Imagine you’re a mother of four with one on the way. You and your husband have also committed to adopting a four year old boy with special needs. Out of the blue one day he becomes incredibly ill. You try to get him to the hospital, but ultimately he doesn’t make it. Suddenly every move you’ve made is questioned and almost without warning, the detectives investigating the case declare that you’ve killed your son intentionally. They charge you with capital murder. Your life is turned upside down, but that’s nothing compared to what you will have to endure after you’ve been convicted and sentenced to life in prison. No parole. If you’re Hannah Overton your fight is just beginning.
Following close on the heels of other recent true crime documentaries like Making a Murderer and The Jinx, Until Proven Innocent had its world premiere this weekend at the Dallas International Film Festival where it was greeted with a packed house and a standing ovation. The documentary recounts the story of Hannah Overton, a Corpus Christi woman who was sentenced to life in prison without parole after her 2006 conviction for capital murder. She was accused of intentionally killing her four year old son Andrew. This documentary is an incredibly sober, clear eyed take on Hannah’s case. This is not to say that the film doesn’t have a point of view, it certainly does, but it is none the less fascinating, gut-wrenching, and ultimately a very rewarding experience.
To use a word like simple to describe the film might sound like a dig, and, to be honest, for the first ten minutes or so, it might have been a world I would have used negatively. But after seeing the whole film the simple, no frills style of the filmmaking is absolutely a strength of this documentary. There are no (or very few) drone shots of Corpus Christi or stylized recreations of key moments in the narrative. Instead what you get is a very honest, straightforward account of the facts of the case.
Using interviews with the key players (Hannah Overton, her lawyers, medical experts, etc…) as well as Texas Monthly reporter Pamela Colloff who has written extensively about wrongful convictions, the film pieces the story together for you step by painful step. There’s also some skillful use of courtroom footage and news broadcasts from the time. These pieces of footage are crucial, because this film does a really phenomenal job of investigating not only what happened in the courtroom, but also the media’s role in the story. There’s a very clear connection between law enforcement, the prosecution, and the signal boosting the media did of the official story of what happened. As in many cases, these connections played a huge role in shaping the narrative that emerged about Hannah Overton in Corpus Christi.
Also central to this film are interviews with Hannah’s husband Larry as well as Hannah’s mother and children. Beyond being a compelling true crime documentary, this is also a heartbreaking family drama. After Hannah is convicted and sent away, Larry has to raise their five children as a single parent and also find a way to maintain his relationship with his wife. This family, and the way they have stuck together during this ordeal, is truly inspirational and is one of the strengths of the film.
Another strength of the film is just how thorough it is in taking the audience through the case. This is the first of this recent wave of true crime stories I’ve seen that actually includes an interview with one of the prosecutors! The film also includes interviews with the original defense team AND the appeals team. The only major players not interviewed in the film are the original detective on the case and the District Attorney at the time. This kind of access is pretty amazing and goes a long way to granting credibility to what the characters in the film, and ultimately the filmmakers, are trying to say with this documentary.
Sibling filmmaking duo Jenna and Anthony Jackson have a very special film on their hands. According to the Q&A with the filmmakers after the screening they have had a few offers for distribution via TV and are also shopping the film around to some other outlets. So while you may not be able to see the film yet, I’m confident it will make its way on to your TV set (or laptop or tablet or whatever) very soon. If you’re a fan of true crime documentaries (or just good stories in general) this is one to watch out for.