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Docurama presents
Murder on a Sunday Morning (2001)

"They knew they didn't have a case. The detective went in and he wrote out what he wanted. And he's a man who gets what he wants."
- Patrick McGuinness

Review By: Joel Cunningham  
Published: April 27, 2003

Stars: Patrick McGuinness
Other Stars: Brenton Butler, Ann Finnell, Detective James William, Detective Michael Glover, Detective Dwayne Darnell
Director: Jean-Xavier De Lestrade

Manufacturer: DVDL
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (some language)
Run Time: 01h:50m:27s
Release Date: April 29, 2003
UPC: 767685954034
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- A-A-B B

DVD Review

Murder on a Sunday Morning, 2002's Academy Award®-winning documentary, seems to be as much a product of a myriad of lucky breaks as a testament to the skill of its director, Frenchman Jean-Xavier De Lestrade. Luck, because De Lestrade was not making a film about something after the fact, but something that he stumbled across while shooting other material. Lucky that the case turned out to be dramatic and thought-provoking. And lucky that it came packaged with a readymade, charismatic lead.

The story starts on a quiet Sunday morning in May of 2000. Mary Ann Stephens, a white tourist vacationing with her husband in Jacksonville, FL, is shot and killed during a robbery attempt. The police have a description of a suspect—a black male, skinny, in shorts and a T-shirt—and they cruise the area looking for suspicious characters. They come across Brenton Butler, a 15-year-old on his way to pick up a job application. Butler fits the description inasmuch as he is black and wearing a dark shirt, so the cops ask him to come down to the murder scene for questioning (ostensibly because he lives in the area).

Not long afterwards, Butler was presented as a suspect to the widower, and identified. The police, thinking they had an open-and-shut case, ceased any and all investigation into the murder and proceeded to take Butler in without a call to his family, without the murder weapon, without the stolen purse—without any evidence save the circumstantial eyewitness testimony of a man who'd lost his spouse only hours prior.

Butler's story is nothing unique; in fact, in a time when racial profiling is a common, if despicable practice, it's almost routine. Except that most cases aren't being chronicled as they happen by a documentary film crew. De Lestrade's cameras are there from the pre-trial stages, following the depositions of the officers involved and the preliminary work done by Butler's public defenders.

His chief defense is Patrick McGuinness, the aforementioned lead, a dedicated, well-spoken fireball as compelling on the case as any character in a John Grisham novel. McGuinness is a rare breed, an excellent lawyer who could be making a lot of money in private practice, but who instead has chosen to remain a public defender. He smells something fishy in the DA's case against Butler—the boy had bruises on his body that appeared after his arrest, and there was a signed confession that all but sealed his guilt in the minds of the prosecutors, though the facts don't add up—and he sets about proving the boy's innocence and revealing the gross negligence of the detectives on the case.

There is obviously an agenda at work, though it isn't the one you might expect. This could have easily been another argument about racism and racial profiling, an important but well-worn subject. De Lestrade instead focuses on the way that people can get trapped in the system, railroaded for a crime that they didn't commit even when there is a total lack of evidence. De Lestrade paints the cops as clueless buffoons, and liars, but he doesn't suggest that they ever thought Butler was innocent. Merely that they didn't look hard enough for alternatives, and thus imprisoned the wrong person.

The editing is a bit one-sided and heavy-handed (we see little of the detectives' side of the story, but we travel to church with the Butler family), but it makes for a compelling drama, and I'm certainly not bothered by rhetoric within a documentary. The footage of the court scenes is fascinating, and though we only get a hint of the prosecution's case, we can see it is weak, and based almost solely on eyewitness testimony. Watching McGuinness tear down the detectives on the stand is like watching Michael Jordon at the top of his game—you know when he's on fire, and you feel it when he lands an important shot.

In the end, Murder on a Sunday Morning isn't really a film about Brenton Butler (who was found innocent and eventually exonerated when the real killer was captured), it's a profile of McGuinness, a somewhat lonely, chain-smoking character who commits himself tirelessly to what many would consider a thankless job. Butler is lucky he got someone who cared enough to do the job right, and De Lestrade is lucky he was there to film it. What's chilling is the thought that many who are wrongly accused are not so lucky.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.78:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Though not anamorphically enhanced, this 1.78:1 transfer looks great for what it is. Unlike many documentaries, which make use of archived footage or old movie clips, Murder on a Sunday Morning was shot almost exclusively in the courtroom. The result is a crisp, detailed video image that features accurate colors (though they do have the somewhat flat look of a video production) and no instances of intrusive graininess or artifacting. The picture quality doesn't match up to a Hollywood blockbuster, but it is a faithful, pleasing recreation of the source materials.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: The audio is presented in simple stereo. Dialogue is always clear, without the background hiss that can result from live recording, and the incidental musical score adds a bit of weight to the front soundstage.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 18 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
9 Other Trailer(s) featuring Regret to Inform, Speaking in Strings, Don't Look Back, Paul Taylor: Dancemaker, Fastpitch, Sound and Fury, Sophie B. Hawkins: Cream Will Rise Todd McFarlane: The Devil You Know, Go Tigers!, Keep the River on Your Right
10 Deleted Scenes
1 Documentaries
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. Butler's Original Police Confession
Extras Review: Docurama is one of my favorite studios, not only because they put out such offbeat, interesting films, but because they always include intelligent, relevant and revelatory extras.

Cast Interviews is a 30-minute conversation with public defenders Patrick McGuinness and Ann Finnell. The two discuss the case, its aftermath, the effect the film had on their lives, and their reasons for entering into public defense when they could easily make more money elsewhere. The interviews show that their "characters" in the film are no mere trick of editing, and that they really are committed to their jobs and concerned for their clients.

The collection of 10 deleted scenes offers additional testimony, filmed depositions, segments on the jury selection (and bland interviews with the jurors), and some humorous asides (including a bit on all of McGuinness' identical suits). The cut material is interesting, but not particularly dramatic, and it is easy to see why it was left out of the already lengthy film.

A copy of Brenton Butler's original police confession is provided, along with a text bio of the director and a Docurama catalogue with nine trailers for Regret to Inform, Speaking in Strings, Dont Look Back, Paul Taylor: Dancemaker, Fastpitch, Sound and Fury, Sophie B. Hawkins: Cream Will Rise Todd McFarlane: The Devil You Know, Go Tigers!, and Keep the River on Your Right.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

Murder on a Sunday Morning is a powerful, provocative, and infuriating documentary that is as much a polemic against the justice system as it is a profile of the public defenders who care enough about their jobs to see justice done. Docurama proves once again to be one of the best independent DVD studios with another wonderful batch of extras.


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