'Dream/Killer': Tribeca Review

Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival
A powerful story of abuse of power.

A father never gives up in his campaign to prove his son's innocence.

A true-crime, false-conviction doc in which detectives and prosecutors in Columbia, Mo., coach some witnesses and suppress others while convicting an innocent 17-year-old of murder, Andrew Jenks Dream/Killer watches the decadelong struggle for justice in the case of Ryan Ferguson. A needlessly obscure title is just about the only thing wrong with the doc, which is otherwise completely straightforward in its telling of a case sure to infuriate viewers. After fests, it should fare well on television, contributing to an important discussion of ethics in prosecution, especially relating to prosecutors' pursuit of judgeships: One of the key villains in this tale, prosecutor Kevin Crane, is now a Missouri circuit-court judge.

Ferguson was out partying with friend Charles Erickson on the night in 2001 that a journalist was killed in a parking lot. Two and a half years later, an anonymous 911 call suggested he was involved. While Ferguson unwaveringly insisted he knew nothing of the crime, Erickson was more pliable, thanks to his having blacked out that night on alcohol and drugs: We watch interrogation-room video as detectives manipulate his testimony, feeding him information about the killing that he clearly didn't know. Despite no physical evidence, Ferguson was convicted.

Ryan's father, Bill Ferguson, recounts where things went from there, as his tireless search for evidence an incompetent defense lawyer didn't find chips away at the prosecution's case. Ryan had been in jail five years before he attracted the attention of Chicago's Kathleen Zellner, "attorney for the damned." And then the real work started.

The elder Ferguson proves very sympathetic here, in both his paternal devotion and his can-do ethic. (He remembers interviewing possible witnesses using his own "figure-eight technique" and modeling his demeanor on Perry Mason; later, he mounts garish publicity campaigns for his cause.) Zellner and Ryan make engaging interviewees as well. The rightness of the Fergusons' cause is obvious so early on that, through the second half, the main story is at risk of being overshadowed by its subject: All of us understand that systems of justice are run by humans who make both innocent mistakes and willfully cheat. But why must those systems be so averse to fixing the errors of the humans who run them?

Production company: Bloom Project

Director: Andrew Jenks

Producers: Chip Rosenbloom, Andrew Jenks, Dylan Ratigan

Executive Producers: Daniel Zinn, Brendan Crane

Director of photography: Mike Edmund

Editor: Sam Lee

Music: Portugal. The Man

Sales: Abby Davis, Preferred Content

No rating, 109 minutes