The Netflix Doc 'Strong Island' Is A Necessary & Heartbreaking Look At The U.S. Justice System
You probably haven't heard about the 1992 murder of William Ford Jr., and that's likely because his death never received a trial, never mind publicity. In the new Netflix documentary Strong Island, William's brother, Yance, tells the story of his sibling's full, promising life and his tragic death at age 24 in Suffolk County, Long Island. Yance, along with his mother and sister, doesn't hold anything back in the doc, which starkly contrasts the murder's obvious horror with its opaque judicial proceedings. In sharing their deep grief and anger, the Fords illustrate how the investigation of a murdered black man can slip through cracks in the justice system.
In April 1992, William was shot and killed by a young white mechanic named Mark Reilly, after William had gone to the shop to get his sister's car from the shop and the two engaged in a dispute. (The district attorney later reported that Reilly feared for his life and claimed self-defense in the killing.) William's case was determined by a grand jury comprised of 23 people who ended up not indicting Reilly, and so he was never brought to trial and walked free. All these years later, Yance still has questions about what happened in the shop and what led the grand jury to that decision.
At the opening of the film, Yance speaks on the phone with a member of the District Attorney's office, who handled the case back in 1992. The prosecutor tells Yance that she doesn't want to give a comment on the case, even after Yance asks her to answer the questions that he states have been, "plaguing [him] for the last 22 years." In the documentary, the lawyer's tone is harsh, and her quick censure of Yance's probing of a "confidential" hearing sets a dark tone for the whole film which doesn't ever really dissipate.
William's best friend, Kevin Myers, who was with William at the garage when he was killed, says in the documentary that he believed that William's case never stood a chance due to the circumstances of his death and the grand jury's make-up. Even the moment after William was shot, Reilly was protected by the law, Myers says, and was even allowed to ride in a limo from the crime scene, without handcuffs. "From the time William was shot and the limo pulled up, the story got made," Myers says in the doc.
William's mom, Barbara, seems to agree with Myers. "I did not feel like we were received as parents of a victim," Barbara states in the doc, before going on to claim that she felt the police investigated William's background more than the crime itself, as if he had done something wrong. Barbara spoke as a witness before the grand jury, and in the film she describes feeling ignored by the group.
"They were sitting in an area like a theater... One person was reading a book, another lady was reading a magazine, there was a conversation going on. My feeling were when I sat in that chair, they don't care what I have to say, they really don't. They weren't paying attention," Barbara claims. Considering that Long Island, where the Fords lived and where William was murdered, is predominately white and segregated, it makes sense that the entire grand jury overseeing William's case was all white. This was something Barbara took into consideration while testifying, she says.
Grand juries have often determined whether or not defendants who have killed unarmed black people should receive formal trials. Recently grand juries — not preliminary hearings — determined no-bills (no indictments) for the policemen who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and those are just two examples of a larger trend. A 2014 New York Times article reveals that grand juries tend to favor police officers in fatalities. Particularly troubling from the report is the way that defendants are sometimes able to get away with embellishments. "In shooting cases, officers often testify that they perceived a deadly threat and acted in self-defense. This stance can inoculate them even if the threat later turns out to be false," the article states. Myers echoes that sentiment in Strong Island, by telling Yance, "After leaving the grand jury... I strongly felt that everything was being made to present a case of 'Mark [Reilly] was scared, he did what he did because he was scared.'"
Even without the police acting as defendants, grand juries can cause skepticism. While preliminary hearings (which also decide whether or not to charge the accused with a crime) occur in public with lawyers and a judge, grand juries hear witnesses' testimonies privately with a prosecutor. David Breen, an Assistant DA interviewed in Strong Island, explains that grand juries are kept secret for the defendant's protection, too.
"The idea there is, if the grand jury decides that there is not probable cause, that the person should not have the stigma of having been brought before a grand jury," Breen explains. While a trial absolutely could have ended with Reilly being found innocent, he was never accused of committing a crime because of the grand jury's decision.
Even though Strong Island focuses only on William's case, it will certainly lead audience members to question the effectiveness of some grand juries, and how race relations can play a role in the way some cases are treated by the law. Racial biases are omnipresent in the U.S., not helped by people like Trump, who tweeted graphics saying, "Blacks kill 81 percent of white homicide victims" when the actual FBI reports reveal it's 15 percent. Strong Island illuminates the everlasting effects that those biases can have on a family like the Fords, and how the justice system can fail black people by allowing accused white people to go uncharged.