Tuesday, January 18, 2011

"Brother's Keeper": A rural town takes on the Big City

In 1990, Delbert Ward, a poor dairy farmer in Munnsville, New York, was charged with murdering his brother William. The case and town became a media hot spot, and people all over the country followed the murder trial. The story of the Ward Brothers and Munnsville was documented in the 1992 film, "Brother's Keeper."

This weekend, on the recommendation of a friend, I watched the "Brother’s Keeper" for the first time. Although released in 1992, many of the issues that we are discussing today in the context of law and rural livelihood are the same. This film clearly, and emotionally, depicts many of them: poverty in small rural communities, the tight-knit nature of the town, rates of illiteracy that correspond to the poor economy, and stereotypes associated with rural communities and how they are depicted in the media.

The film opens juxtaposing audio recording from Delbert Ward on the stand at his murder trial, with visuals of him trudging through the mud with his cows. The scene would be serene, were it not for the District Attorney’s questions piercing through the calm. Slowly the story unfolds of how Delbert is accused of murdering his sick brother William, with whom he has lived with and shared a bed with his entire life.

Interviews of the Ward brothers reveal that they are poorly educated and live in a dilapidated house in near poverty conditions. Interviews with the people of Munnsville explain how well the community knows one another and views the case against Delbert as one of big city attorneys taking advantage of a simple man who would never hurt anyone.

Throughout the film, residents of Munnsville are surveyed on their thoughts about Delbert's guilt. Most say they either don’t think he did it, or if he did, had a good reason to do so. Like he might have put a cat out of its misery, Delbert might have taken William out of his. Either way, he was not guilty.

The public defender, acutely aware of the larger battle that is being waged in the courtroom, holds community meetings, divulging what would seem to be confidential information about the case to the the local public. The murder trial of Delbert Ward becomes Munnsville versus New York City. Village versus City.

Watching "Brother's Keeper," led me to think about lack of services, specifically legal resources available in these impoverished rural communities. Delbert had a good attorney, but not every murder trial receives the kind of attention that his did. The official poverty rate in the U.S. in 2009, was 14.3%. Other contributors to this blog have written about services to rural communities being slashed, I assume the rural communities on the low end of the economic spectrum are worst off.

Additionally, much of the case against Delbert Ward revolved around a confession he did not write, nor could adequately read. This made me think about literacy rates in the United States and how they correspond to our prison inmate population and statistics of arrest. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the prison population in 2009, was almost 2 million. According to a study entitled "An Exploration of the Relationship between Recidivism and Education," the reading proficiencies of the prison population in 1992 was substantially lower than that average household population. It would be interesting to further investigate the role that illiteracy plays in confessions that lead to imprisonment.

"Brother's Keeper" is a great documentary, illustrating many legal and social issues that face rural communities. I highly recommend it.


Yazzyjazzy said...

This sounds like a very relevant film for today, even though the events took place over two decades ago. Although I have not seen the film, I wanted to comment on how you mentioned that many of the community members seemed to know the defendant's character and were willing to defend him. When I usually hear of this small town phenomenon, where everyone seems to be in the know about everyone else's business, it is usually thought of as a negative quality of a rural area. However, here, many community members are standing behind the defendant because they know him and his qualities. Despite the difficulties in living in a rural area, the support of this close-knit community is a positive.

Anonymous said...

It's a near perfect documentary, that is essentially timeless: only clothing and hair styles have changed. In my opinion, the "rural vs urban" argument is a little overplayed. The police and prosecutors working in any rural area are typically just as knowledgable about the community, if not more so, than the residents, and I really doubt that Ward's attorney was native.

I wasn't surprised by the outcome, but I also halfway expected an impromptu confession from Ward at the end