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'Crown Heights' Seeks To Do Justice To A Saga Of Wrongful Conviction

Lakeith Stanfield stars as Colin Warner in the film <em>Crown Heights.</em> Warner was 18 when he was wrongfully convicted of murdering 16-year-old Mario Hamilton. He served 20 years in prison before being exonerated.
Amazon Studios/IFC Films
Lakeith Stanfield stars as Colin Warner in the film Crown Heights. Warner was 18 when he was wrongfully convicted of murdering 16-year-old Mario Hamilton. He served 20 years in prison before being exonerated.

The new film Crown Heights begins in the spring of 1980, with a single gunshot ringing out on a Brooklyn street corner. But the film is less a whodunit than a chronicle of the personal nightmares that killing set in motion. Colin Warner, an 18-year-old immigrant from Trinidad, was wrongfully convicted of the murder. The film tells the story of his two-decade imprisonment, and the friend who worked tirelessly to finally get him out.

Warner's case happened against the backdrop of a crime wave in New York City, and a tough, often indiscriminate response from law enforcement. His conviction was based on coerced, false testimony.

The film also follows Warner's childhood friend, Carl "KC" King, who spent years fighting for justice, even after Warner himself lost hope. King spent more than two decades raising money for lawyers, tracking down witnesses and filing appeals. In 2001, Warner was finally exonerated and released from prison.

A few years later, their story was featured on This American Life."I couldn't get their voices out of my head," says film director Matt Ruskin, who happened to catch the episode during his drive home.

Ruskin knew the story had the makings of a feature film. After convincing Warner and King that he would do their story justice, he set to work on a script that drew heavily from primary sources.

"Carl had become sort of the chief archivist of this case in the process of pulling these appeals together," Ruskin says. "So when I started he just handed me this binder of basically everything ... court transcripts, depositions from witnesses, police reports, autopsy reports."

Ruskin chose up-and-comer Lakeith Stanfield to play Colin Warner and he says that Stanfield's dedication to the role was clear throughout. For example, between scenes actors usually have the opportunity to relax somewhere comfortable — but Stanfield requested a prison cell.

"This one cell in particular — I don't know why — I was like, I want this to be my trailer," Stanfield recalls. "In between takes I would just sit in there. I just kept telling myself: This is nothing compared to what he had to experience. So if I wanted to embody the character, I had to feel a little bit uncomfortable sometimes."

The story also resonated with former NFL player and actor, Nnamdi Asomugha, who plays King.

"It was written really artfully," Asomugha says. "It wasn't saying that all cops are bad, and it wasn't destroying everyone in the legal system. It was saying there was a criminal justice system at that moment that was more interested in conviction than in truth."

Asomugha says that beyond the film's critique of American criminal justice, the story of King's perseverance and Warner's dignity spoke to something more universal.

"Fifteen minutes after he gets out of prison, he's got a microphone in his hand, and cameras on him, and the first thing that he says is: I'm not mad at anybody. I forgive everyone that put me in this position," Asomugha says. "That's the first thing that struck me. Like that's what it means to be human."

Sixteen years to the day after King submitted his final appeal to win Warner's freedom, Crown Heights premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. The real Colin Warner and Carl King were in the audience with their families. Warner says it was tough watching his own story play out on the big screen.

"A lot of the feelings came back — feelings I don't want no more," Warner says. "I'm trying to lessen the impact on me. Even though those experiences make me the man I am today, it's time to move on. And this is what I'm trying to do now — move on with my life. Create a family and just watch my family grow."

Still, Warner says, he hopes his story can offer strength to prisoners who wrongfully sit behind bars today, fighting for the vindication that he finally found.

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Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi is a host and reporter for Planet Money, telling stories that creatively explore and explain the workings of the global economy. He's a sucker for a good supply chain mystery — from toilet paper to foster puppies to specialty pastas. He's drawn to tales of unintended consequences, like the time a well-intentioned chemistry professor unwittingly helped unleash a global market for synthetic drugs, or what happened when the U.S. Patent Office started granting patents on human genes. And he's always on the lookout for economic principles at work in unexpected places, like the tactics comedians use to protect their intellectual property (a.k.a. jokes).