“Double Life, Double Murder”: ABC 2020 episode looks at a possible wrongful conviction associated with homophobia

Cedar Springs area, Dallas 2022-5

On Friday, May 20, 2022, ABC 2020 presented a two hour mystery “Double Life Double Murder”. The viewing link (may require cable subscription) is this, and ABC main article is this. ABC affiliate WFAA has a detailed article. I actually watched it in a motel in Amarillo TX ( 8 PM Central) on a road trip.

Helium atom, Amarillo TX, NW of downtown off US 66, business 40

This is the case of a middle-aged couple, Dennis and Norma Woodruff, shot and stabbed late on a Sunday evening Oct. 16, 2005.  The couple had been downsizing by moving from a home in Heath, near Lake Ray Hubbard in the eastern suburbs of Dallas (which tend to be more conservative than the rest of the area – I lived in Dallas 1979-1988) to Royse City, farther into Collin and Hunt counties along I-30. 

Their 18 year old son Brandon apparently had dinner in their new place with them early Sunday evening and then says he was in a gay bar before returning to college at Abilene Christina University.  Other friends tried to call them and they did not answer. Their bodies were found on Tuesday.

There seems to be very little physical evidence.  Some time later a knife would be found with Dennis’s blood on it, maybe from a previous cut.

Nevertheless Brandon would become the main person of interest and then suspect, mainly from circumstantial evidence, although there seems to be serious questions whether the proposed timeline could have happened.

There is a paperback book by Phillip Crawford, “Railroaded: The Homophobic Prosecution of Brandon Woodruff for His Parents’ Murders”, Amazon Create Space, 2018, 161 pages, Site stripe link.

The Dallas Voice, article by David Taffett, reviews the episode with details of the case here. The Innocence Project is looking into this. Brandon’s grandmother supports his claims of innocence and has funded appeal attempts. The 2020 episode features a detailed interview of a near middle aged Brandon by ABC journalist John Quionenes where Brandon insists he did nothing. The episode included interviews with a female juror who insisted there was no homophobia in the deliberations although several jurors tended to see homosexuality per se as a (religious) sin.

I was just on a brief trip to Dallas and then several surrounding places (actually three other states). The Cedar Springs area close to downtown has rainbow paint on the main intersection (at Throckmorton St) and has some of the largest gay bars in the nation (Station4 disco [previously the Village Station] and Roundup, the latter a country-western place that is busy even on weeknights). Reasonably secure lot parking is available for $5 weekend nights. I did not have time to visit Royse City but it appears from Google Maps to be an upscale bedroom community like many in north Texas. Here is a Wikipedia picture of main street. Here is a picture of the Jacob’s Dream statue at Abilene Christian University.

The Crossroads plaque at Cedar Springs and Throckmorton 2022-5

I also did not have time to revisit Ranger, TX on I-20 (where the highway “climbs” on top of the Palo Pinto “Mountains”) which had serious fire damage last March (local Fox video). I did see grass fire damage on NM 406 (near the Oklahoma Panhandle Black Mesa) but there was no place to stop and film it. More details about the trip will be forthcoming.

(Posted: Tuesday, May 24, 2022 at 8 PM EDT)

The films and TV/video series of filmmaker Andrew Jenks (esp. “Dream/Killer”)

Strong Hall, KU, 2005 (one state W of Mo)

I’m usually not as interested in whole (television) series for important content as films, because a viewer has to commit so much time to one topic.

Nevertheless, I see that Andrew Jenks, who has directed at least three of his own documentary films, including “Dream / Killer” about the wrongful conviction of Ryan Ferguson , has worked as executive producer for the new Amazon series on the issue, “Unlocking the Truth”, with episodes directed by Adam Kassen.

In fact, the series stars Ryan Ferguson and Eva Nagao as journalists investigating other wrongful conviction cases.

I watched the first two episodes yesterday ($2.99 each on Amazon).

Unlocking the Truth, Andrew Jenks

The pilot, “Gates of Hell”, starts with Ryan’s account of his own sudden arrest while driving from college in Kansas City in March 2004. A high school companion had “dreamed” that he and Ryan had committed a murder while drunk in Columbia, MO. The episode shows Ryan being interrogated by police, who have a political motivation to get a conviction even with no physical evidence. The episode then breaking recounts his father’s and family’s efforts to get the conviction overturned.

Ferguson says, this can happen to anybody. I recall that about 15 years ago ABC 20/20 presented another case in Illinois about murder during sleepwalking recalled by a dream.

The episode then moves to another case in Missouri, that of Michael Politte, convicted for murdering his mother when he was 14 in December 1998.

In reviewing a series like this, I probably don’t want to get into “speculation” as to other suspects myself (as no one else has been convicted), but MTV goes into an alternate theory here which is covered in the video.

The second episode “Ain’t No Change in the House of Pain” continues the Politte case and introduces the 1995 beating of Jill Marker in Winston-Salem NC, leaving her in a coma, and severely disabled even today, with defendant Kalvin Michael Smith, as explained on MTV here.

Many of the scenes show Ryan and Eva interviewing other witnesses. It’s odd to see a “television’ series shot in 2.35:1.

