One strike and you're out



DVD available from Choices Video.

My introduction to director William Gazecki came with his 1997 debut, the Oscar-nominated doc Waco: The Rules of Engagement. I distinctly remember sitting alone at the Red Vic, my jaw on the floor, watching the damning footage he'd unearthed solve the riddle of who fired first ('twas our government, not the Branch Davidians). In 2002, he released Crop Circles: Quest for Truth, which happened to come out the same year as Signs, marking some kind of crop-circle zeitgeist that may or may not have been informed by occupants of inteplanetary craft. (The doc -- which was not nearly as well-received as Waco -- doesn't prove it either way, alas).

Between this pair of films, in 2000, Gazecki released Reckless Indifference, newly available on DVD. The doc recounts the 1995 crime that's been held as an example of what's wrong with California's felony murder rule. (Read CBS News' take on the case here.) Picture a Larry Clark-directed episode of American Justice, and you'll get a feel for the cast of very real characters: a teenage drug dealer who operated out of a backyard "fort;" a gaggle of middle-class white kids whose suburban boredom inspired them to drink and commit mean-spirited pranks; and parents who took an interest only when it was far too late.

The "fort" where the crime occurred.

Gazecki's film focuses on Brandon Hein, one of three Agoura Hills, CA teenagers who received life without the possibility of parole for the stabbing death of 15-year-old Jimmy Farris. (A fourth who was also only 15 at the time received 29 years to life; a fifth, who drove the boys to the scene of the crime but remained in his truck, got nine years). Prosecutors in the case were able to prove that the defendents were intent on robbing high school drug dealer Mike McLoren -- Farris' best friend, he was also stabbed on that 1995 day; unlike Farris, he survived -- and were therefore able to invoke the felony murder rule, which is truly some tricky shit. (It also dates back to the 12th century, according to this brief history lesson.)

This website breaks it down pretty well:
"A Definition of the Felony Murder Doctrine: A rule of criminal statutes that any death which occurs during the commission of a felony is first degree murder, and all participants in that felony or attempted felony can be charged with and found guilty of murder. A typical example is a robbery involving more than one criminal, in which one of them shoots, beats to death or runs over a store clerk, killing the clerk. Even if the death were accidental, all of the participants can be found guilty of felony murder, including those who did no harm, had no gun, and/or did not intend to hurt anyone."

(The law also came under fire in Colorado, in a case famously championed by the late, great Hunter S. Thompson.)

I'm certainly no legal expert, but Gazecki's film lays out the facts -- with commentary by talking heads like Alan Dershowitz and Randall Sullivan, the Rolling Stone writer who first brought the story to national attention -- and suggests that the chasm between the law and Lady Justice was particularly deep here. Also interviewed are the boys' parents (the victim's dad was an LAPD officer whose status likely added significant political shadings to the trial); in addition, an interview conducted with Hein by then-CA State Senator Tom Hayden is extensively excerpted.

Defendant Brandon Hein.

The film's lack of actual footage of the boys involved is its main drawback. Out of necessity, still photographs, lingering shots of the fort's garishly painted exterior, and America's Most Wanted-style reenactments fill in the blanks as the audio plays interviews with the teens (including a police interrogation of McLoren, who's painted as a bit of a lying weasel -- and, unsurprisingly, refused to participate in this film). Reckless Indifference's heavy score underlines the inevitable comparison to Paradise Lost, pretty much the gold standard for juvenile-injustice docs.

Certainly, Gazecki's film isn't as dynamic or startling as that doc; for one thing, there's no denying that the SoCal boys were directly involved in the killing of one of their peers. (Who did the actual stabbing remains murky, but all present seemed to agree that it wasn't Hein who wielded the knife.) The extent of the teens' punishment, as Dershowitz points out, seemed disproportionate to their participation in what was clearly an accidental death. What's more, the idea that the boys (who were portrayed by the prosecution as gang members) were out to rob McLoren relied mostly on McLoren's testimony. This was what sealed their life-sentence fates, but an audio recording of McLoren's recounting of events reveals him to be awfully uncertain about what really happened that confusing, chaotic, tragic day.

Victim Jimmy Farris.

The case explored by Reckless Indifference also inspired a play, The Prosecution of Brandon Hein, written by actor Charles Grodin. It had a staged reading in New York City earlier this year. Meanwhile, Brandon Hein's website is outfitted with a counter that clicks away the minutes he's spent behind bars (as of right now, he's at 4135 days, 23 hours, 24 minutes, and 23 seconds); there's also a blog by his family with updates on the case.

Link to the Reckless Indifference Filmmaker's Corner blog, featuring a full-length interview with Hein from prison, here.

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