‘Crown Heights’ screening at BAM includes thoughtful discussion on wrongful convictions
Carl King devoted 21 years to trying to prove his friend Colin Warner’s innocence after he was incarcerated for a murder he didn’t commit. Nearly 16 years later, Matt Ruskin’s film “Crown Heights” exposes flaws in the court system and the institutional racism responsible for Warner’s conviction. The movie was screened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Peter Jay Sharp Building on Oct. 10.
Tuesday’s crowd was lucky enough to hear from King after the movie ended during a special discussion panel.
The panel was moderated by Grace Aneiza Ali, and included King, Rodney Roberts — another innocent victim of the court system — and defense attorneys Debora Silberman and Cathleen Price.
King opened up the discussion by giving hope to those in similar situations. “Sometimes you don’t have the resources as far as the monetary front to move things, but once you have that heart and that love, it carries you a long way,” King said.
Many of the panelists expressed how important family support is when dealing with similar cases, and that people often become victims simply because they don’t have a good support system.
“It’s unfortunate that the system is going to judge the individual … based on that family,” Silberman said. “Does that person deserve less just because they don’t have parents there? Unfortunately it is a system that is very visual.”
Price added that a lack of family support cannot only hurt a person during a trial, but that a support system also becomes necessary in helping the wrongfully convicted to prove their actual innocence. She emphasized the amount of heart this feat requires, while comparing the film’s 94-minute runtime to the 21 years King spent behind bars. Those 21 years encapsulated the struggle that an estimated 120,000 people still face today in the U.S.
Roberts labeled the struggle that people endure to prove their innocence as a David-versus-Goliath-type of battle. In addition to the cases of mistaken identity and the many legal hoops that Warner had to go through to prove he was innocent, there are often other lopsided advantages that prosecutors take advantage of.
“It’s [the public defender’s] lack of funding, lack of support, with an understaffed and overworked office, against the prosecutor’s office, which has an enormous budget [and a ] great staff,” Roberts said.
Plea deals can often be tempting for public defenders who are generally involved with many cases at a time. This makes it easy for cases like Roberts’ or Warner’s to fall through the cracks. Silberman added that many sides can often put pressure to come to a plea agreement and that people often take a plea to avoid potentially more prison time.
“People unfortunately do plead guilty to things they don’t do because the risk of going to trial,” Silberman said. “The risk of doing time when you’ve got family, when there’s so much to lose, is such an overwhelming choice. “
This comes along with the pressure from public defenders as well. “It happens all the time,” Silberman added.
Price helped end the conversation with a piece of advice. “Get out the vote,” Price urged the audience. “Your prosecutors are elected. They are elected representatives of you. They do this stuff in your name. Hold them to account.”
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