True crime stories make for fantastic entertainment, but as Netflix docu-series Making a Murderer has proven, they are much more than popcorn fodder. As eye-opening illustrations of real-life legal proceedings, airing these cases can expose all-too-common injustices in America’s justice system.
Dream / Killer, released in 2015, is a documentary detailing how an innocent man was sentenced and imprisoned for a crime based on someone else’s dream. The film, which debuted at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, details the 9-year journey of Bill Ferguson’s attempt to free his son from a 40-year murder sentence.
Two years after the 2001 strangling of sports editor Kent Heitholt, Ryan Ferguson was implicated in the murder by his friend Chuck Erikson, who dreamt their involvement and later confessed to it. The film utilizes real footage from Kevin’s arrest, prison interviews and court hearings to shine light on the inner-working of shaky legal proceedings. The footage reveals that together, police coercion and prosecutorial misconduct work to fabricate and push a narrative of a crime with little basis in reality. Their influence put the two men in prison for murder and robbery.
The good news is this: in 2013, Ferguson’s conviction was overturned on the basis that the prosecution withheld evidence from the defense. Indeed, under-oath testimony from a witness that said she did not see Ferguson on the scene was omitted, along with that of a witness that saw the men leave the bar at a time that didn’t match the prosecution’s story. Kathleen Zellner, the defense lawyer currently representing Making a Murderer’s Steven Avery, was a key player in Ryan’s exoneration.
Erickson, who took a plea deal of 25 years for implicating Ferguson despite his lack of memory, remains in prison to this day.
Above all else, Dream / Killer is a story of father and son perseverance and an extraordinary dedication to justice in the face of legal misconduct. The Fergusons agreed to do the film for awareness purposes. “We realized that we were in a position to show the world what could happen to them,” Ryan told the Innocence Project of the documentary. “This could happen to my father and any other of our friends and family, and that’s really scary.”
Ryan’s father Bill added that the general public should be aware of what’s called a Brady Violation, which happens when prosecution suppresses evidence favorable to the defence. “…if the public’s aware of it, and the prosecutors are aware that the public knows about it, I think we’ll see less abuse,” Bill said. “By us exposing this, and raising awareness, we can hopefully help bring about some changes.”
In a former blog post, I detailed some other recommendations beyond awareness that might keep law enforcers accountable for these types of errors, and hopefully prevent false convictions in future cases. While documentaries like Dream / Killer are great for exposure, it takes real policy changes to stop their root causes.