Voices: Matt Ruskin

“To spend 20 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, and emerge with his humanity and dignity intact … to spend 20 years, day in and day out, fighting for his freedom, it was just so extraordinary. It was totally compelling.”

Writer/director Matt Ruskin first heard about the wrongful conviction of Colin Warner, and the decades-long effort by his friend, Carl King, to free him, while listening to a radio program almost seven years ago. “I was just so moved by their story,” Ruskin says. “For [Colin] to spend 20 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, and emerge with his humanity and dignity intact, and for Carl to spend 20 years, day in and day out, fighting for his freedom, it was just so extraordinary. It was totally compelling.”

Ruskin was so taken with the case he spent years interviewing Warner and King, the lawyers involved, the radio reporter who wrote the “This American Life” piece, even one of the witnesses. The result is “Crown Heights,” a film the LA Times says, “is a pointed reminder of the gaping flaws in the criminal justice system and the power of perseverance and loyalty to overcome them.”

Colin Warner was 18 years old when he was arrested for the murder of Mario Hamilton in front of Brooklyn’s Erasmus Hall High School in April 1980. He and a co-defendant, Norman Simmonds, were identified by a witness, who claimed to have seen the shooting, and Hamilton’s brother, who said Warner looked familiar. Both were convicted of second-degree murder, and Warner was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. Simmonds, because he was a juvenile, was sentenced to nine years to life.

Every few weeks during Warner’s incarceration Carl King visited him. Acquaintances since they had been in elementary school in their native Trinidad, the two men became close friends after they both began living in New York. Never faltering in his belief in his friend’s innocence, King studied the case, reading the transcripts, analyzing the crime scene, identifying the flaws in the prosecution’s evidence, especially the witness accounts. He found a lawyer, William Robedee, who had worked in the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, who decided to help once King showed him all the research he had done, and all the evidence he had collected.

Their biggest break came from Warner’s co-defendant, Simmonds, who had been paroled in 1989. After King tracked him down, Robedee wrote to him asking for his help, and as Simmonds told “City Limits” in 2002, “I got a letter telling me Colin was still in jail. As soon as I finished reading it, I started to cry.” He admitted he had killed Hamilton, that Warner was not involved, and revealed the names of those who had witnessed the shooting, and could corroborate his story.

Armed with their first-person accounts, their meticulous research, depositions, and the support of Hamilton’s brother, who admitted he had said Warner looked familiar because he felt pressured by investigators, the Brooklyn DA’s office did not fight Warner’s release. He had served 20 years for a murder he did not commit.

It’s a story rife with drama. And for this reason, Ruskin, who has been making documentaries for about 10 years, felt the story called for a feature film. “Cinema is such a powerful way to get people to empathize with other human beings. They can walk away with some sense of what it may be like to be in another’s shoes, being railroaded in the criminal justice system.” He seems to have made the right decision. “Crown Heights” won the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Ruskin says he came away from this years-long effort with a heightened sense of the injustice of the American criminal justice system, especially the racism that has resulted in the mass incarceration of black men. But he also found inspiration. “Just getting to know these guys, I learned so much about hope, and perseverance, and the strength of the human spirit in extraordinary circumstances,” he says.

“Crown Heights” will be in limited theatrical release beginning August 18 in New York, and September 2 in the Bay Area.



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