It's easy to lose track of all the appalling stories recently told, whether in podcast or documentary form, of miscarriages of criminal justice - particularly where a person of color is wrongly arrested, publicly excoriated and even wrongly convicted (if not outright killed) in a predominantly white community. The details of one outrage bleed into the next, and then to the next, until documentary-related despair sets in. What can one ever really do about it, except watch and hopefully learn?
Filmmaker Liz Garbus' "Who Killed Garrett Phillips?" (airing in two parts Tuesday and Wednesday on HBO) meticulously and even masterfully brings its viewers to this very place of angry exasperation, laying out the narrative details of a botched murder investigation that some of us might have been vaguely aware of, if at all.
I'll admit to being something of a Garbus fanboy - she's great at what she does, on subjects as varied as Nina Simone, Gloria Vanderbilt or the inner workings of the New York Times' Washington bureau. One of her finest projects for HBO, "There's Something Wrong With Aunt Diane," which was about a horrifying 2009 drunken driving crash, continues to haunt anyone who has seen it. (A friend told me that if in the afterlife we get the answers to everything we wanted to know, one of her first questions is going to be about Aunt Diane.)
"Who Killed Garrett Phillips?" may seem to be a far more banal story at first, especially in our never-ending supply of true-crime tales on offer these days. It's about the unsolved October 2011 murder of a 12-year-old boy, Garrett Phillips, who was strangled by an intruder while he was home alone in the Potsdam, New York, apartment he shared with his mother and brother.
Laying out a timeline of Garrett's death and the earliest decisions by local and state police to focus on a single suspect rather than pursue other potential leads, the film slowly builds its story around the incompetent and often racially biased work by the officers who professed to care so deeply about the crime. They immediately go after Nick Hillary, a Jamaican-born soccer coach at Clarkson University, who, in addition to being one of the few black men who lives in Potsdam, had also dated Garrett's mother, Tandy Cyrus.
After failing to intimidate Hillary into confessing (Garbus makes expert use of publicly available footage from inside the police station), the case devolves into a heartbreaking and laborious five-year travesty, in which the town and its prosecutors (as well as Garrett's family members) keep trying to pin the murder on Hillary, with no real evidence.
The film distinguishes itself from similar documentaries with its intimate, inside access to Hillary and the lawyers and others who worked to prove his innocence. Garbus is also evenhanded with officers and prosecutors, probing their recollections and observations - including those of Garrett's mother's other ex-boyfriend, John Jones, a white officer who insinuated himself early into the investigation and rushed to console her and hold her hand during police questioning right after the murder. More amateur storytellers might use this angle to provoke suspicion; Garbus wisely lets it rest there for the viewer to mull.
That allows "Who Killed Garrett Phillips?" to concentrate on its real takeaway: Absent any evidence, a boy is still dead and an innocent man's livelihood was all but ruined by zealous authorities. It takes a certain moral courage these days to make a crime documentary that sticks to the facts rather than detonate a fresh series of theories or otherwise "solve" the crime. In other words, the film leaves the question in its title unanswered, as Garbus gives her sources an opportunity to speak (or not) about the choices they made. Ambiguity is not a flaw here; in fact, it's what makes this story so compelling, so infuriating and so sad.