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Criminal justice is one of the most potentially fascinating and riveting subjects a documentary filmmaker can tackle. Famous crimes such as the West Memphis child murders and Central Park jogger case have made for some of the most well-received documentaries of that past ten years (“West of Memphis” and “The Central Park Five,” respectively) and have demonstrated the just how powerful the plight of the wrongly accused can be for audiences.
“dream/killer” is a film chronicling the fight of Bill Ferguson to free his son Ryan from a 40-year prison sentence for a crime he did not commit. Ryan Ferguson was convicted of the 2001 murder of Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt. Two years after the murder took place, police arrested a man named Charles Erickson. Erickson had been partying with Ryan the night of the murder and had no memory of that evening’s events, having been under the influence of alcohol, cocaine, and Adderall. Despite claiming to have no memory of that night Erickson was concerned that he and Ferguson were involved in the murder and, through prompting during his interrogation by police detectives, ended up confessing to the crime and implicating Ferguson as well.
The film thoroughly lays out every misstep during Ryan Ferguson’s trial. Despite no physical evidence, Ryan Ferguson was found guilty of second-degree murder and robbery based on the eyewitness testimony of three individuals: Erickson, whose polished and rehearsed account of the murder in court directly contradicted his outright incorrect statements to the police regarding the murders; Shawna Ornt, a janitor who was called to testify that she saw two college-aged men at the scene but flatly told police that she was certain that Ferguson was not one of them — a fact neither prosecutor Kevin Crane nor Ferguson’s defense attorney asked her in open court; and Jerry Trump, Ornt’s supervisor and a convicted sex offender who told police at the time of the murder he could not identify the two men but in court two years later claimed to recognize Ferguson from a photo in a newspaper his wife sent him in jail.
The story then turns to Bill Ferguson’s 10-year quest to get his son — his best friend, really — the justice he deserves. We see extensive footage of home movies that show just actively involved in his son’s life he is. From playing basketball with Ryan as an elementary school kid to skydiving with him as a teenager, Bill Ferguson was determined to be the best father he could and be there to teach his son about life. You can feel his anguish as the years slip away and Bill wonders if he will live to see his son leave prison.
It is that dedication and heartbreak that fuels Bill in his efforts to prove Ryan’s innocence. Bill begins digging for evidence to exonerate his son and after years of poring over court documents, interviewing witnesses, walking the crime scene, and brazenly campaigning in public on his son’s behalf, he makes such a compelling case that Kathleen Zellner, a lawyer who has famously obtained the release of 17 wrongfully convicted clients, agrees to take on Ryan’s case pro bono.
“dream/killer” excels at telling the story of Bill and Ryan Ferguson. There are several face-to-face interviews with both men throughout the film, and it is easy to sympathize and root for them. Bill, in particular, is energetic, hardworking and of surprisingly good humor at times given the circumstances. He has the kind of passion and gumption that one would wish for in a doting father.
As a family drama, “dream/killer” is engaging. As a criminal justice documentary, it is less successful. Clocking in at a hefty-for-a-documentary 109 minutes, the first half-hour drags as it meticulously replays Ryan’s trial blow-by-blow. This approach credibly builds the argument that Ryan was wrongly imprisoned; I was convinced literally 15 minutes in after seeing video of police “helping” a confused and possibly unbalanced Erickson “reconstruct” the alleged events of the murder. But director Andrew Jenks’ curious decision not to show the audience much of the context of the relationship between Bill and Ryan until after his incarceration robs the film of critical emotional momentum.
It would seem the intent of the film is to stoke outrage at the callousness of the judicial system, to be a call to arms against this miscarriage of justice, but the film simply does not dig any deeper into these ideas. There are no interviews or follow-up on a number of intriguing elements. Why did prosecutor Crane, now a Missouri circuit judge, willfully withhold exculpatory evidence and coach witnesses to perjure themselves? Why did police detectives seize upon the ramblings of the disturbed Erickson and feed him details on a crime of which he clearly had no recollection? Was this unsolved murder of such importance to the local community that the police and prosecutor’s office would risk everything to close the case at the expense of an innocent man’s freedom? Where exactly did the checks and balances that are supposed to be a part of the court system break down? How do the events we see in this case fit into the larger national picture of criminal justice?
These are important questions that could have — and should have — been directly addressed. While these questions are certainly touched upon, the documentary is limited strictly to the thoughts and reactions of those closest to Ryan Ferguson, and the film suffers as a result. Worse still, the film’s narrow focus on the Ferguson family and lack of wider scope, both in terms of the other players involved in the case and the larger implications it has for our country’s justice system, leads one to wonder if it has any ambition beyond being a publicity piece for the Fergusons. Indeed, director Jenks has stated that his original goal was to make a film similar to Errol Morris’ “The Thin Blue Line,” a film that resulted in the release of another wrongly convicted man. As “dream/killer” neared completion however, Ryan was released and his conviction vacated after 9 1/2 years in prison. Perhaps this unexpected reversal of fortune simply undermined that goal to the extent it was too late to effectively rework the film so as to address these larger concerns.
Overall “dream/killer” does a fine job of recounting one man’s unjust imprisonment and his father’s crusade to clear his name, but the film does little to add something new to the conversation about accountability in the criminal justice system. Given how important that conversation is in America today, “dream/killer” feels like a wasted opportunity.