Murder on a Sunday Morning

Benton Butler vs Juan Curtis
Brenton Butler (left) and Juan Curtis (right)

I recently discovered the Academy Award winning documentary feature Murder on a Sunday Morning. It tells the story of the prosecution of Brenton Butler for the murder of Mary Ann Stephens, a tourist to Jacksonville, FL.

It tells a story that we know far too well: a young black man is out walking and the police frame him for a murder. Of course, no one thinks they meant to frame an innocent man. But their casual racism and overt laziness created a narrative which they then did everything they could to make true.

The murder had happened about two hours earlier and they new they were looking for a six-foot tall black man between the ages of 20 and 25. Butler was black, but he was only 15 and considerably shorter than six foot.

Butler made the mistake of being on his way to a Blockbuster video store to apply for a job at the wrong time. The police decided to talk to him. Although there was nothing suspicious about him, the police put him in the back of a squad car and had the victim’s husband, James Stephens, identify him.

Stephens first did it at the distance. He said Butler was the man but that he would like to get a closer look. When he got a closer look, he repeated his identification.

A Terrible Eye-Witness

The film doesn’t go into it much, but this is a terrible set-up. If you show someone in the back of a police car, you are priming them to think that the person is a criminal. And why would the police be asking the husband if they didn’t have some indication that Butler was the guy?

Note that there was no line-up. The standard thing is to get a small group of people who look more or less alike. Then, if the witness identifies the suspect, it might mean something. This identification meant nothing at all.

The Real Killer

A couple of months after the state had embarrassed itself and lost in court, the defense team alerted the police to a young man named Juan Curtis. He not only fit the initial eye-witness’ description, his fingerprints were found on the victim’s purse. The police had not checked for fingerprints on the purse during their investigation of Butler.

As you can see in the picture at the top of this article, Brenton Butler and Juan Curtis do not look at all alike.

Building the Case

Once the police decided they had their man (The first person they questioned!) they set about proving it. That mostly meant interrogating a 15-year-old boy without representation or even telling his parents that he had been arrested.

After hours of this, Butler still maintained that he was innocent so they brought in a “specialist” who beat him up and eventually implied he was going to shoot the young man. That’s when Butler signed a confession.

Interesting thing about that confession: it was filled with a bunch of stuff that went against what was known about the case. But it didn’t matter.

Nor did it matter that the purse was found 9.5 miles away. Butler would only have had two hours to take the purse there and then return home. But this loose end, like all the others, was ignored.

A Bad Prosecution

According to one of the defense lawyers, he contacted the state attorney — basically to say, “You need to drop this case; it’s garbage.” But the state attorney said that they had to prosecute the case to defend the honor of the cops. As is clear in this film, these cops didn’t have any honor. They ranged from lazy to selfish to evil.

The case was led by long-time public defenders Ann Finnell and Patrick McGuinness. They are now part of their law film, Finnell, Mcguinness, Nezami & Andux. Brenton Butler wrote his own book of the ordeal, They Said It Was Murder.

A Great Film

I highly recommend watching this film. Many of the courtroom moments are right out of a Hollywood movie. When the cops aren’t talking about what a terrible job they did, they are lying. And it’s good to see the lawyers tear them apart.

Image created from two frames in the film. It is taken under Fair Use.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

6 thoughts on “Murder on a Sunday Morning

  1. “The film doesn’t go into it much, but this is a terrible set-up. If you show someone in the back of a police car, you are priming them to think that the person is a criminal. And why would the police be asking the husband if they didn’t have some indication that Butler was the guy?”

    I think Victor Hugo was ahead of his time on this one. I’ve heard people say it’s unrealistic that Jean Valjean had a doppleganger who was arrested for his crimes, but I’ve always assumed they didn’t look that much alike. It’s just that when a police officer shows you a suspect and says “this is the guy, right?” you’re likely to agree. The witnesses in that novel were convicts who had reason to try to please the police, but it doesn’t even have to be intentional. There’s just an instinct to agree when prompted, especially by an authority figure, which causes your brain to unconsciously move from uncertainty to certainty.

    • @ Jurgan: I once had cops in Santa Barbara bring the victim of a sex offender B & E to identify me — while my face was being held on the sidewalk! Luckily for me, the victim immediately said I wasn’t the guy. I can easily imagine somebody who just had a traumatic experience making that mistake quickly, and then burning the face of the incorrectly identified person into their memory.

      • Or if you were the wrong race. My experience with Japanese film shows that “they all look alike” isn’t even a racist thing; it’s a familiarity thing. It’s even worse for me because I’m bad with faces I’m very familiar with. (I might be better with Japanese faces at this point!) If someone attacked me, I do not think I’d be able to identify them. And the world would doubtless be better for it!

    • I think that’s exactly it. It’s especially bad because in our culture, cops are thought to be trustworthy. (I have no idea why.)

  2. @ Frank — I’m glad you wrote this (and glad my library is doing curbside DVD pickup so I can watch the film).

    I’ve been meaning to write about a documentary series on Netflix that covers Innocence Project cases. It’s so sad and depressing I have trouble finding words (even though in each story, the wrongly convicted person is eventually freed, years and years later). Some times there are malicious actors in the system, bad cops, DAs looking to rack up conviction numbers so they can run for higher office, etc. Sometimes it’s just blantant racism. And sometimes it’s honestly-motivated people who make a mistake and can’t let it go. A few of those, years later, end up working with the people they wrongly convicted to raise awareness of flaws in our system. Which is the best thing they could do to make amends, but it’s still depressing.

    • You can watch it with the embed now! But I’m glad you mentioned that. I think there are extras on the DVD and I’d like to see them. When my library reopens!

      I hope you will write about that. It sounds great. The whole thing makes me very angry. And it’s really repetitive. We see the same thing happen again and again yet very little changes. It’s usually, “Thankfully, we don’t have to make systemic changes because that issue only applied to that one guy!”

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