KUNM

'Crown Heights' Seeks To Do Justice To A Saga Of Wrongful Conviction

Sep 17, 2017

The new film Crown Heights begins in the spring of 1980, with a single gunshot ringing out on a Brooklyn street corner. But the film is less a whodunit than a chronicle of the personal nightmares that killing set in motion. Colin Warner, an 18-year-old immigrant from Trinidad, was wrongfully convicted of the murder. The film tells the story of his two-decade imprisonment, and the friend who worked tirelessly to finally get him out.

Warner's case happened against the backdrop of a crime wave in New York City, and a tough, often indiscriminate response from law enforcement. His conviction was based on coerced, false testimony.

The film also follows Warner's childhood friend, Carl "KC" King, who spent years fighting for justice, even after Warner himself lost hope. King spent more than two decades raising money for lawyers, tracking down witnesses and filing appeals. In 2001, Warner was finally exonerated and released from prison.

A few years later, their story was featured on This American Life. "I couldn't get their voices out of my head," says film director Matt Ruskin, who happened to catch the episode during his drive home.

Ruskin knew the story had the makings of a feature film. After convincing Warner and King that he would do their story justice, he set to work on a script that drew heavily from primary sources.

"Carl had become sort of the chief archivist of this case in the process of pulling these appeals together," Ruskin says. "So when I started he just handed me this binder of basically everything ... court transcripts, depositions from witnesses, police reports, autopsy reports."

Ruskin chose up-and-comer Lakeith Stanfield to play Colin Warner and he says that Stanfield's dedication to the role was clear throughout. For example, between scenes actors usually have the opportunity to relax somewhere comfortable — but Stanfield requested a prison cell.

"This one cell in particular — I don't know why — I was like, I want this to be my trailer," Stanfield recalls. "In between takes I would just sit in there. I just kept telling myself: This is nothing compared to what he had to experience. So if I wanted to embody the character, I had to feel a little bit uncomfortable sometimes."

The story also resonated with former NFL player and actor, Nnamdi Asomugha, who plays King.

"It was written really artfully," Asomugha says. "It wasn't saying that all cops are bad, and it wasn't destroying everyone in the legal system. It was saying there was a criminal justice system at that moment that was more interested in conviction than in truth."

Asomugha says that beyond the film's critique of American criminal justice, the story of King's perseverance and Warner's dignity spoke to something more universal.

"Fifteen minutes after he gets out of prison, he's got a microphone in his hand, and cameras on him, and the first thing that he says is: I'm not mad at anybody. I forgive everyone that put me in this position," Asomugha says. "That's the first thing that struck me. Like that's what it means to be human."

Sixteen years to the day after King submitted his final appeal to win Warner's freedom, Crown Heights premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. The real Colin Warner and Carl King were in the audience with their families. Warner says it was tough watching his own story play out on the big screen.

"A lot of the feelings came back — feelings I don't want no more," Warner says. "I'm trying to lessen the impact on me. Even though those experiences make me the man I am today, it's time to move on. And this is what I'm trying to do now — move on with my life. Create a family and just watch my family grow."

Still, Warner says, he hopes his story can offer strength to prisoners who wrongfully sit behind bars today, fighting for the vindication that he finally found.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

How far you'd go to help a friend is one of those classic existential dilemmas. And that question is at the heart of a new film called "Crown Heights," which is out this weekend. As NPR's Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi reports, the film tells the true story of a man imprisoned for more than 20 years for a murder he did not commit and the friend who finally got him out.

ALEXI HOROWITZ-GHAZI, BYLINE: "Crown Heights" begins in the spring of 1980, with a single gunshot ringing out on a Brooklyn street corner. But the film is less a whodunit than a chronicle of the personal nightmare that murder set in motion.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CROWN HEIGHTS")

LAKEITH STANFIELD: (As Colin Warner) When the police arrested me that night, that was it. I haven't been back home since. My life ended right there. Most of these prisoners, they know deep down they put themselves here. But I don't have that comfort.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: That's Lakeith Stanfield playing Colin Warner, an 18-year-old immigrant from Trinidad wrongfully convicted of the murder. Warner's case happened against the backdrop of a crime wave in New York City and a tough, often indiscriminate, response from law enforcement. And his conviction was based on coerced false testimony. The film also follows Warner's childhood friend, Carl KC King, who spent years fighting for justice even in the moments when Warner himself lost hope.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CROWN HEIGHTS")

STANFIELD: (As Colin Warner) Why are you still at this, man? You got your family. You got your job. You got your life. Why you keep wasting your time on me?

NNAMDI ASOMUGHA: (As Carl KC King) It's not just about you. It could be me in here.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: King spent more than two decades raising money for lawyers, tracking down witnesses, filing appeals. In 2001, his friend, Colin Warner, was finally exonerated and released from prison. A few years later, their saga was featured on This American Life. That's how the story ended up in the ear of "Crown Heights" director Matt Ruskin on his drive home.

MATT RUSKIN: Really, I couldn't get their voices out of my head after I heard their piece.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Ruskin knew the story had the makings of a feature film. And after convincing Warner and King that he would do their story justice, he set to work on a script that drew heavily from primary sources.

RUSKIN: Carl had become sort of the chief archivist of this case in the process of putting his appeals together. So when I started, he just handed me this binder of basically everything, which was court transcripts, depositions from witnesses, police reports, autopsy reports.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Ruskin chose up-and-comer Lakeith Stanfield to play Colin Warner. And he says that Stanfield's dedication to the role was clear throughout.

RUSKIN: Usually in between scenes, actors will be taken off to somewhere comfortable. And Keith asked to be held in another prison cell.

STANFIELD: This one cell in particular, I don't know why, I was like, I want this to be my trailer. And in between takes, I would just sit in there. I just kept telling myself, this is nothing compared to what he had to experience. So if I wanted to embody the character, I had to feel a little bit uncomfortable sometimes.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: This story also resonated with former NFL player Nnamdi Asomugha, who plays Carl King.

ASOMUGHA: It was written really artfully. It wasn't saying that all cops are bad, and it wasn't destroying everyone in the legal system. It was saying that there was a criminal justice system at that moment that was more interested in conviction than in truth.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Asomugha says that beyond the film's critique of American criminal justice, the story of Carl King's perseverance and Colin Warner's dignity spoke to something more universal.

ASOMUGHA: Fifteen minutes after he gets out of prison, he's got a microphone in his hand and cameras on him. And the first thing he says is, I'm not mad at anybody. I forgive everyone that put me in this position. The first thing that struck me, I'm like, that's what it means to be human.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Sixteen years to the day after Carl King submitted his final appeal to win Warner's freedom, "Crown Heights" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Cheering).

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And the real Colin Warner and Carl King were in the audience with their families. Warner says it was tough watching his own story play out on the big screen.

COLIN WARNER: A lot of the feelings came back. It's feelings I don't want no more. I'm trying to lessen their impact on me even though those experiences make me the man I am today. It's time to move on. And this is what I'm trying to do now, move on with my life, create a family and just watch my family grow up.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Still, Warner says, he hopes his story can offer strength to prisoners who wrongfully sit behind bars today, fighting for the vindication that he finally found. Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.