It’s great to see Ryan (his fitness site, which should please “Blogtyrant”) become a journalist (like Clark Kent) after ten years in prison, years taken away from him by force.

Ryan’s story has also been covered on NBC Dateline. The “Innocence Project” has produced some important films through CourtTV, such as “The Exonerated“.

Since I discontinued use of Blogger Jan 3. three reviews of Jenks’s films there are no longer available. I’ll summarize quickly.

Dream/Killer” (2015) presents the wrongful conviction of Ryan Ferguson, who was convicted in Missouri of a murder of a sports editor based on the testimony of someone whose “evidence” was based on a dream. That concept has occurred in a 20-20 episode in the past. The Innocence Project gives some details here. Ferguson speaks to the camera in the film, which is said to have given a black eye to careless or opportunistic prosecution. The film is on Netflix now.

(Feb, 4, 2022: I found these additional notes from a review on Blogger, Movie reviews, Jan. 22, 2016, on an account I used to run):

Dream/Killer” (2015), a documentary by Andrew Jenks, takes on the issue of wrongful convictions, specifically of Ryan Ferguson, now 31, who spent ten years in prison for a murder he did not commit after being named by an acquaintance, Charles Erickson, as a co-accomplice in the attack on a Columbia, MO sports reporter Kent Heitholt on Halloween Night, 2001. I’ve covered the case in two other posts, on the TV blog Nov. 18, 2013 (a coverage of an NBC Dateline episode, in connection with the Innocence Project) and the Issues Blog, Nov. 14, 2013.

trailer for Dream/Killer by Andrew Jenks

The case is bizarre because Erickson, who did not remember the incident and had been out drinking (underage) and using drugs, and going to parties, accompanied by Ferguson and others, that night. Apparently the bars and parties were at some distance from where the murder occurred.

Nevertheless, Erickson had some “lucid dreams” and believed he and Ferguson had committed the acts. He contacted police, who, with prosecutors, manipulated Erickson into a confession and plea deal to testify against Ferguson.

Ferguson maintains he was never even at the scene (was 17 at the time) had lived normally until 2003, giving the murder almost no thought until the arrest came out of the blue.

ABC 20-20 has reported on somewhat similar case in Illinois where a conviction was obtained based on a dream.

There was no physical evidence connecting Ferguson with the crime, and the “eyewitness” testimony used for the conviction was flimsy and later retracted, as the film shows. The prosecution made some “Brady violations” and withheld information from the defense.

The film focuses on the persistence of Ryan’s father, Bill, to will his freedom. In time, Bill would hire attorney Kathleen Zellner, who worked pro bono on the case. A first “habeus corpus” appeal did not work, as the system had to protect itself, but in 2013 the Appellate court in Kansas City vacated the conviction. Zellner had to use unusual skill and cunning in handling the fact pattern to prevail. It also took a huge public relations campaign, volunteers, and billboard ads to put political pressure on the system and expose it. Was the win on final appeal just based on the law? Or “solidarity”? It’s disturbing.

The film shows a lot of court footage (I’m surprised recording and public use was allowed), both from the original trial (in smaller aspect) and even police interrogation footage, as well as later appeals footage, with many interviews of both Bill and Zellner as well as one female witness.

There are YouTube videos about efforts to free Charles Erickson, who would also appear to be wrongfully convicted.

The film also shows how Bill and his wife Leslie traveled to northern Europe, Africa, and Australia and used their street smarts to pay their way with odd jobs before coming back to Missouri and having their family. Bill has a close bond with his children and Ryan grew up to be very athletic.

The director, Andrew Jenks, appeared with Ryan on the Meredith Vieira Show on January 21, 2016. Jenks said that this kind of set up could happen to almost anyone (as does Zellner near the end of the film).

The official site for the film is here (Cinedigm). I rented it for $4.99 HD from Amazon and watched it the morning of the Blizzard of 2016, as everything started shutting down. The film was an official selection at Tribeca in 2015.

The idea that a fictitious narrative (as of a dream) can defame someone and even put someone in criminal peril has been considered on my main blog under the “implicit content label”. Self-libel in fiction is possible and can even be legally dangerous.

It’s Not Over” (2014) looks at the lives of three young adults affected by HIV and AIDS. In the US midwest, Paige was born with the infection incurred by her mother. In India, Sarang is a theater director and gay rights activist, demonstrating that modern protease inhibitors control the disease and enable normal life (and may provide clues as for more drugs to create coronavirus early). In South Africa, Lucky teaches in a country with a large percentage of people infected. In Africa, AIDS was much more a heterosexual disease when it appeared in the 1980s.

“It’s Not Over” trailer, Andrew Jenks

Andrew Jenks, Room 335” (2008) is an example of “participatory documentary”.  Jenks lives in a retirement home to experience the social climate of people dealing with infirmity and old age — when he was 19.  I saw this film wile living with my mother, about two years before she passed away in a difficult time.

(Originally written and posted by me at various times from 2014-2019 on now closed sites; reposted here Thursday May 5, 2022 at 2 PM EDT by John W. Boushka)