Crime Film Documentaries

Instructor: James R. Elkins

"Murder on a Sunday Morning"

[1 hr. 51 min.] [film by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade]


"This documentary won a 2001 Academy Award for its compelling account of a reopened murder case that involved a potentially incorrect suspect and shocking tales of police corruption. Brenton Butler, a 15-year-old African-American accused of murdering a woman in Florida, was condemned by everyone involved with the case. But Butler's lawyer eventually reopened the investigation and found some crucial evidence to support his client's innocence." ~ Netflix


The Film


Rotten Tomatoes

Academy Award


Legal Issues: (1) Reliability of Eyewitness Testimony; (2) Coerced and False Confessions; (3) Racial Factor in Eyewitness Identification

Trial Strategies and Issues: (1) Faulty Police Investigations; (2) Police Who Lie

The Lawyers: (1) Savvy Defense Lawyers; (2) Trial Preparation; (3) Cross-Examination to Establish the Truth, or Cast a Doubt on the Witness's Testimony

Update on the Individuals Charged with the Crime, the Civil Law Suit, and Reforms Implemented :


The Legacy of the Brenton Butler case [Florida Times-Union]

The Butler Case: Where Are They Now [Florida Times-Union]

Subsequent litigation in the case against Juan Tirrell Curtis: Juan Tirrell Curtis v. State of Florida, 876 So. 2d 13 (2004)

Defendant's Book: Brenton L. Butler, They Said It Was Murder (Jacksonville, Florida: Vanquish Publ., 2004)

Case Study to Accompany the Film: Jennifer Thompson's Mistaken Identification of Ronald Cotton in a Rape Case

Eyewitness [13:01] Pt.2 [13:07 mins. video] [Lesley Stahl, 60 Minutes, CBS News, March 8, 2009. A report on the use of eyewitness testimony and the attention drawn to the unreliability of eyewitness identification following the prevelance of eyewitness identifcations in DNA exonerations cases. Stahl focuses on the case of falsely convicted defendant, Ronald Cotton, who was falsely accused of rape.] [The jury took only 40 minutes to reach its decision to convict Ronald Cotton.][Prof. Gary Wells, the researcher who has focused on eyewitness identification, is interviewed by Stahl. See links Prof. Wells work: Prof. Gary L. Wells][On Jennifer Thompson and her misidentification of Ronald Cotton, see: Jennifer Thompson-Cannino & Ronald Cotton, Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2009)][PBS Frontline, February, 1997: What Jennifer Saw]

Reviews & Commentary: Academy Award [11:10 mins. video] Review: San Francisco Chronicle An Unusual Documentary

Eyewitness Identification & Victim Eyewitness Testimony

Web Resources and Videos
[collected by James R. Elkins for Advanced Criminal Law: Convicting the Innocent]

Coerced & False Confessions

Web Resources and Videos
[collected by James R. Elkins for Advanced Criminal Law: Convicting the Innocent]

Police Who Lie

Training Cops to Lie
[Val Van Brocklin]


We might begin with "Exposing the Hidden Truth—Cross-Examination,"in Gerry Spence's book, Win Your Case 168-222 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2005). Win Your Case is commonly used in trial advocacy courses, and for good reason.

Spence notes that, "Only the deluded or naïve believe that somehow the taking of an oath prevents witnesses, even honest witnesses, from lying where they must." [187] He goes on to observe that, "Every witness is sworn to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But few do. If they did there would be no cause for cross-examination." [192]

Spence explains his approach to cross-examination this way:

Basic cross-examination is nothing more than a true-or-false test administered to the witness, in the course of which our story, as it concerns that witness, is told, question by question, to the witness. It makes little difference whether the witness answers yes or no. Question by question, our story is being told. It's for the jury to determine whether the witness is telling the truth when he denies the statements contained in our questions. If we took each statement out of our cross-examination and joined them, we would have presented our story for that witness. [170]

Spence's fundamental premise is that cross-examination is a continuation of his efforts to tell the client's story:

"Cross-examination is simply storytelling in yet another form. Cross-examination is the method by which we tell our story to the jury though the adverse witness and, in the process, test the validity of the witness's story against our own."[169]

"When the lawyer gets up to cross-examine he should have a significant story in mind that he wants to tell with this witness." [218]

"[B]efore we begin the cross-examination, we must have in mind the story we wish to tell through this witness. We have prepared the story for each witness and we'll not muddle around asking a bunch of meaningless questions in order to hear our own melodious voices, nor will we repeat the questions we heard on direct examination, except where it is necessary as foundation for a well-prepared cross. And, at last, we ask ourselves, do we want to cross-examine this witness at all?" [218-219]

Links to Web Resources & Videos on Cross Examination
[collected by James R. Elkins for an "Art of Advocacy" course]