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‘Brother’s Keeper’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 05, 1993


Joe Berlinger;
Bruce Sinofsky
Not rated

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Don't walk into "Brother's Keeper" thinking it's just another documentary. Don't miss seeing it for the same reason. This coverage of a fratricide trial in central New York State is structured like a Hollywood murder trial. You'll find yourself rooting for the hero, hissing at the villains and praying for the right decision.

There's even a music score.

In keeping with the anti-purists -- led by Errol Morris, Ross McElwee and others -- "Keeper" is nonfiction in name only. Unabashedly subjective and dramaturgically conscious, it squeezes reality until the drama collects. Luckily for filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, this reality was juicy stuff.

In Munnsville, N.Y., Adelbert ("Delbert") Ward, 59, admitted to the mercy-killing suffocation (in June 1990) of his ailing 64-year-old brother William. Another Ward brother, 66-year-old Lyman, claimed Delbert had admitted to the murder.

These two statements would have wrapped up the case, but the accused -- an illiterate, rural bachelor -- claimed to have been coerced into confessing. Lyman, a highly nervous, easily intimidated individual, claimed the same.

The case brought national media attention to the three surviving Ward brothers. Living in a disgusting two-room shack without plumbing, the bearded dairy farmers endured subhuman conditions. For the genial, withdrawn Delbert to have killed anyone was laughable.

To add to the absurdity, the state decided Delbert had killed bedmate William because of incestuous passion. Semen stains appeared to have been found on the body. Suddenly a photograph surfaced showing William's face covered by a pillow not present at the crime scene. The Munnsville community rallied around the "Ward boys," held potluck fund-raisers for Delbert's defense and filled the courtroom pews as bewildered Delbert went to trial.

Although the jury's decision has been reported, it's better to experience the outcome in the dramatic present tense. It's as exhilarating as watching a theatrical courtroom trial. Errant disciples of the movement that produced "Salesman," "Don't Look Back" and other cinema verite classics, Berlinger and Sinofsky leaven truth-gathering, objective-camera techniques with Hollywood values.

The great achievement here -- beyond theatrics -- is how they bring you into the lives of the Wards and their community. The brothers live in the most depressing domicile north of Appalachia. Even the clock face on the wall is brown and grimy; the bedclothes probably haven't been washed since the Wards' mother passed away in the '60s. Berlinger and Sinofsky also spend time with the Munnsville neighbors, who turn the case into a cause celebre. Despite the Wards' lack of hygiene and sophistication, they are the community's own. Says one couple as diplomatically and affectionately as possible, it's best to avoid proximity to Delbert and company. "The smell . . . ," begins the husband. "Might get the best of you," finishes his wife.

"Keeper" is compelling everywhere, from the time-etched presence in those Munnsville faces (caught in arresting closeups), to the bizarre medical examiner who claims Delbert suffocated his brother. There's a sweetly affecting fund-raising party in which Delbert dances -- probably for the first time in his life -- and an emotional rallying, as his defense lawyer tells supporters to attend every day of the trial and fix the jurors with their stares.

The most astounding scene of all occurs when nervous Lyman takes the stand. Badgered by the D.A. to confirm or deny his previous, incriminating statement about Delbert, the old man is so terrified, his body shakes like an automobile caught in the wrong gear. Few can sit through this untouched. And when the judge finally asks the jury foreman to read the verdict -- and the courtroom holds its collective breath -- Delbert's fate matters like nothing you've seen in a long time.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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