Frontline knows how to shake things up in North Carolina. Last week, less than a month after the series aired Ofra Bikel's 90-minute documentary "An Ordinary Crime," about 21-year-old Terence Garner, a state court granted Garner's motion for a new trial. He posted bond and went home with his mother and family for the first time in more than four years.
Garner had been serving a sentence of 32-43 years for robbery and attempted murder—the "ordinary crime" he insisted all along he had no part of.
Bikel—whose award-winning trilogy "Innocence Lost" led the state to drop charges in 1997 in a major child abuse case in Edenton, N.C.—again turned the spotlight on criminal justice in the state. "An Ordinary Crime" aired Jan. 10, generating national media attention, an outpouring of letters and the formation of a grassroots campaign, the Terence Garner Justice Coalition. Still, few of those involved foresaw last week's amazing turnaround—that Garner would be freed and that presiding Superior Court Judge Knox V. Jenkins Jr., would remove himself from the case because of the public perception that he was biased against Garner.
"We in the news business, especially in print—I don't think we quite appreciate the power of TV," says Anne Saker, a reporter for the Raleigh News & Observer who has written at least a dozen stories about Garner's case during the past four years. "Ofra Bikel made a thoughtful, contemplative, careful 90-minute program—and most viewers . . . intrinsically understand that something 90 minutes long is big. . . . I hate this expression but it did 'galvanize the community.'"
Chip Muller, the North Carolina Now correspondent who covered the Garner story for University of North Carolina Television (UNC-TV), said he learned something important. "I wasn't sure how the public opinion would impact the legal system," says Muller, "but it turns out that these are elected officials and . . . all you need to do is bring things to light. That's what affects public servants."
UNC-TV's programming contributed to the documentary's impact on viewers around the state. After consulting with Frontline producers, the state public TV network put together 30 minutes of commentary, hosted by news anchor Shannon Vickery, to immediately follow the documentary. The guests were Garner's appellate attorney, Mark Montgomery, UNC-Chapel Hill law professor Richard Rosen, and Keith Riddick, one of the robbers convicted with Garner, who spoke via satellite from Johnston County.
The next night, host Jay Holloway turned UNC-TV's regularly scheduled Black Issues Forum into a discussion of the case between callers and attorney Montgomery, community activists Jim Grant and the Rev. William Barber, and Terence Garner's mother, Linda Chambers, and producer Bikel (via telephone). Representatives of the prosecution were invited but declined to appear on both programs.
Holloway said that UNC-TV also took a telephone poll of viewers. "It blew out our phone system, so many called in," he said. "Folks were outraged, and that was across racial lines."
Montgomery says that Bikel's documentary lifted the case from obscurity. "The title says a lot: it's an ordinary crime, one of thousands being processed by the judicial system. There's such a high volume, they all start looking alike. It took Frontline to highlight it . . . to give the flesh and blood dimension to this case. It was 90 minutes of attention."
Bikel likewise worries about the legal system's many wrongful convictions and other systemic problems. In an online chat organized by the Washington Post on Jan. 11, the producer said a documentary maker shouldn't have to be the only recourse for innocent people.
"I always say I'm not that good an investigator, I'm not that good a researcher, and the fact that I have already have had 10 people who got out of prison because of the shows I did for Frontline—it shows that something is wrong with the system. I shouldn't be finding these people; I'm not casting that wide a net. I get letters from people—people write to me—that's how I hear about them," she said.
"Last year, I got the Champion of Justice award," Bikel continued. "I'm very glad I got the award, but that shouldn't be. It's a television show. A journalist shouldn't be the one finding this stuff. It's crazy."
Another guy named Terence
"An Ordinary Crime" examines an April 1997 armed robbery of the Quality Finance Co. in Johnston County, near Raleigh. One of the victims, Alice Wise, was shot in the chest and head. She lost an eye but survived. Police sought three black men in their 20s and soon apprehended Kendrick Henderson, who named two accomplices — Keith Riddick and Riddick's cousin from New York, a man Henderson knew only by his first name, Terence.
The ordinary case turned bizarre, however, when, after a brief investigation, police searched their files and found another Terence, a 16-year-old who had a misdemeanor charge for carrying drug paraphernalia. Identified as the shooter by the office manager of the company that was robbed, Terence Garner was arrested and charged even though he had an alibi.
Henderson and Riddick admitted their roles, but both firmly stated that Terence Garner was not the cousin and did not participate in the robbery. However, Riddick was subsequently offered a plea bargain to testify against Garner, which he then did. Only later would he admit he lied on the stand. Last week the court freed him under terms of the plea bargain. (Co-defendant Henderson had persisted in stating that Garner was not a participant.)
At the time, however, the judge and jury focused on Wise, who stated decisively that Garner was the person who shot her three times. A third eyewitness, an African-American woman who said she "practically raised Terence Garner," backed his claim that he had not been present at all, but the court didn't appear to find her credible and the jury never heard her statement.
After the court convicted Garner in 1998, police apprehended Riddick's cousin, Terrance Deloach, who confessed to the crime. Prosecutor Tom Lock announced there would be a new trial, but a day later, Johnston County officials reported that Deloach had recanted.
Montgomery filed an appeal for a new trial for Garner, but that was denied by the State Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court of North Carolina refused to review the case.
Nearly all of the facts and testimony Bikel presented in "An Ordinary Crime" had already been seen by the state court.
"I've been saying the same thing to judges and nobody paid attention till the Frontline show," says Montgomery. "Whenever they affirmed his conviction, they did it knowing what everyone knows now after seeing this. And [News & Observer reporter] Anne Saker broke most of this [story] way back when."
Montgomery has spent countless unbilled hours on the details of the case but the documentary still managed to shake him up.
"I was sort of stunned how moving it was to me [after] I'd been living it for four years. I knew it all in my head, but this blew me away."