" What about Marty? "
— Kristen Connolly, The Cabin in the Woods

MRQE Top Critic

Noi Albinoi

Mystery and ambivalence about this Bleak portrait of isolation are amplified on DVD —Marty Mapes (DVD review...)

Noi the Albino spends winter in Iceland alone

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Note: This is the second in a three-part series on DVDs about Hunter S. Thompson from director Wayne Ewing. Look for part three February 20.

This is not a film about Hunter S. Thompson, though he occupies the eye of a legal storm swirling around a woman, Lisl Auman, who was sentenced to life in prison for a murder everyone agrees she did not commit. As Warren Zevon sings at the beginning of Free Lisl on the steps of the Colorado state capitol, “send guns, lawyers and money, the shit has hit the fan.”

The lawyers do show up, but only after the big gun of Hunter S. Thompson’s high-profile indignation came to bear. Presumably the money (or its equivalent) came with the big media exposure of a case that demanded correction. The shit does what it always does when it hits the fan.

Fear and Loathing

In Free Lisl: Fear And Loathing in Denver, a documentary by director Wayne Ewing, we see how the mainstream media railroaded an ordinary citizen. She was sent to prison for life on the grounds of guilt by association, even though that association was tenuous at best. Curiously, the same media five years later rallies support for Auman and ultimately sets her free. For a country that prides itself on its skepticism, it is surprisingly easy to tell the American public what to believe.

Accelerating Auman’s sacrificial bonfire was the fact that a police officer had been killed in the course of events. The cop killer had then fatally turned his gun on himself, and society was thus denied a target for its retribution. The fact that Auman was handcuffed in the back seat of a police car when the killing took place didn’t seem to matter. In fact, this raised the interesting legal question of charging someone with a crime committed while they were in police custody. Apparently, that angle was of no interest to the newspapers and TV stations covering the story. Lisl Auman was, by their unsubstantiated declaration, the killer’s ‘girlfriend’ and she was guilty of being part of a crime that led up to the killing. Therefore she was as guilty of being a cop killer as if she’d pulled the trigger herself. We have as a cornerstone in our legal system the presumption of innocence until guilt is proven. But something went horribly wrong in the Auman case when she was found guilty in the press and it was left to her defense to prove otherwise.

J’Accuse!

Had the victim not been a police officer, had the media not been seduced by the chance for a sensational story, and had the DA’s office not been so enthusiastic to prosecute (probably egged on by that same sensationalist press coverage), Auman might not have been charged with murder, or to being an accomplice to murder, or perhaps even charged with anything at all.

After serving 5 years in jail, Auman wrote a letter to Hunter Thompson, explaining her case as she saw it, and asking for his help. In the tradtion of Émile Zola and the Dreyfus Affair, Thompson’s celebrity allowed him a “J’Accuse! ” moment in Vanity Fair. In that piece Thompson’s wit and indignation shone as it had back in the day when his personal nemesis Richard Nixon roamed the land. I remember reading it at the time and thinking, ‘Whoa! The old boy is really fired up about this one.”... and rightly so.

Media Circus

Why did the system fail Auman so badly? Why did the media go after her with such a vengeance. Ewing postulates that there was anger already in the air over a recent race-based killing committed by skinheads, and that probably had some effect. But I’m drawn back to the old saying “don’t attribute to malice, that which can be more easily explained by incompetence.” If the TV stations and newspapers had checked their stories first, or if the prosecution hadn’t been swayed by public opinion, things would not have worked out as they had. But TV reporters and newspaper writers and district attorneys are also human beings. They are people who are as subject to bad decisions based on passion as anyone else. I offer this as an explanation not an excuse.

Free Lisl comes from a fine tradition of muckraking journalism. Of course, it’s muck only if it’s something you want buried and forgotten. The Denver TV stations and newspapers don’t want anything to compromise their credibility, and the enthusiastic DA is now governor of Colorado. If you cherish what is best about our nation’s legal system, it comes as a breath of fresh air. Somehow ‘fresh air journalism’ just doesn’t carry the same kick. Free Lisl deserves a viewing.

DVD Extras

None

Picture and Sound

Good if somewhat predictable talking-head images. But the point here is the content not the presentation. Good use of archival TV footage. Ewing has a great eye for photographing and then editing group interaction.

How to Use this DVD

If it is at all possible, read the ‘Prisoner of Denver’ article in the June 2004 Vanity Fair (apparently this is no longer available on-line at vanityfair.com)

Next week... When I Die