Ofra Bikel
Ofra Bikel
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'An Ordinary Crime'
With Ofra Bikel
Producer, "Frontline"

Friday, Jan. 11, 2002; 11 a.m. EST

Someone with your name commits a crime. You are charged. What do you do?

The robbery went wrong, and when it was over, a woman had been shot in the head. Fingerprint evidence identified one suspect, who named two accomplices: a friend and the friend’s cousin, a man he knew only as "Terrance." Police apprehended 16-year-old Terence Garner and charged him with the crime. Garner insisted he was innocent. The co-defendants said they had never met him. Another man with the name "Terrance" surfaced and confessed to the crime, then recanted and was let go.

FRONTLINE's "An Ordinary Crime," airing on PBS Thursday, Jan. 10, at 9 p.m. EST, investigates a bizarre case of injustice where two men with the same name are implicated in the same crime and one -- Terence Garner -- is sentenced to 32 to 43 years in prison.

Award-winning documentary filmmaker Ofra Bikel was online to talk about the case and what she learned on Friday, Jan. 11.

Bikel is known for looking at the U.S. criminal justice system and has a hand in the exoneration of the defendants/convicts she reports on. Her 1999 documentary "The Case for Innocence" profiled several men whose claims of innocence seemed to have been confirmed by DNA testing of trial evidence but who remained in jail. They were eventually set free, as were all of the defendants in the Little Rascals Day Care trial, whom she profiled in her "Innocence Lost" trilogy. The series, which included "Innocence Lost" (1991), "Innocence Lost: The Verdict" (1993), and "Innocence Lost: The Plea" (1997), won awards including an Emmy, two duPont-Columbia Silver Batons and a duPont-Columbia Gold Baton. Bikel's other FRONTLINE films include "Saving Elian," "The Search for Satan," "American Games, Japanese Rules," "Israel: The Price of Victory," and the Emmy-winning "Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill: Public Hearing, Private Pain." Bikel was educated at the University of Paris and the High Institute of Political Science in Paris and began her career in the United States as a researcher for ABC television. During the late 1970s, she returned to her native Israel to produce more than 30 films on political, economic, and cultural subjects.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Bethesda, Md.: I saw your program "An Ordinary Crime" tonight (Jan. 10) and it makes me ill that this poor kid Terence Garner is rotting in jail when he should be out playing b-ball with his friends. Two-part question: is there no one that you have spoken to within the North Carolina state judicial system who deeply cares that an innocent man is missing out on life for no reason, no one with enough doubts, compassion, and guts to demand a retrial? It's possible that Linda Wise was mistaken -- eyewitnesses have been wrong before, haven't they?

Ofra Bikel: His appeal lawyer cares tremendously about it, and actually is devoting a huge part of his life to getting him out. The professor who appeared, Rich Rosen, is very familiar with the case and is the head of an innocence project at UNC. In terms of the prosecution, I don't think so. I think many of them know that this boy should not be in prison, and should get another trial. But I think they have pressure on them. I think there's pressure on the DA, but I think he knows. It passed the jury, it passed the court of appeals, it passed the Supreme Court, and it came out wrong. So much for our system.

We know from all the exculpations of DNA that eyewitnesses are often wrong -- they are the weakest possible kinds of witnesses, but juries believe them. She believes what she said, but does she know? It's doubtful. It's very often that eyewitnesses are wrong. There are two articles on our Web site about just this -- one from prosecutor Gershman and one from a lawyer named Larry Marshall.

Cincinnati, Ohio: What was the make-up of the jury? How many black males and black females? What can the public do to help Terence Garner? And thank you for bringing this injustice to our attention. Thank you for caring.

Ofra Bikel: I don't know. Basically, the jury verdict is understandable. What isn't understandable is what happened after the trial.

Write to the DA, write to the governor -- the address is on the Frontline Web site. All the addresses are there, and you can write to them, call them, e-mail them. Just say no.

Boston, Mass.: Ofra, I watched the show and enjoyed it very much. During the telecast Riddick said something to the effect that the real reason that Garner is in jail is because of "racism," what is your feeling? Also, looking at the other work you have done, to what degree do you feel racism was factor?

Ofra Bikel: You know, I think it's probably some sort of a factor. I don't know, but it's probably always a factor.

Lansing, Mich.: How is it that there are two with the same name and one confesses to the crime?

What is the update on this young man as of now?

Ofra Bikel: Terence Garner has to serve another 30 years at least. As I said in the show, the other Terrence is in prison in New York, and just pleaded guilty to armed robbery and got seven years. He's a career criminal -- he has a long record, and a violent record. He's been arrested seven times. They charged him with obstruction of justice for giving a false confession [in this case], and they dismissed it.

