borderline

BORDERLINE: THE PEOPLE VS. EUNICE BAKER
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About Film

Awarded Best Documentary on the Theme on a Disability by the Picture This.. International Film Festival in Calgary, Canada

BORDERLINE is a feature-length documentary that tells the story of Eunice Baker, a borderline mentally retarded woman who was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison for murdering a young child, despite evidence that the death was accidental. After nearly 5 years in prison, The New York State Appellate Court recently reduced Eunice’s sentence to criminally negligent homicide, and she was released on time served.

When she was first brought in for questioning, Eunice, who did not understand her Miranda rights, signed a false confession. The document states that while babysitting young Charlotte Kurtz, Eunice intentionally killed the child by locking her in her bedroom and turning the thermostat up to 90 degrees on a hot June day. The defense in her trial claims that a short in the thermostat’s circuitry caused the sweltering heat inside the home, a fact that is confirmed by the sworn testimony of an electrical expert. Eunice’s lawyer also asserts that his client, due to her limited cognitive capacity (her IQ is between 65 and 78), did not realize that the heat posed a severe threat to the three-year-old child.

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From day one, Eunice was tried in the media and found guilty. Not until the midst of the trial were any articles printed sympathetic to her, though evidence supporting her innocence had surfaced. With no audio or video recording of Eunice’s confession, jurors were forced to decide whether or not she possesses the intelligence to have understood her Miranda rights or realized that Charlotte was in danger.

By following this controversy as it unfolds in the rural upstate New York courtroom of Judge Vincent Sgueglia, BORDERLINE draws attention to the problem of how mentally handicapped individuals are treated by the legal system across the nation, especially in rural communities and small towns. With more than 4% of the national prison population considered mentally retarded, this issue, which has been overlooked for decades, is only now gaining the national recognition it deserves.

According to Scott Miller, Eunice Baker’s lawyer, mentally retarded people have little protection as they often waive their Miranda rights without understanding what they are doing. Since people with mental retardation tend to provide more incriminating evidence to prosecutors than other defendants, they are also generally less successful at plea-bargaining. When they go to trial, their testimony may be viewed as less credible because aggressive prosecutors can make them appear unreliable. Using Eunice Baker’s case as an example, BORDERLINE raises the question of whether the legal system, which presupposes a mentally competent defendant is prepared and able to protect the rights of mentally disabled people.

The lives of both Charlotte Kurtz and Eunice Baker were tragic. Charlotte’s mother, Nikki Sherman, was 16 when she became pregnant. After being taken away by social services, Charlotte changed foster parents seven times. Eunice was the victim of repeated sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather. By delving deep into their troubled backgrounds, this film seeks to explain the non-legal issues and complexities leading up to the fateful night, attempting to help viewers understand how such a tragedy could come to pass.

BORDERLINE unfolds chronologically, emerging as a poignant story of one family’s struggle for justice in the context of a small, economically depressed rural town. As Eunice’s case progresses, the audience is forced to grapple with challenging questions about how often individuals with limited cognitive capacity sign false confessions and whether these confessions, which are neither video nor audio taped, are enough to warrant prosecution. The film focuses on the Baker family in order to paint a more complete picture of Eunice’s handicap, but viewers are reminded by interviews with the victim’s mother and foster parents of the pain caused by the child’s death.

Following Eunice’s story from her initial trial to her ultimate release, and focusing on her family’s struggle to defend her despite poverty and their own mental disabilities, BORDERLINE draws attention to the way mentally handicapped individuals are treated by the legal system, especially in rural communities and small towns. Ultimately, the film proves that the legal system, while seriously flawed, has the potential to right itself and correct injustice.

Credits

Produced & Directed by:
Slawomir Grunberg

Edited by:
Erika Street, Marylin Rivchin, William Doll & Monika Reder

Sound:
Brian Truglio, Erika Street & William Doll

Director of Photography:
Slawomir Grunberg

Additional Photography:
Jason Longo & Brian Truglio

Associate Producers:
Erika Street & Brian Truglio

Musical Score:
Doug Frankerberger

Production Assistants:
Dana Ewald & Mike Colasurdo

Funding for this film was provided by: The Open Society Institute a Soros Foundations Network New York State Council for the Arts New York Foundation for the Arts

Screenings and Awards

SCREENINGS

• FOCUS 2007, Film Festival, Redding, California

• Award for the Best Documentary on a Theme on Disability, 2006 International Picture This.. International Film Festival, Calgary, Canada, 2006

• Breaking Down Barriers,Moscow Disability Film Festival, Perspektiva, 2006

• Normal Festival, Prague, Czech Republic, 2006

• The Open University Series on Disability, Budapest, Hungary, 2006

• Fall Creek Cinema, Ithaca, New York, 2006

• Perspectives International Film Festival, Los Angeles, 2006

• Reel Life Disability Film Festival, Dearborn, Michigan, 2006

• Chicago International Documentary Festival, 2005

• Warsaw International Film Festival, Warsaw, Poland, 2005

• Sprout Film Festival, NYC

• Athens International Film Festival

• Bay Street Film Festival, Thunder Bay, Canada

• Human Rights in Film Festival (Prawa Czlowieka w Filmie), Warsaw

• New Screen Television Series

Grants and Funding

• a Grant from the Pope Foundation

• New York State Council for the Arts

• New York Foundation for the Arts

• The Open Society Institute

• a Soros Media Justice Fellowship

Reviews and Reactions

Is there justice for mentally disabled?

