real justice
homewhat's it like elsewhere?behind the scenesstats & factsdiscussion

Producer's Notebook on

Ben Loeterman has been a documentary producer for 20 years, specializing in international and investigative reports. Since 1982 he has produced for FRONTLINE, PBS's current affairs series. His FRONTLINE programs include "Angel on Death Row," a look at the death penalty debate through the eyes of Sister Helen Prejean and the real life characters in her book, Dead Man Walking; "What Jennifer Saw," the story of a white woman's eyewitness testimony that put a black man behind bars for rape until DNA evidence exonerated him and "Apocalypse!" which chronicled the 2000 year history of apocalyptic belief.

In addition, Loeterman produced several films for "The Prize" series which was based on Daniel Yergin's Pulitzer prize-winning book about oil; for The Discovery Channel; and for PBS's "The American Experience" series.

His awards include national Emmys for outstanding achievement in directing and investigative journalism, Amnesty International's Media Spotlight Award, and a duPont-Columbia University Journalism award for FRONTLINE's "The Triumph of Evil" which examined the U.S. and UN's complacency that allowed the Rwandan genocide.

The success of any co-production lies in a shared vision. For "Real Justice," we had a good understanding with our partners from Britain's Lion Television that we wanted to reveal the criminal justice system through a close-up look at its daily workings. This approach would go far, we believed, in breaking through the stereotypes created by tv's legal dramas or the media's coverage of high-profile trials like O.J. Simpson's.

It was unusual that our co-production was cemented even before we shot a frame of footage. And the choice of Boston turned out to be lucky for it allowed Lion TV producer Ben Gale to set up shop in the Boston offices of Ben Loeterman Productions, Inc. (BLPI), allowing the two Bens to consult and screen rushes together on a daily basis.

The programs we were creating -- Lion's 10 half-hours for the BBC, and BLPI's two-part series for PBS's FRONTLINE -- would draw from the same material to create very different films. For British viewers, more than half the interest would come from cameras going inside a courtroom-- something that's still not possible in England. But for U.S. viewers, courtroom footage is old hat, the fodder of local newscasts, so FRONTLINE would have to do much more than simply show the process at work.

The Organizing Principle

The filming covered the various units within Suffolk County District Attorney Ralph Martin's office and followed cases from each unit. In Massachusetts, as in most states, minor crimes, from drug cases to car theft to petty larceny, end up in a lower court --District Court-- where sentences tend not to exceed three years. Serious and violent crimes, from sexual assault to murder, end up in upper court --Superior Court--where sentencing ranges up to life without parole.

This dichotomy in the handling of minor and serious crimes gave us an organizing principle for the material Whereas the BBC programs by nature would be more episodic and span the range of crimes being prosecuted, FRONTLINE would focus on the criminal justice process, which is distinct at the two different court levels.

So in Part 1 of "Real Justice" we focused on District Court. Of the 50,000 cases filed in Massachusetts each year, 48,000 are brought to District Court, the factory floor of the criminal justice system. Here, the volume of cases is phenomenal, and the pressure to dispense with them enormous. Cases are cranked through the system. Most are decided within a matter of weeks.

Superior Court cases, however, take months and involve the kind of preparation and posturing we tend to associate with `criminal justice'-- lots of police investigation and expert witnesses. For defendants here, the stakes are high because the potential sentence is severe. As a result, filming a Superior Court case held out both the promise of heightened drama and the pitfalls of endless delays and lack of resolution. The seriousness of Superior Court cases became the basis of Part II of "Real Justice," which looks at how pleas are bartered when so much is at stake.

Filming took up many months and consumed thousands of hours of videotape. Terrific material went by the wayside. There was a case that worked great for the BBC version-- a teenager accused and wrongly imprisoned years ago for a drive-by shooting of a young boy. We filmed the final stages of hearings and his subsequent release to a cheering crowd. But the case was atypical and we felt it didn't belong. Another case revolved around a tremendously charismatic assistant D.A. who prosecuted a murder trial. It made a great half-hour for the BBC, but the trial unfolds without revealing much of how the system works, and therefore landed on FRONTLINE's cutting room floor.

