Wayne Ewing Films Inc., 2006
directed by Wayne Ewing
80 minutes, not rated
I think I can be forgiven for having the idea in my head that, for the last ten or twenty years of his life, Hunter S. Thompson was little more than a has-been living off of past glory. I'd heard of too many books he meant to finish which never came out, and seen his fiery ranting reduced to random non-sequitur barbs in sports columns. I thought he was no longer doing anything of importance.
But I was wrong. In his final five years, he did something that really mattered. He rallied celebrities, lawyers, and public opinion in a campaign to overturn the conviction of a young woman named Lisl Auman, who under a peculiar state law of Colorado, had been convicted of first degree murder based solely on indirect, peripheral, and unintentional involvement with a methed up white supremacist skinhead named Matthaeus Jaehnig, when he killed a police officer named Bruce VanderJagt. Many involved with the case felt that she would never have been prosecuted, let alone convicted, if the system could have dealt with Jaehnig directly, but Jaehnig killed himself shortly after shooting VanderJagt.
Lisl Auman's friends and family had been trying and trying to rally public interest in the case, and in the peculiar law it was based on. But they got no success until Lisl, in prison, happened to read Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, and wrote Hunter Thompson a fan letter. He promptly got involved in her case, contacted top-notch lawyers and various celebrities, and co-wrote a screed about the case in Vanity Fair. It made all the difference -- suddenly her supporters' efforts gained traction they'd never had before. Thompson stuck with the case for years, and in the end the State Supreme Court overturned her conviction and allowed her a new trial... two weeks after Thompson's death.
And Wayne Ewing filmed the story. This movie is pretty much a one-man operation, made with a single camera. The bulk of it consists of interview footage with Lisl, her family, and the various lawyers and activists who worked on her case. Thompson is seen mostly as a friendly presence in the background. He does not sit for formal interviews, but does invite Ewing into his "heavily fortied compound". He ends up coming across as startlingly normal -- not the least bit odd or spaced out as far as we see, not even as much as the version of him played by Bill Murray. He doesn't even mumble very much. Despite the public image he projected by calling his house a heavily fortified compound and so on, he was clearly a much more down-to-earth and approachable guy than you'd expect. (As it happens, I once knew a guy who hung out in bars with him in Colorado, and says the same.)
The documentary pieces the story together rather slowly. At first all we see is things like a small rally on the Colorado state capitol steps, where the campaign to change public opinion and media coverage was launched. But as the film goes on, we gradually learn the full story of what actually happened on that day, and how it was possible for a jury to return an apparently absurd guilty verdict. There's an interview with one juror who bitterly regrets the decision. There is also significant indictment of the local media, which constantly repeated incorrect information such as referring to Lisl as the killer's "girlfriend". This had never even been alleged by the prosecutor; all witnesses agreed that the two had only met a day or two earlier.
And also, with no particular emphasis, the documentary gives us another little glimpse at one of the dirtier dirty secrets in our criminal justice system: that there's nothing very unusual about cops stretching the truth to strengthen a case. That is, committing perjury to get a conviction.
How do people get sent to death row when there's no solid case against them? You may have wondered that, any time you heard activists talk about how many people end up being wrongfully put on death row. I'm thinking that cops who agree on a story for the trial might be a big part of the answer.
No one confronted these bigger issues of injustice and abuse of power more unwaveringly than Hunter Thompson. Unfortunately, most readers probably dismiss his views on such topics as just Hunter being Hunter. And the attorneys and other professionals dealing with the case were definitely worried that Hunter might go off into a conspiracy theory, or that his enthusiasm for hyperbole and invective could backfire... it did not. His article and other contributions seem to have been completely beneficial to Lisl's case. And the fact that he was so key in mobilizing the other resources for the effort leaves Lisl saying unequivocally that it was Hunter who got her out. (The legal people limited their praise to saying he was "a connoisseur of lawyers".) In short, Hunter Thompson rose to the challenge splendidly and accomplised something genuinely important. It won't be what he's remembered for -- at this time, the Wikipedia article on him doesn't even mention it -- but it may have been his finest hour.
As film, Free Lisl: Fear And Loathing In Denver is hardly a slick professional production. Wayne Ewing is not likely to be mistaken for a seasoned veteran of solid and polished documentary filmmaking (though he has made two prior films about Hunter Thompson). But this is a story worth hearing, and an issue worth learning about. It speaks directly to the necessity of the battle to preserve justice and fairness and basic rights in a time when authorities seek unbridled police power and major media companies back the effort with fear propaganda. And it shows how anyone can use whatever resources or advantages they happen to have, to make a difference.
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