson met Lisa Medeiros one day in Roxbury when she was
hanging out with Vik, and Leeanne also knew quickly that Lisa would work well
on film. We were struck by the rapport she has with her clients and the fact
that she never talks down to anyone.
It took us a while convincing some of the more senior assistant DA's that
what we were doing was different compared to the usual media coverage of
courtrooms. Josh Wall, Dennis Collins and Eileen Murphy (featured in the second
episode of "Real Justice") were more concerned about taking part than those
involved with the District Courts. In part, I think this is because the stakes
are so much higher at Superior Court. But it's also because prosecutors'
contact with the media is usually when a sentence is being attacked as "too
lenient." Most prosecutors we spoke to seemed to feel that the leniency
attacks directed against them -- which are sometimes very personal -- came from
reporters who didn't know why the sentence was lenient and because the real
facts might detract from the impact of the headline. Those headlines in turn
feed the need for lawmakers to be seen to take a tough stance on punishment or
People often ask my impression of the system as a whole. I find this the
hardest of all the questions about my Boston experiences, mainly because it's
so difficult to characterize the system as a whole in a neat and digestible
In essence, the system seems to work -- most of the people seem to get what
they want most of the time. But in an adversarial system, by its very nature,
one side in every case is going to be disappointed. Often plea bargains result
in both sides being disappointed. As Josh Wall says, "It's a system of
compromise and you've got to make intelligent compromises [to keep the system
I think the integrity of Ralph Martin's office was extremely impressive.
They have been at the center of a more focused and integrated approach to
fighting serious crime that Boston has pioneered in recent years. Martin's
office now works closely with both the Boston Police Department and the
probation service on a stream of programs, like the Safe Neighborhood
initiative. Furthermore, I think the standard of advocacy within the defense
bar is vociferous, diligent and intelligent. The system is the sum of these
parts. And in Boston it works particularly well because both defense and
prosecution are well-funded and well-motivated.
Having said that, I do not believe the system is color blind -- the chances
of young African-American men coming into contact with the criminal justice
system are significantly higher than their white counterparts. From what I
observed, if an African-American man in his mid-20's appears in Roxbury
District Court with no criminal record it's assumed he must have given an
alias, so unlikely would it be that someone in that neighborhood could get into
their mid-20's without a record.
One African-American witness I spoke to shared an on-going joke within the
African-American community: "After you call the police to an incident, you must
shout loudly and quickly as the police arrive at the scene 'I'm the victim'
otherwise you might end up getting arrested." The underlying point is a
serious one. And, of course, the issue of racism goes much wider than the
criminal justice system.
I also wondered why some people who ended up being treated as criminals
weren't treated as patients - and again the answers are far more complicated
than the question. Mental health within the criminal justice system is a huge
issue, and a subject I'd love to explore further in the future.
But overall, despite these reservations, my impression was of a system
working hard, under enormous workload pressure, to get the best for defendants
and victims. Vik, Lisa, Judge Leary, Judge Russo, Dennis Collins, Roger Witkin,
Jack Cunha,, Josh Wall, Mark Lee, Mike Collora, Eileen Murphy, Billy Doogan and
the many other lawyers, police officers and judges we filmed during the course
of our ten months in Boston reflect that commitment to 'doing the best' and
fighting their corner tooth and nail which is, ultimately, the greatest
strength of any system.
(for more read Ben Loeterman's producer's notebook)
Ben Gale specializes in long-form documentaries and spent the first eight
years of his career working for the BBC Documentaries department, producing
'access' documentaries which went behind the scenes of various
what's it like elsewhere? |
viktor theiss |
lisa medeiros |
behind the scenes
One of the pioneers in using digital camcorders, Gale produced for BBC1 in 1997
the first 'digital' series, "Firefighters." The previous year he produced and
directed three films in "Airport," the acclaimed popular-documentary BBC1
series and went on to produce a BBC1 series about life on an intensive care
unit and "Lakesiders," chronicling how shopping malls have become an integral
part of British life in the 1990s.
Working with Lion Television director Nick Catliff, Gale made two films for
BBC2 for 'The Trial' series which was the first time cameras were allowed
inside British courtrooms. He is currently living and working in San
Francisco, producing a six-part series, "Law and Order," for The Learning
Channel, and executive producing "Coroners," a six-part series for MSNBC.
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