Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Interrogation of Michael Crowe (Lifetime, 2002)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched a quite impressive Lifetime TV-movie called The Interrogation of Michael Crowe, which though a dramatized movie based on fact rather than an outright documentary like Ofra Bikel’s recent Frontline episode, “The Confessions,” is based on the same theme: the degree to which police interrogation, even when conducted within constitutional due-process limits as the courts have defined them, is a search not for honest information about a crime, but is a tool used when the police have already satisfied themselves that they know who did it and are after them to confess. At least in Bikel’s documentary the victims of abusive interrogation were adults; in The Interrogation of Michael Crowe the person on the hot seat is a 10-year-old boy, Michael Crowe (Mark Rendall), and the person he’s accused of killing is his 12-year-old sister Stephanie (Anna Mary Wilson).

The Crowe family — they also consist of parents Stephen (Michael Riley, a rather dorky-looking but still cute actor whose very homeliness communicates the sense of his being a suburban Everyman, as if this nightmare tale could happen to anybody) and Cheryl (Ally Sheedy, top-billed — if you want to know what she looked like after she outgrew the Brat Pack, this is your movie) and a younger child, Shannon (Hannah Lochner) — have to contend with nightmare after nightmare, first the sudden death of Stephanie in their own home as the rest of them are either asleep or otherwise occupied (since Stephanie is stabbed, one would assume that her killing would have made noise and alerted the family, but perhaps the killer gagged her or otherwise ensured that she would not make a sound), then the insistence of the police on putting their two remaining children in foster care on the ground that it was “policy” to separate family members whenever a killing occurred inside a home, and then the tenacity with which the police fasten onto Michael as their suspect and refuse to believe in any other possibility.

I remember the case when it happened because it occurred in Escondido, in San Diego’s North County area, and it was a cause célèbre way back then in the late 1990’s (the killing happened on January 21, 1998) and early 2000’s (the movie story ends with Michael’s exoneration in 1999 and a brief title card says that in 2002 the California Attorney General’s office stepped in and prosecuted the actual killer, homeless drifter Richard Tuite, played in the film by Christopher Behnisch, though the copyright date on this film is 2002 and Tuite wasn’t convicted until 2004), but the film is an utterly amazing portrayal of a real-life Kafkaesque nightmare, communicating not only the implacability of the authorities — like the ones in the case dramatized in “The Confessions,” when the evidence didn’t support the idea that Michael Crowe had killed his sister alone, instead of questioning Michael’s guilt they simply added suspects and concocted the theory that two of his friends had been involved in it with him, and in the absence of any readily believable motive, the prosecution said the three kids had joined forces to kill Stephanie because they were all devotees of the video-game version of Dungeons and Dragons and wanted to fulfill the game’s violent fantasies in real life — but the degree to which the false allegations wrecked the Crowe family, eloquently symbolized by the scene in which the Crowe parents return to their house, which they had vacated (they had stayed with relatives and Michael was in juvenile custody while Shannon was still in the foster-care system), and find it totally wrecked by police searches, to the point where they have to move and can’t even think of reoccupying it even if they’d wanted to.

This is the sort of movie that makes Lifetime worth watching, the diamond in the rough fans of this channel sit through a lot of barely watchable crap in hopes of discovering: vividly written (by Alan Hines — did Christine Conradt have that week off?) and directed (by Don McBrearty, who deserves special kudos for the superb performance he got out of Mark Rendall as the boy Michael under heavy-duty police interrogation), impeccably acted and with the social-comment aspects of the story — particularly the point that very few people actually know or understand their legal rights with respect to police investigations, including the fact that if you are being interrogated under the U.S. Constitution you have the right to ask the police, “Am I being detained?,” and if you say no, you have the right to walk out of there, and that though the Miranda warnings are part and parcel of American criminal law (at least until the current Right-wing majority on the U.S. Supreme Court, which has already been nibbling away at them, abolishes them outright), 80 percent of people accused of a crime don’t invoke their right to remain silent and let themselves get questioned by the police, who have broad powers to lie to them in order to get them to say what the police want them to say — subtly communicated in Hines’s script instead of being hammered home to us with the usual blatant obviousness.