Matt Ruskin, a Watertown native, has directed a great movie.
I wasn’t sure I had to see Crown Heights — the advertised narrative is sadly familiar: System convicts a young black man of a murder he did not commit and he fights to prove his innocence. But there is a lot to Crown Heights. Alert: Stop here and just go see it if you want to avoid spoilers.
The movie doesn’t simplify reality too much. The convict is not a church-going college-bound athlete. On the streets before his arrest, he steals cars for a chop shop.
Some of the prosecutors are reckless and intent on conviction; some do the right thing. Some of the defense lawyers are careless and incompetent; some are good and deeply committed.
The convict has a temper and lashes out at guards in prison. Some of the guards are nice and some are not so nice. Some witnesses lie for their own benefit. Some tell the truth at personal cost. Some people abandon their friends. Some come through against all odds.
We see a subculture in which young men shoot each other in a cycle of senseless violence. But we also see the young men for what they are — scared kids in a bad spot. It shows urban crime and violence as real problems, but shows how the system can overreach in response.
It’s a well told story. The filming on location captures the streets, the homes, the courts, the prisons very much as they are — intrinsically dramatic. It doesn’t manufacture much gratuitous drama. Yet it’s a story of friends and lovers that had me weeping at the end.
As someone who thinks a lot about criminal justice reform, I appreciated the coverage of the challenges the convict faces in prison and his growth in prison. He faces hard choices about affiliation with an in-prison gang. The danger of in-prison rape surfaces.
Like many young men, he doesn’t have the self-control to handle harsh discipline and assaults a guard. After some years in solitary, he cycles out and settles down, completing in-prison programs and setting up his in-prison life as many lifers ultimately do.
The convict observes that most of the other prisoners have the comfort of knowing that they put themselves there, and so perhaps can make an easier adjustment to prison. But even for those who know their guilt, the lack of life skills that got them into prison can get them in trouble in prison, either with other inmates or with guards.
In Massachusetts, we are considering legislation to reduce solitary confinement. I recently visited the Maine State Prison where they have made dramatic reductions in their solitary population. I was struck by the huge management commitment necessary to reduce the conflicts and responses that lead to placements and continued tenure in solitary.
The film also does a good job at highlighting the dangers of poor police procedure — the great care that is necessary to avoid suggesting stories to witnesses. As the case is portrayed in the movie, the homicide detectives overreached, committing error after error in the investigation. But sadly, even subtler errors can lead to wrongful convictions.
We have before us legislation that would define better procedures in eye-witness identification. The legislation has the support of our police chiefs as well as advocates for the innocent and I hope we can move it forward.
Crown Heights is well worth a rainy afternoon or even a night out on the town.
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