Brother’s Keeper (1992)

Dir. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky

As a damn Yankee—a Yankee merely visits the South but a damn Yankee stays—I have been occasionally amazed at the inability of even highly educated Southerners to name what states make up New England and which ones they are. And as a person who was born and raised in New Jersey but who has family in Virginia, I had to spend a lot of time explaining to my provincial suburbanite friends that not everyone who lived south of Delaware was a hick. A lesson I’ve learned early, and which a great many people I follow on Twitter have never learned, is that someone’s accent is not a statement of their intelligence. It’s a lesson that the cops in central New York hadn’t learned, for Brother’s Keeper is the story of law enforcement making a terrible decision because they believe that Delbert Ward is a rube first and a person somewhere further down the line. Only a rube, and a dumb rube at that, would kill his brother William out of a misplaced sense of mercy. More interestingly, it’s a lesson that even the Wards’ neighbors in Oneida County have generally not learned either. One might be fooled for a few moments by the general belief that the country people have that Delbert is innocent of murdering his brother, a belief that they speak to almost to a man, and which they are prepared to back up publicly. Not only do they tell the camera about their belief in Delbert’s innocence, but they organize a big party to raise funds for his defense. There’s real feeling in the country that Delbert is innocent and that the city folks prosecuting him ought to get back to where they belong and stay out of his family’s business.

There’s a detail one of the interviewees brings out about the Wards. If you’re in town at the same time as them, you don’t want to sit at the same table that they do. The boys—as multiple people call them, and as multiple people apologize for calling them—smell just godawful. They aren’t much for washing up, and they don’t change their clothes, and of course they work in a profession where the smell is just part of the job. It’s around that point in the documentary that you can begin to hypothesize a rule of thumb about how people feel towards the Wards. The more polite a person is about the Wards to the camera, the further away that person is from the Wards in day-to-day life. Those people who say, with as much kindness as they can, that the Wards stink to high heaven are not their friends. Neither are the people who believe that Delbert did kill William but imagine that there must have been some agreement between the brothers beforehand, or who believe that Delbert was putting down his brother like one might put down a sick animal. (As if there were no difference between a man’s brother and a man’s canary!) One guy who guesses that, just as one puts a hand over a cow’s mouth and nose after it gives birth so that it’ll lick the afterbirth away, Delbert was trying to get Bill up by putting his hand over Bill’s mouth and nose. I don’t know if that’s better or worse than the mercy killing hypothesis.

On the other hand, one can imagine that John Teeple, a bearded and incisive armchair philosopher, might genuinely be able to get on with the Wards. Alone of the farmers, he can say that the instinct to defend the Wards is an instinct to defend one’s tribe rather than one’s friend. Delbert’s lawyer, Ralph Cognetti, laments that Delbert’s increasing interaction with regular folks might make him seem like less of an alien to the jury who needs to believe he’s kind of an alien. (It’s an awkward, pragmatic remark, but at the same time I’m not sure Cognetti is exactly making a killing off defending a guy who lives in a house without heat and sleeps in the same bed as his brothers.) And Harry Thurston, who is actively condescending about Delbert Ward’s intelligence, is the only one we see inside the Ward home, and he is there with the Wards after Delbert’s trial ends. He doesn’t know what it means to “waive his rights,” Thurston tells the camera. He doesn’t know what “waive” means, probably thinks it means that thing you do with your hand. It’s a brusque statement, but Harry doesn’t mean it cruelly. He is matter-of-fact about Delbert and his brothers and the way they live, and he can be that way because he actually seems to care about what happens to Delbert for Delbert’s own sake, as opposed to how that might reflect on the community they are occasionally tolerated in.

The further this movie goes on, the sadder it becomes. The prosecution begins to advance, based on some trace amount of semen on Bill’s clothes, that Delbert killed him after sex gone wrong, which is making the subtext of Deliverance text. The prosecutor also mentions that William would wet the bed a little bit, and how that must have made Delbert real mad. (I am sure someone must have been murdered at some point in human history due to incontinence, but at the same time, what?) Delbert dances as best he can at the party being thrown for his defense. Thurston interprets what will surely go down as a happy memory for Delbert as being something the man is totally clueless about, given that it’s the first party anyone’s ever given for him. At the trial, Lyman can’t hear anything anyone asks him and barely understands when they do. Cognetti brings in a doctor who looks at William’s body and seems almost offended that anyone could look at that corpse and think that it had been asphyxiated. He died of heart failure, the doctor says, which is the most common way a man that age dies. There’s no sign of bruising or confrontation, he says. Nor is there any sign that Bill has vomited anything up, which is one of the four look-fors of asphyxiation autopsies. There’s an assumption the police have, and which the people of Oneida County seem to have even more. William Ward’s life was so bleak and backwards, and he must have been so sick and careworn, that death would have been welcome for him. The human body revolts against death from an outside source, even if what’s inside might crave it. The fact that our bodies react so violently to violent attack is a sign of the will to live; assuming that Bill feebly went off into the night when Delbert offered him an escape is to assume that there’s something terribly inhuman about the deceased. Yet anyone who smells that bad must not be human, after all.

There’s a real relief when the jury comes back, after a somewhat lengthy deliberation, and finds Delbert innocent. It seems obvious after the case that William died of natural causes, but it does not seem like it was obvious to just about anybody who knew of the Wards before William’s death. (There’s this incredibly satisfying moment which I’m glad Berlinger and Sinofsky manage to capture, where we can see the look on the prosecutor’s face as he loses a case on what I’m sure he must have thought was a bad beat.) Delbert’s confession, one that he frequently refers to as “they told me what I done,” was coerced out of him by the police. So too was the statement they got out of Lyman. What the documentary cannot adequately answer is why the cops were so intent on reading the basically commonplace death of a man in his sixties as a murder of any kind. Nor does it really try, other than to give a few cops some talking head time as a way of change of pace. The film is far more concerned with what Oneida and Onandaga Counties make of Delbert Ward and his two surviving brothers, and how uncharitable they are from the first because they do not shave their beards, live in the 1990s, or bathe enough. They can go to bat for Delbert when it feels like they can feel the townies’ inquisitive hot breath on their necks, and they’ll talk to Connie Chung when she comes to town to get some interviews about the case. I would wager a lot, though, that no one who came out to support “Delbert” at that party ever threw him another one after he was found not guilty.

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