It haunts me to know that Colin Warner spent 21 years in prison for a murder he never committed.
I heard Warner, 55, speak without anger or rancor about his Kafkaesque experience, now depicted in Crown Heights, a documentary-style film that tells his life story. The movie dramatically illustrates how Warner, then just 18 years old, was railroaded to prison in 1980, and the absurd sequence of atrocities that befell him before finally convincing an aggressively disbelieving judicial system to set him free.
“Everything in the movie — well, I’d say 99.8 percent of it — is accurate,” Warner said earlier this month following a pre-release screening of the film at the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival. “It fairly tells the hell that I went through all those years.”
I have no fear of spoiling the movie to say that Warner is today fully exonerated of the crime and living well in Georgia with his wife and children. That much was evident by his presence at the screening. The drama of the movie, which unspools like a documentary but is a 90-minute feature film, isn’t confined to scenes of the awful details of Warner’s arrest and conviction, nor the shameful indifference of a sweeping criminal justice system that did everything wrong in keeping Warner jail for so long.
What makes Crown Heights compelling is far more subtle and corrosive. Warner isn’t in jail — or worse, a fatality of the death penalty — because he had people who loved him enough to never accept the law’s judgment as final.
Crown Heights offers an unflinching view of Warner’s support system and the Herculean effort that endured until he was free. In a sense, the movie is two movies running simultaneously, one showing Warner’s plight, portrayed by Lakeith Stanfield, and another about Carl “CK” King, played by Nnamdi Asomugha, who sacrificed his comfortable life to free his childhood friend. That it would take the two decades and the strength of two lives to eventually prove Warner’s innocence is what makes the movie “a moving tribute” to Warner and King, in the opinion of the New York Times film critic A.O. Scott.
I keep thinking about Warner, a free man today, because he’s luckier than an incalculable number of other people thought to be rotting wrongly in America’s prisons. The clear majority of those wrongly convicted have no childhood friend or knowing advocate to press for their freedom.
Benjamin Rachlin, author of a new book Ghost of the Innocent Man: A True Story Of Trial and Redemption, wrote of another wrongfully convicted black man, Willie Grimes of North Carolina, who spent 24 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit. In a recent NPR interview, Rachlin said that while no one knows the exact number of people who are wrongly convicted in America, but based on studies, the “best estimate is about 4 or 5 percent, which, you know for human endeavor, doesn’t sound so bad.”
But those seemingly minuscule percentages of errors add up to huge effects on the people and their families because of a mistake in our criminal justice system. “In North Carolina, just last year… there were a little under 30,000 felony convictions, about 28,500,” Rachlin said, adding that’s about as many people convicted in 2006, the year Willie Grimes was wrongly locked away. “Four percent of that is 1,200 people, more than a thousand people a year, in one state, like Willie.”
What’s worse, the overwhelming majority of wrongful convictions are of black men, according to a report issued this spring by the National Registry of Exonerations, a program of the Newkirk Center for Science and Society at the University of California-Irvine. The report’s authors — Samuel R. Gross, Maurice Possley, and Klara Stephen — tracked the number of people who were falsely convicted and later set free because of their innocence. They concluded:
As of October 15, 2016, the National Registry of Exonerations listed 1,900 defendants who were convicted of crimes and later exonerated because they were innocent; 47 percent of them were African Americans, three times their rate in the population. About 1,900 additional innocent defendants who had been framed and convicted of crimes in 15 large-scale police scandals were cleared in “group exonerations;” the great majority of those defendants were also black. Judging from the cases we know, a substantial majority of innocent people who are convicted of crimes in the United States are African Americans.
Crown Heights is only a movie, but the issue of wrongful incarceration is true to life. Giving the movie the sense of a documentary, director Matt Ruskin weaves in newsreel footage of real-world politicians — Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, as well as former New York Governor George Pataki — declaring a war on crime and, by extension, on black men.
As the audience watches, years tick by and Warner remains in jail, overcome by a weary sense of futility and despair at the sheer wrongness of the way the criminal justice system works to his disadvantage at every turn. Police lie. Lawyers steal money. Judges turn away. Prison guards abuse. Yet, we know that eventually Warner will prevail. Just how that happens is a testament to his personal humanity and a childhood friend’s never-ending trust and love.
But that’s just one man’s story, not nearly on the scale of the problem of wrongful incarceration. In the larger, political context, the gaping flaws in the criminal justice system must be addressed so that the horrifying events of Crown Heights become less reality viewing and more fictitious entertainment. What will it take for our nation recognize the enormous moral wrongness of mistakenly incarcerating black men? I don’t know for sure. But I’m favorably inclined toward ideas put forth by Georgetown law professor Paul Butler, who makes a credible case for a massive review of our criminal justice system and a movement toward prison abolition.
Meanwhile, I still hear Warner’s voice, long after watching his story and witnessing his presentation, because all of it spoke to the randomness of the horrible injustice perpetrated against him and other black men. What befell Warner could just as easily happen to me or someone I know. And that raises the central, frightening question posed by the movie: Is there anyone out there who would be willing to undertake the damn-near-impossible, sacrificial effort it would require to set matters straight?
Warner said it isn’t worth the experience to find out.
“I don’t know if [the system] can ever make it right,” he said. “But I’m thankful not to be still in prison.”