“Got the questions,” writes Dr. Judy Melinek. “Will work on the answers ASAP.”
Under normal circumstances, when I can’t arrange to see a movie with someone and then talk about it afterwards, I call them up and we talk on the phone. But when the “someone” in question is Dr. Judy Melinek, the renowned San Francisco forensic pathologist and New York Times bestselling co-author, even a short phone conversation can be tricky to schedule.
I’m busy. She’s busy.
She’s really, really busy.
So Melinek (www.drworkingstiff.com), co-author with T.J. Mitchell of the book Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner, has opted instead to have our post-film conversation in the form of emailed questions and answers.
In this case, I know that she’s already seen the movie.
David & Me, a mesmerizing documentary by Ray Klonsky and Marc Lamy, is being presented this Monday, March 16, at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, as part of a nation-wide, two-year-old program known as “Science on Screen.” That same evening, at theaters across the country, a spectacular array of films with subtle science connections will be screened, each movie paired with a scientific expert who will introduce the film and talk about the science at work in the story.
At the Capri Theatre in Montgomery, Alabama, Soylent Green will be screening, and chemistry professor Dr. Maureen Murphy will be there to discuss the nutritional value of people. In Brookline, Massachusetts, at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, novelist Deborah Blum (The Poisoner’s Handbook) will be discussing the history and potency of arsenic, along with the classic Cary Grant farce—you guessed it—Arsenic and Old Lace.
In San Rafael, Melinek will be the scientific guest of honor, accompanying a film about the unlikely friendship between a budding filmmaker and his pen pal—David McCallum, a convicted murderer who, after 29 years in prison, still insists that he’s innocent of the crime that put him there. Melinek, who has worked for years with The Innocence Project (www.innocenceproject.org), will be on stage to explain and illuminate the scientific principles at the heart of McCallum’s case.
In answer to my question, “What did you think of the movie?”, Melinek writes back, “I thought the movie was a moving tribute to friendship, and that it highlights the difficulty in our legal system of overturning a wrongful conviction.”
As she describes with vivid detail and plenty of humor in her book—a memoir of her forensic training and years of colorful training among cops, corpses and criminals—Melinek is often called upon to testify at criminal trials, like McCallum’s. On occasion, the system performs less admirably than it was created to do.
“It is terribly demoralizing to watch our system fail as thoroughly as it does in David’s case,” she writes. “It’s infuriating to watch an innocent man unjustly imprisoned. When I am put under oath as an expert witness, it is my duty to testify accurately and in an unbiased manner—so when I watch the police and prosecutors behave unethically in eliciting confessions, I can’t help but take it personally. They sully the work we all do in pursuing truth and justice in the realm of the public good.”
In David & Me, there is a point where it is revealed that new DNA has been discovered at the scene of the crime. The possibility that someone else might have been present—might even have been the true killer—becomes a pivotal point in the drive to re-examine the evidence of McCallum’s conviction.
“DNA is still a big mystery to a lot of us,” I write to Melinek, asking her to bring her expertise to that moment in the movie. Her response is measured.
“Just because the DNA is there doesn’t mean that the person it identifies is the killer,” she points out. “Okay, so what if he isn’t the killer? Perhaps he’s a useful witness. We can’t know that from the presence of DNA alone, however. We know that the person with this unique DNA profile was there at the scene at some point in time, and that’s all we know. He might be a witness. He might even know what really happened. But if he refuses to testify or get involved, then the defense is back to square one. If there are too many maybes, then novel DNA evidence, which might seem at first to be a great find, may ultimately lead nowhere.”
In the film, there is enormous resistance to the effort of the filmmakers and the team of lawyers and activists they work with. It’s as if the system doesn’t want to admit a mistake could have been made, even if that means letting an innocent man stay in prison.
“Why,” I write to Melinek, “wouldn’t the system want to make sure the people in jail really belong there?”
“It isn’t the judicial system that is the problem,” Melinek writes back. “It’s [certain] individuals within it. There are prosecutors who are promoted and evaluated based on their conviction rate, not on the fairness of the convictions. There are police detectives who are pressured to close cases and meet performance measures for arrests and citations. In Working Stiff, I describe cases in which police officers tried to mislead me about the circumstances of a case—or even refused to investigate a death—in an effort to get me to change what I would write on the death certificate.
“These are the outliers,” she adds. “In almost all of the homicide cases I’ve worked on, I found the police to be professional, ethical and motivated. But it’s the outliers that color our perception of the criminal justice system as unfair and biased—especially when they succeed in bringing about results, like David’s conviction, that really are unfair and biased.”
Thinking about the central friendship of the movie, I wonder at the relative unlikeliness of a lifelong inmate like McCallum becoming such an inspiration to a young man with little or no experience of the justice system.
“Would you,” I write, “ever become friends with someone like that—someone accused or convicted of a horrifying crime?”
“I HAVE become friends with exactly that sort of stranger!” Melinek responds. “Through my work for the Innocence Project, I have met several wrongfully convicted exonerees who are now free men. They are all incredibly inspiring and resilient people.
“Wrongfully convicted or rightly so—people in prison are still people,” she says. “Not all of them have family members or friends who are willing to stand by them throughout the years of their incarceration. But having a connection to people in the outside world is important for prisoners’ mental health, and helps them integrate back into society when they are released.
Melinek then writes, “Information about helping convicts in California reintegrate can be found at http://ca-reentry.org.”
“So, what part of the film stood out for you the most?”
“My only critique of the film is that it focuses on the search for witnesses and not on the forensic science,” she writes back. “I would have liked to know more about the autopsy findings and the other physical evidence in the case, in addition to the DNA. In many cases when the police get a confession, they stop investigating a case.
“But, as the film points out, if the confession is coerced then the physical evidence and eyewitness testimony become essential for exonerating the wrongfully convicted, and for catching the real perpetrator. We have to know what this evidence consists of, and the film doesn’t really explore that aspect of this investigation.”
As our exchange comes to an end, I ask one last question.
“What,” I ask, “would you like people to take away from the film?”
Melink’s response, appropriate for a person as busy as she, is both succinct and practical.
“Open your mind to what you can do to help others,” she says. “Using your skills to help people in need changes you, irreversibly—and for the better.”