By Chuck Haupt Press &
Sun-Bulletin
Friday February 3, 2006

Film profiles plight of Eunice Baker in heat-related death of 3-year-old. Eunice Baker, left, along with her mother, Debra Brown, say they are pleased with the documentary Borderline: The People vs. Eunice Baker. It tells the story of Baker, a mentally disabled woman who was convicted of murder in 2000.

By Debbie Swartz

Press &
Sun-Bulletin
Binghamton, NY

SPENCER — Debra Brown never wanted her daughter, Eunice Baker, to be labeled “mentally handicapped” or “mentally retarded.” But Baker’s mental disability played a significant role in her 2000 conviction for second-degree murder and later in her successful appeal and release from prison in 2004.

That period in the life of Baker and her family is chronicled in Slawomir Grunberg’s award-winning documentary, Borderline: The People vs. Eunice Baker, which will premiere Feb. 17 at the Fall Creek Cinema in Ithaca.

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Grunberg’s 77-minute film — which won an award as best documentary on a disability theme at the 2005 International Film Festival in Calgary — follows Baker’s case and her family’s fight for her, from the original 1999 trial to her release from the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in 2004.

Grunberg said the purpose of his film is to cast a critical eye on how the criminal justice system unfairly deals with individuals with mental disabilities, especially in poor, rural areas such as Tioga County.

Grunberg met Baker shortly after her arrest in 1999 in connection with the death of 3-year-old Charlotte Kurtz. The child, who Baker was babysitting, died from hyperthermia — an abnormally high body temperature — after being locked in her bedroom. A short in the thermostat caused the furnace to continually heat and the temperature in the Owego apartment to soar to over 110 degrees. But to many in the community, Baker was seen as a baby-killer. She was accused of turning up the heat as high as it would go and locking the bedroom door until the child died. Her own words were held against her; in a second statement she gave to police, she said she intentionally killed the girl.

In the film, Baker’s attorney, Scott Miller, said Eunice did not know her own limitations and would have confessed to killing John F. Kennedy if it meant she could go home. Brown said she could understand why law enforcement and court officials might have thought her daughter was lying or hiding the truth, and likened Eunice’s mental abilities to that of a basic computer. “You can put the information in and she will spit it out,” she said.

Baker’s gripping 15-day trial received extensive newspaper and TV coverage. Grunberg said he had seen some of the news stories, but after speaking to Baker in person prior to the trial, he said he knew she was disabled. “I’m talking to someone whose brain works different than mine,” he said, calling the idea of her pre-meditating a crime “nonsense.”

The New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Third Judicial Department disagreed with the Tioga County jury’s decision to convict Baker of second-degree murder. The appellate court reduced the charge to criminally negligent homicide, which has a maximum term of 1 1/3 to four years. Since Baker had already spent four years in prison, she was released.

According to the appellate court’s decision, Baker’s mental disabilities — which include her IQ of 73 — brought into doubt her ability to understand the risk the over-heated apartment presented. In the film, Tioga County District Attorney Gerald Keene, who prosecuted the case, said Baker’s mental disability was relevant, but did not excuse her conduct.

Brown said Wednesday she doesn’t blame the investigator who questioned her daughter for 4 1/2 hours. “For him to do his job the right way, he would persistently interrogate the individual,” she said. The problem arose when “he failed to see that he was dealing with a person with disabilities,” Brown said. Baker doesn’t comprehend what she is saying, nor will she show a lot of emotion unless overwhelmed, Brown said.

In the film, Beverly Davenport, Baker’s former special education teacher, said while the now 29-year-old might dress and talk like everyone else, she is not. Davenport said Baker perceives people in authority as infallible. Also in the film are Baker’s former principal and a corrections officer who regularly interacted with Eunice. Brown said that advocating for people with disabilities is of paramount importance to her and her family, and she hopes Borderline will aid in the fight. She said one step in the right direction would be to have all confessions recorded on video or audio tape.

Grunberg said 4 percent of the nation’s nearly 2 million prison inmates are mentally disabled and said he has spoken with families who are in the same situation Baker and her family faced. “I was so happy that there was such a positive ending to this story,” Grunberg said. “If there hadn’t been a camera following this poor girl for five years, who knows what would have happened.”