On the other hand, concentrating the way we did gave us the chance to go deeper into the stories we chose. Part 1, District Court, is seen largely through the eyes of supervising assistant district attorney Viktor Theiss and defense attorney Lisa Medeiros. I had met Vik and filmed with Lisa, and had seen enough footage from their cases to know a compelling film could be woven from a 'day in their lives.' And in fact, the first half of Part 1 was filmed in a single day. Adding bits and pieces that filled out their personalities and caseloads produced a cut that at first seemed way overlong --until FRONTLINE's executive producers saw it and said, "It plays! Keep it at that length!"

Three Cases

Part II entailed harder choices, because the details of the cases in Superior Court would have to drive the film, rather than the flurry of cases and activity in Part 1. The choices and permutations of how to edit the material seemed infinite. But in the end we settled on just three cases that seemed to highlight the tough choices presented and the struggle to achieve that most elusive concept: justice.

In one case, two brothers are accused of murdering a neighbor in a local bar. There were a dozen witnesses, but all claimed not to have seen the murder. The prosecutor, Dennis Collins, was frustrated because the events took place in South Boston, a neighborhood known for its `code of silence,' where people are suspicious of cops and fearful, most of all, of being called a rat. The only case Collins could build against the brothers is circumstantial, which perhaps added to their willingness to take their chances with a jury rather than accept the D.A.'s offer of a plea bargain. But once the jury's out, anything could happen.

In the second case, a 15-year-old is accused of manslaughter in the death of a 2-year-old neighbor's child he was babysitting. The defendant's and victim's families are good friends. The 2-year-old's mother feels guilty that her own actions may speak to the jury, and the public, of neglect. On the one hand, she wants a harsh punishment for the boy who caused her toddler's death. On the other hand... It adds up to a complicated plea that prosecutor Josh Wall decides to offer the young man.

In the third case, Lisa Medeiros returns as the attorney for a woman accused of beating her children. The case is complicated by accusations of prior abuse and the question of whether physical discipline (with a belt) is a matter of cultural heritage and not even appropriate for review by a court. After protracted wranglings that last almost a year, Lisa and prosecutor Eileen Murphy agree on what both feel is a lenient but reasonable outcome. But the defendant has her doubts and feels the lawyers are railroading her.

The thread that weaves these three individual stories together is how the plea bargain comes to be offered and whether the defendants choose to take it. The outcomes represent the range of possibilities when people are forced to roll the dice with heavy jail time at stake.


Once we knew that our material could play without narration, we nevertheless needed a technique to fill in crucial background for our audience. We settled on a combination of two approaches. For Part 1, we used occasional written captions to fill in the gaps. In a film so focused on process, little more was needed. For Part II, in addition to captions--and especially where it was critical to understand the prosecutor's motivation--we added another element. I met with prosecutors Dennis Collins and Josh Wall and asked them to tell me what was going through their minds as their cases unfolded. We recorded their answers on audio and wove them in as voice-over commentary. By getting them to speak in the present tense, the effect is that we're learning their true feelings at the end of a long day.

It was that sense of intimacy that came to be one of this project's strongest attributes. We were lucky. Often, international co-productions mean that producers from different cultures (especially Britain and America, where language gives a false sense of sameness) bring such different expectations that the project inevitably bogs down or breaks down. In this case, we had a shared vision and enough time together to make sure it worked. Ben Gale and his team used small digital cameras that allowed the producers to also be camera operators. It was exciting and broke new ground, and has made me determined to shoot at least part of my next project on digital. As technology makes it increasingly possible to blur the lines of job titles and roles, there will be increasing opportunities (and pressures) to make films for FRONTLINE that allow us to shoot as we research. The trick will be to find subjects that are appropriate for this approach, without compromising journalistic standards or the art of filmmaking.

home | what's it like elsewhere? | viktor theiss | lisa medeiros | behind the scenes
stats & facts | discussion | video excerpt | synopsis | credits
press reaction | tapes & transcripts | FRONTLINE | pbs online | wgbh

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation