Even before “The Staircase” came along, I never believed in the clean, compartmentalized justice system that so-called “realistic” TV crime shows had conjured up.
In this mythical realm where good is good and bad is despicable, viewers were trained to expect each program ending with a “suspect” whose conviction was a mere formality. Prosecutors would wear the white hats and practice real law, while defenders flailed around performing shifty legal maneuvers, a tipoff to the presumptive guilt of their clients.
Eight riveting hours of “The Staircase” demolished this house of cards.
Airing on Sundance Channel in 2005, this real-life thriller from two French filmmakers told the story of Michael Peterson, who was accused of killing his wife by pushing her down the stairs in 2001.
Viewing the case through the eyes of the defense, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade and Denis Poncet showed a morally upright legal team undercutting the prosecution’s case at every turn, exposing its flimsy construction and, thus, calling into question the motives of the DA’s office.
At the same time, “The Staircase’s” unblinking eye showed the defense’s case slowly coming apart. Peterson was revealed as an unsavory fellow with dark secrets in his past, with each revelation more damning than the one before. By refusing to take sides, “The Staircase” produced a relentless tug-of-war between the competing stories - one pulling for conviction, the other for exoneration - leaving many viewers both exhausted and unsure if the jury had reached the right verdict. (Indeed, the North Carolina Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments on Peterson’s appeal this week.)
Now from the same filmmakers comes a new series, “Sin City Law,” beginning at 9 EDT tonight also on Sundance.
Over eight hours you will see four criminal cases prosecuted in Las Vegas. And once again, Poncet and de Lestrade, along with director Remy Burkel, are determined to show criminal justice for what it really is: a grim battle in a dense fog of conflicting facts and unreliable witnesses between two sides, each convinced of its rightness.
Tonight’s opening case is a particularly tough one. In 2003, Beau and Monique Maestas, siblings high on meth, attacked their dealer’s two young daughters with knives. The question is whether Beau should die for the crime and Monique spend life without parole behind bars, or whether the brutal details of their young lives are mitigating circumstances.
The filmmakers get an assist from an older sister who somehow got out, married and had a normal life. In scenes that change the whole trajectory of the case, at least in my mind, Misty Maestas describes, lucidly and compassionately, just how desperate the situation was inside their home growing up.
Next week’s case isn’t quite so hard on the gut. A young man implicated in a gang shooting may not have been the shooter - but in a classic instance of honor trumping common sense, the man is willing to serve the time anyway.
Unfortunately, juror misconduct undid the first conviction, and by the time the DA’s office went back to re-interview the witnesses, their stories are starting to change. And so it becomes almost like a “Law & Order” episode turned on its head, with defense attorneys trying to get the truth out of the suspect while prosecutors are the ones running around plugging leaks in the dam.
In an interview this summer, Burkel said that Las Vegas was chosen over other cities because the district attorney there agreed in writing to give the filmmakers full access to the prosecutors. But in tonight’s case, they didn’t. That’s because, explained Poncet, “As soon as the word `death penalty’ is in their mind, they have a different attitude.” Still, just as they did in “The Staircase,” the producers show an unerring eye for the details that bring out the truly ambiguous nature of many criminal cases.
SIN CITY LAW
The 8-hour documentary miniseries airs for four weeks at 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. EDT Mondays, beginning Sept. 10, on Sundance Channel (digital cable).