In this week’s edition of the documentary series Frontline, titled ”An Ordinary Crime,” you’re drawn in by the realization that no amount of evidence is enough to save what is almost certainly an innocent man.
”Frontline” follows a 1997 case in which most of the lawmen are heroes, but the judicial judgments handed down after the evidence is gathered would make ”CSI”’s Grissom sick to his stomach. In a small North Carolina town, three guys commit a holdup; while grabbing some cash, one of them shoots a woman, who survives. Like the title says: an ordinary crime.
Except, of course, for those involved. Everyone agrees that the shooter is a man named Terrance, and a Terence Garner, now 21, is currently serving a minimum of 32 years in jail. Yet director-producer Ofra Bikel, doing an off-camera Grissom-type interrogation, implies that the crime was actually committed by a Terrance Deloach, who confessed to the crime but later recanted.
Who else defends Garner? One of the men involved in the robbery, who says he never met Garner and that, furthermore, Deloach is his cousin; one of the eyewitnesses to the crime, a woman who says she’s sure it wasn’t Garner because she’s known him since he was a child; plus the case’s lead detective.
So who says Garner did it? The woman who was shot, avowing she’s ”120 percent sure” — even though she saw him for only a few seconds and she was shot in one eye; the district attorney, who says, basically, that everybody’s lying; and the judge who passed the sentence, who asserts simply that Garner is guilty, but ”that’s just my opinion.” This ”Frontline” is as tense as any thriller — complete with bullied suspects, shady plea bargains, and a smiling hanging judge.
Bikel’s previous trio of documentaries, collectively titled ”Innocence Lost,” were magnificent exposés of the media-fed hysteria over alleged child sexual abuse at a North Carolina day-care center. She is a meticulously calm, ferociously dogged reporter. When Bikel comes a-knockin’, wise people (of whom she encounters few) head for the hills; Bikel pries open, as if they were weak-willed clams, misstatements, half-truths, stupidity, and lies. All these elements seem patent in ”An Ordinary Crime,” and as sure as ”CSI” deserves a best-drama Emmy, so this documentary ought to help set a real-life person free.