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.