How This Man’s Movies Are Getting People out of Prison
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because everyone knows there’s injustice — Shawn Rech is doing something about it.
Alstory Simon thought he’d never get out of prison. Because of a coerced confession, he was serving 37½ years in Illinois for a double murder he didn’t commit. He’d been reduced to a statistic, until nine-time Emmy Award winner Shawn Rech — who had a history of catching killers with his Crime Stoppers TV show — decided to shift his focus to documentary films to help free wrongfully convicted and over-sentenced prisoners.
After finding out about Simon’s case through Chicago attorney Andrew Hale, Rech’s producing partner at Transition Studios, Rech was on a mission to spring Simon. He knew film could be an effective advocacy tool — a forum for showcasing unjust sentences, questioning the fairness of our criminal justice system and crafting credible stories that entertain but also inform and potentially make huge impacts on people’s lives. Since the crime shows were barely paying the bills and Rech’s ultimate goal is to write and direct his own scripted movies, he saw documentaries as the logical next step.
“There’s a huge hole in reporting right now,” says Rech, who’s not one to mince words. “Journalism has chased dollars to the point where news organizations have chosen the choirs to whom they’ll preach … And what is news? Yelling and screaming and name-calling? You just don’t see that much thoughtful, long-form journalism.”
With serialized crime series like Making a Murderer and The Jinx and podcasts like Serial becoming staples of pop culture, Rech seems to be the right person at the right time. His first film, A Murder in the Park, got Simon out of prison in 2014, when Time magazine included it among the “15 Most Fascinating True Crime Stories Ever Told.”
And Rech is at it again. He’s working to win the release of Richard Wershe Jr., who’s served 29 years for a nonviolent, juvenile cocaine charge, and Cleve Heidelberg, locked up for 47 years for a cop killing he didn’t commit, when White Boy (which won the Audience Choice Award at the Freep Film Festival) and Wrong Cat, both feature-length documentaries, are released later this year.
He’s like a one-man Innocence Project.
The true crime genre, which dates back to Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line (1988), has been criticized because “it’s too easy for filmmakers to sway an audience with a story that might be partially created for the purposes of adding drama or conflict to the film,” Richard Stratton, from Big House Productions, tells OZY. Filmmakers are not journalists beholden to the rules of factual reporting, and oftentimes, their relationship with the prisoner and the defense can result in an inadvertent shading and shaping of the facts — “much like an overzealous prosecutor,” says Stratton — to deliver a story they want audiences to believe.
But Rech takes pride in presenting the facts and letting the audience decide for themselves. “When we tell a story, we make sure it’s a lockbox case,” he says. “We don’t hint a lot or insinuate; we’re really clinical. We say, ‘This happened, and here’s the proof.’”
Rech, a perennial underdog who came to film late in life, was born in Independence, Missouri, and adopted at 6 weeks old by a young couple. He recalls being a terrible student in school and having a great family life; despite the focus of his work, he’s never had any run-ins with the law. He always wanted to get into movies, but kept making excuses: telling himself he’d do it when he had enough money to call the shots, when he teamed up with the right people or when he found the perfect story. None of that happened, and, after battling alcoholism and drug use, he finally got sober and took the plunge.
“Inexpensive equipment, attainable state-of-the-art technology and unbelievably talented people who were unemployed: I’m enough of an entrepreneur to jump all over that,” Rech says. Noting that crime shows have long been popular — the CSI shows for Vegas, Miami, New York — he says recent hits like The Jinx and FX’s People v. O.J. Simpson amped up demand for tales of true crime.
Brandon Kimber started with Rech as an intern eight years ago. That turned into a full-time gig with Transition Studios, where he’s served as Rech’s cinematographer, editor and sometimes co-director. Kimber was initially overwhelmed by the thought of two people shooting and editing a half-hour show each week for Crime Stoppers. Now, more than 200 episodes later, they’re making features for Showtime and Netflix. “Shawn is a risk-taker, and knows how to spot a good story and execute a project,” Kimber tells OZY.
Rech’s work isn’t limited to true crime stories. He kept a promise to back Kimber’s American Gospel, which examines how American culture has perverted the Bible’s message. He’s also producing Todd Thompson’s Woman in Motion, a profile of Nichelle Nichols, whom many recognize as Lt. Uhura on Star Trek, but few know of her efforts to recruit women and minorities for NASA.
But the crime cases will always be his reason to get up in the morning. He’s like a one-man Innocence Project turning his lens on sentencing disparities, entrapment and the many failures of the prison system.
Rech’s goal is to “shake things up” once they’ve succeeded in exonerating three or four prisoners who shouldn’t be behind bars. “It would be nice if, one day, authorities hear we’re about to take a look at a case, and they respect our work enough to take another look,” he says. All he asks is that we “stop [and] listen to this story … then you determine if this is right or not.”
Since his release in 2014, Simon has joined Rech’s inner circle, living in Cleveland and working with him. “Shawn means a lot to me,” Simon tells OZY. “A guy … who tries to correct injustices done to people like me. I’m not saying these things because of his participation to help me get my freedom; I’m saying these things because I’ve seen his heart.”