The whole idea of the four people theory is just crazy, because in any conspiracy he would have gotten the same punishment as the shooter. So to let him go makes no sense at all.

Norristown, Pa.: Most Frontline "wrongly convicted" stories I've watched on your program have at least had some DNA exonerations. It seems almost always to be the crime of "injustice at the hand of politically motivated officials."

I recently have seen on newscasts, and even seen advertised in various catalogues, truth detection devices that claim to be laboratory tested, non-intrusive, not requiring sophisticated Phd. trained evaluators, yet never hear of investigative officials, or for that matter, defense attorneys using these methods to exonerate or convict. What's happening on this "front"?

Years ago, I was arrested on mistaken identity assumption, and during interrogation, my life threatened for not "confessing," so my interest in these situations has been life long. Being a sort of middle class white guy, have always felt great empathy for any, especially non-white people, who have too often been victims of this sort of judicial oppression.

I was only held three days without bail, and thought this was my end, but that's how long it took "them" to allow the victim to see me and exonerate. God bless Terence.

Ofra Bikel: I don't know about those other methods.

But DNA is just a barometer to show us how faulty the system is. In most of the cases, there's no DNA. In a robbery, people usually don't leave their own blood. It's mostly rape cases where DNA is used. I'm sure the prosecution doesn't sweat to find ways to exonerate people. Even with DNA you have to fight with the prosecution to allow it, and even with the DNA exonerating people, they can't always get out of prison. It's not easy. Once you're convicted, it's almost impossible to get out of jail -- very difficult to reverse the sentence. You were lucky that the witness said it wasn't you, because the witness could easily have said it was.

Columbus, Ohio: Where is Terrance Garner being held at and what is his state of mind? Does he have family that supports him? Is there a mailing address to write him?

Ofra Bikel: He's being held in Morgantown, N.C., which is five hours away from his home. His family hasn't seen him for five years. They can't afford to make the trip and then stay in a hotel to visit. He is very attached to his mother, who said she could spend money in sending him something to make his life more comfortable, or I can spend the money to visit. She said she wanted to make his life more comfortable.

Last night when they saw him on television was the first time she'd seen him move and talk -- not just pictures. He'd changed tremendously from age 16. He sent the family a picture of him standing with a GED certificate -- he just graduated high school.

She's 35, she has six children -- I think Terence is the eldest, and I think he's the only boy in the family. She's had two strokes and was operated on for cancer about five months ago. They're desperate for him to come back.

It's a real tragedy for this family. They're really supportive. They adore him. They're sure he didn't do it. They couldn't be more supportive, but there's so little they can do.

The interesting thing about him -- when you ask him "who do you blame?" He says "I blame myself. If I had gone to school, I wouldn't have been in the street." He's a nice kid.

Philadelphia, Pa.: I would like to raise money for Mr. Garner's Defense Fund. However, I thought he had a court appointed lawyer, which supposedly is free of charge. Would raising funds be appropriate? What would the funds cover?

Ofra Bikel: It would be appropriate. It would cover everything. What they have now is an investigator, a former FBI guy, who works pro bono and they can't even cover expenses. They're working on finding new evidence. All this costs money -- the filings, the trips.

The defense fund is listed on our Web site.

It's really the difference between the rich and the poor -- what they can afford, how much they have to investigate.

Columbia, Mo.: I think his wrongful conviction is a result of his socioeconomic status more than race. Those who have the money for a good defense have a chance in our legal system. Our poor, many who are black, get the shaft. It makes you re-think our nation's death penalty system. I used to support it, but more and more, I'm seeing that the worst injustice -- wrongly accused -- is a far greater crime our society makes. And it happens all too often, I fear.

Ofra Bikel: I couldn't agree more.

Somewhere, USA: How did Terrence Garner come to the attention of police? Did he have an alibi?

Ofra Bikel: Because two weeks before, there was a sweep for drugs. They found him and he had a pipe in his pocket. They took his picture, and that's how they got him.

His alibi was that he was with his family, but as his mother said, they [the prosecution, police] laughed at them. They didn't believe them.

Tempe, Ariz.: Did you find the eyewitness -- the woman who was shot -- credible? In your opinion, was she mistaken in her identity of Terrance? If so, what factors do you think explain this error? She was obviously very close to the man who shot her and had a face to face look at him. She seemed very very sure of her identification. Also, it seemed to me that the two Terrances did not look at all alike. They are a different size and had a completely different face. Is this a case about race -- all black men look the same to a white woman?

