DNA testing has not only revolutionized our criminal justice system, it's also given documentary filmmakers a whole new genre of wrongful-conviction stories to tell. Yet when co-directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg began following this North Carolina rape-murder case in 1984, there was no such testing. With a white victim who worked for a newspaper, "justice" for young, black Darryl Hunt was swift and sure. Subsequent appeals were denied, yet crucial evidence was preserved such that, after two decades in jail, he gets his chance to be exculpated by DNA—assuming that prosecutors and jurors are willing to believe it. Perhaps what's most distressing in the powerful but plodding Trials is how science, like evolution, is viewed so suspiciously in the South. When one defense attorney sarcastically comments, "Most of North Carolina is in the 20th century," you're not so sure he's right. Like the similar recent After Innocence, this SIFF '06 documentary prizewinner has a fantastic core story to tell, but the filmmaking is earnest, artless, and literal-minded. Hunt deserved—and eventually got—better legal counsel, but his case also deserved the interest of a better filmmaker, like Errol Morris. As our legal system catches up to genetic science, these movies need to catch up to Law & Order and CSI.
Hunt (right) as teenage defendant.
Runs at Northwest Film Forum, Fri., July 27–Thurs., Aug. 2. Not rated. 113 minutes.
Note: Hunt's attorney, Mark Rabil, will introduce Friday and Saturday's screenings.