From the viewers of the Picture This… Film Festival …it gets you going around the issues…

…excellent cohesion…

…did what a documentary film should do – tell a story about a slice of life…

…traces the history/trajectory of this tragedy…

…heart-rending…

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…good job of sketching Eunice’s background – her family, the emotions…

…great drawn out final conclusion…

…demonstrates the powerlessness of the marginalized in dealing with the judicial system…

no wonder so many disabled people are in jail…!

…excellent filming… …was instantly pulled in by this woman’s story…her mom worked so hard to free her daughter…

…such an interesting story, it’s not just about disability, it’s about poverty, education, the unity of family…

…inspiring to see a woman strong and holding her head up with dignity…kept me intrigued and interested…

…sequence of events and background contextual information is well laid out…

…use of spokespeople from varying perspectives works well to keep audience connected and interested…

…approach is very creative and effectively portrays the many contradictions and misperceptions in this case…

…commentary about Eunice’s vulnerability, judgments made in the media and her mom’s lifelong efforts to avoid labeling Eunice are very compelling…

…this is a winner…!

…powerful doc about a miscarriage of justice…

…peels back the layers regarding justice for the poor and the disabled…

From the televison and DVD viewers

Dear Slawomir,
I am the Librarian … I recently obtained a copy of your film “Borderline: The people vs. Eunice Baker,” and also took it home and watched it. I want to congratulate you on making an extremely powerful and haunting film with many important messages about such issues as the criminal justice system, family strength, & mental retardation, and even about more tangential issues such as obesity. It was obviously quite a labor of persistence for you to stick with this story and family over many years, not knowing what direction their lives were going to take. I found myself thinking a lot about the film over the next couple of days, wondering how the family members are doing, and especially impressed by their supportiveness of one another during extremely trying times which might have torn other families apart. There was the possibility for redemption at the end of the film, for sure, if the key players had not been too damaged over the years to reclaim their lives. thanks again for making such a potent documentary. I hope that it will be seen by a great many people.

Best, Leigh

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This episode just aired on our local PBS station. I was truly moved by this. I have a nephew that is mentally retarded and a niece that is ‘borderline’ retarded. I also have a three year old granddaughter. So, needless to say, I saw this from all view points. There is something that really disturbs me about the whole thing…Why were the parents of the little three year old blameless? As parents, it was their responsibility to provide adequate care for their child, anythingless was negligence. Surely, they knew that Eunice had a diminished mental awareness and therefore should be held accountable as well. I feel the parents were more at fault than Eunice was. But, my opinion and the law aren’t always the same. It was a very well told story and photographed well. I believe it deserves to be shown at a more viewable time. I think it came on at 4:00A.M. this morning, (I only seen it because I don’t sleep much since my son was killed in Iraq). The general public needs to know about things like this. It’s something most of us have never given any thought to and unless you’re in a situation such as this, we wouldn’t think about it. Thank you for telling this story and for doing it with dignity.
Sincerely, Ann

Dear Sir,
Your excellent doc Borderline was aired on Maryland Public Television an hour ago. It was extremely moving. I’m interested in Rachel’s interests towards college and law school. It would appear that some civil penalties would be due the family for enduring the flawed verdict. They certainly live in squalor, and if Rachel is as bright as she is motivated, she’ll need financial help towards her scholastic goals. I’m a former pediatrician and now pediatric subspecialist, and am angry at how this tradgedy was perpetrated on Eunice. Though it aired on PBS, you should find interest in others with a wider spectrum of viewers as well. I’d even think HBO. Duane, MD

Dear Mr. Grunberg,
I just wanted to send an email to convey my appreciation for the subject you present in your film “Borderline”. I’ve just finished watching it on Link TV and was a blubbering fool throughout much of it. I am still shaken up and tearful as I write this. I am the mother of an eighteen year old son who also has mental retardation and has had a few behavioral issues that especially frighten me as turns into an adult. I can put myself in the place of Eunice’s mother easily and it terrifies me to think about my son being incarcerated for even a night. I cannot begin to imagine five years. It physically hurts me to think about it. Thank you so much for bringing this subject to film and to the public.
Very sincerely, Shellie

Reviews and Reactions - in Polish

Borderline – People vs. Eunice Baker

rez. Slawomir Grunberg, USA 2004, 80’
Panorama Filmow o Prawach Czlowieka

Award for the Best Documentary on a Theme on Disability – International Picture This… International Film Festival 2006, Calgary/Kanada

Slawomir Grunberg pozostaje bacznym obserwatorem amerykanskiego zycia spolecznego, zwlaszcza w obszarach zwiazanych z respektowaniem praw jednostki. Film ten wpisuje sie w tradycje dokumentów obnazajacych slabosci procesu karnego w USA. Kobieta na granicy uposledzenia umyslowego pada ofiara ignorancji wymiaru sprawiedliwosci i skazana zostaje na dlugoletnie wiezienie za zabicie dziecka, którego byla opiekunka.

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