Ofra Bikel: I believe that she believed in what she was saying, because she'd been saying that for the last five years. Do I believe that her memory was correct? I doubt it. But she really suffered. In the program, she said she thought the only worse would be if the wrong person was in prison, and she's sure that the right person is in prison. And she's been saying that for five years. After the sentencing, they found the other Terence, and he confessed. And they went to her and said Alice, we may have [convicted] the wrong person. And she said in the program that she got hysterical and said no no no -- he's going to kill me -- we can't. She'd said it so firmly and so many times, that emotionally I don't think she could deal with the fact that she made a mistake and that a young boy went to prison because she made a mistake.

Do I believe she believes it? Yes. Do I think she made a mistake? Yes. Will she admit it? No. She won't admit it to herself, much less others. I don't think she can make peace with that.

Minneapolis, Minn.: I though I read in the newspaper this week that Terrence Gardner was released from prison. It is this correct?

Ofra Bikel: No. Riddick was released. Terence has 30 more years to serve.

Columbus, Ohio: I understand that there is Defense Fund set up for Terrence Garner, but can we send money directly to Terrence in prison to help him have a "more comfortable stay" so that his mother can save her money and go visit him? How can we help in that area?

Ofra Bikel: His mother's name is Linda Chambers. E-mail "Frontline" and ask them to send you her address and phone number. They need help desperately.

Charlotte, N.C.: You mentioned your Web site. Could you give us the URL?

washingtonpost.com: Here's the link: Frontline: An Ordinary Crime."

Ofra Bikel: You can go here for more information.

Montgomery, Ala.: I hope I am not too late to join in the discussion. I am a civil rights lawyer in the South and was deeply moved and troubled by Terrence Garner's story. I would like to know if Mr. Garner's case is being handled by experts in this field, and if not, then I would like to try to get someone, like the Southern Poverty Law Center or the Innocence Project or someone who would know the avenues, both political and legal, to pursue to get Mr. Garner back to his family. I have some contacts within the criminal defense field and have been up most of the night wondering how I could help Mr. Garner, if possible.

Ofra Bikel: He has a very good appellate lawyer, but they always appreciate help or advice.

The lawyer is Mark Montgomery, and his address is on the Frontline Web site

Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Thank you for such a powerful and thought provoking piece. I'm wondering why appeals to the Governor have not been made yet, and why this case can't or didn't go before a different judge (because it seems there is a conflict of interest with Judge Jenkins, if he did make a mistake it certainly seemed that he would not want to admit to it), who are Supreme Court Justices accountable to, say if they have done something wrong and are trying to hide it, how do they get reprimanded? And who is the D.A. accountable to? Justice certainly doesn't seem to have been served in this particular case. Sadly this decreases my faith in the justice system.

Ofra Bikel: I don't think they can appeal to the governor until they finish everything they have to do in the courts. Why it didn't go before a different judge is a very good question. The judge doesn't have a reason to recuse himself. He said he wanted to hear it. That's the system. It usually goes to to the same judge after the sentence when there's new evidence. His point was that even they had found the real Terence it wouldn't have changed the jurors' minds. The court of appeals relies a lot on the judge -- the judge knows best. Then it goes to the Supreme Court -- I don't think they're accountable to anybody. They refused to hear the case. The DA is accountable to the people.

Toronto, Canada: Ofra, why can't Terrance's lawyers appeal to the Supreme Court?

Ofra Bikel: What you have to understand is that it's so difficult to reverse a conviction. The law makes it almost impossible to overturn a conviction. In order to reverse a sentence, showing that you are innocent doesn't help you. You have to show that some mistakes have been made. Innocence is not enough to get you out of prison. Process and finality are very important to the Supreme Court. It's a national trend that finality is becoming more important than substance.

Irvine, Calif.: How do you find out about the particular cases that you deal with in your documentaries regarding criminal justice? What leads you to a particular example of a likely wrongful conviction? Do you have a sense that there are many such cases out there?

Ofra Bikel: From the last question, yes. I always say that I'm not that good a researcher, I'm not that good an investigator, and the fact that I already have had 10 people who got out of prison because of the shows that I did for "Frontline," it shows that something is wrong with the system. I shouldn't be finding these people -- I'm not casting that wide a net. I get letters from people, people write to me -- that's how I hear about them.

Last year, I got the Champion of Justice award. I'm very glad I got the award, but that shouldn't be. It's a television show. A journalist shouldn't be the one finding this stuff. It's crazy.

St. Louis, Mo.: I saw the show last night and I was outraged. It upset me so that I had a nightmare about the case last night. I only became more outraged when I realized that there are many others that never make it to television. You have become familiar with this type of case. Do you believe that Garner will ever get his freedom?

Ofra Bikel: I have to believe it because I have to believe, like Anne Frank said in her book, that at end, people are good at heart.

I trust people will do something to say no no no. It's outrageous, it's my country, it's supposed to be the best system in the world, and I don't like what I see. It only depends on people now.


That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.

© Copyright 2002 The Washington Post Company