The guiltily enticing title, ’12 year-old lifer’ instantly awakes the senses. The Channel 4 True Stories documentary tells the extraordinary story which gripped and bewildered America: the murder of Phillip Danner carried out by two-middle class boys with no prior criminal records both of whom were below the age of 16.
The film begins with a quick shot of a deserted playground, evoking the sense of lost youth and hopelessness. Dull tints dominate the screen, dreary greys and faded greens, offering a somber colour palette and glum tone. The playground shot is followed by hand held footage of two notably young boys both handcuffed by their hands and feet. Police escort them across an American suburb and you can’t help but notice how small the two boys are. Who are they? What have they done? This entire sequence plays alongside a slow yet heightening in intensity atmospheric piano piece and the softly spoken words of a female voice, “A 12 year old boy and a 15 year old boy to plan a murder plot in the middle of a park one day is very bizarre”. Shock. Horror.
A quick clean cut to the female narrator: a butch police officer sat in front of a brick wall with dangling keys as she continues as sternly as her surroundings “but that is actually what happened”. Interview clips with the families, images of the playground, mug shots of the impossibly young boys, news reports, voiceovers and gun sound effects, appear rapidly before your eyes, leaving you transfixed and bewildered, a quality reminiscent to the effects of Jonathon Couette’s, ‘Tarnation’. And within the first 20 seconds of this documentary I was absorbed. We are introduced to the two young boys Paul Gingerich and Colt Lundy who are serving a 30-year sentence in prison for the murder of Colt’s stepdad Phillip Danner. At the time, Colt was 15 and Paul was 12. A white washed prison wall with the title, ’12 year old lifer’ and a distinguished male voice begins to narrate the story.
On the 21st of April 2010 in Indiana two families lives were about to change forever as two young schoolboys planned and killed a 49-year-old man. First we meet Paul’s family: his mother Nicole and two sisters Rowen and Carolynn as they individually give accounts to their side of the story. The interviews, which offer a different space and scene for each character are well lit and obviously shot from an artistic eye. Paul’s relatives are pretty and speak politely as they uncover their story. The mother is seen sat in what appears to be a living room, whilst the sisters are seen, one in her girly bedroom and the other outside their white-picket fence type house, sat on the porch. These everyday scenes (the nice family house) combined with the Gingerich’s pretty faces dispersed with smiling family photographs all reinforce the families normality, provoking ideas of ‘The Jones’. It’s these clever visual devices and editing techniques, which makes this documentary so effective in telling such a tragedy. This family was happy and never expected anything to happen to a boy, a brother, a son like Paul.
We learn that Paul had snuck out the night before to visit Colt, without Nicole knowing. Nicole did not like her son associating with Colt, which she had made clear to both the boys including the day of the incident. This hints to the audience that Colt was already a bad egg whilst Paul was perhaps just following his lead, impressionable and naive. Upon arriving at Colt’s, yellow caution tape was surrounding the house and the police informed Nicole that a murder had taken place but that Paul was safe. Paul and Colt were taken into custody in Peru, Illinois, and 200 miles away.
We’re introduced to the female police officer from the intro, Sgt Raymond who gives her account as to how the boys were arrested and how they discovered there had been a murder. This is interwoven with Paul and Colt’s accounts as well as news reports and original footage and images. We also meet Paul’s father and Phillip Danners family, his children, Brandon and Natasha and his sisters, Kim and Karen. Like the interviews with Paul’s relatives, each set, Phillips children and his sisters are interviewed at home in their living rooms reinforcing that sense of normality, whilst also keeping them within their comfort zones. They reveal the shock and pain they all felt upon discovering the death of their beloved father and brother, “I instantly went to my knees”. Summarizing the event in this way, by interweaving all the characters perspectives, gives the viewer a thorough understanding as to what actually happened whilst keeping the viewer engaged. We get to see different scenes different faces every few minutes, which I found highly absorbing and interesting. But what did actually happen? In summary, after being interviewed by the police we discover that it was both Paul and Colt who killed Phillip Danner. Whilst interviews with both families suggested that Colt seemed to be the only culprit, it was Paul, by his own eventual admission to state that he too shot Phillip, “I just told them what I knew”.
On April 21st 2010, Paul and Colt met their friend 12 year-old Chase Williams in a park by Colt’s house. Colt spoke about running away to Arizona and said that Paul could go with him but only if I he’d help kill Phillip first. Colt and Paul went into the house, whilst Chase decided he could not do it and waited outside. Initially Paul and Colt decided against the plan and just as they were about to put the guns down, Phillip entered the house. The plan had become a reality in their minds. And as Colt saw Paul hesitate as Phillip walked round the corner, he fired the gun. It was too late and so Paul, after witnessing Colt fire the gun, he too shot at Phillip. Paul and Colt both fired one more time, tallying at two shots each, four shots in total to Phillips head and face.
Surprisingly I feel sorry and the most sympathetic for Paul out of all the characters in the documentary. I feel it should be Phillip Danners family members but my thoughts quickly return to that Justin Beiber type 12-year-old boy sobbing in a police questioning room admitting to a murder, “I’m sorry”. I find it particularly tragic, as it seems Paul only shot Phillip because he agreed to stick it out with Colt. I’d dare say it was even noble and caring of Paul that he followed through for his older friend. The difference between a 12-year-old and a 15-year-old is quite significant at that age and so I feel Colt had an upper hand in some way. It may be because the documentary seems to focus on Paul Gingerich and his family more but I still feel his situation is some how worse in the entire tragedy.
Paul and Colt were charged in an adult court, sentenced to 25 years imprisonment and 5 years probation. And Chase Williams served 6 months in a juvenile prison. Paul’s sentence caused uproar and discomfort in the press and both families alike. We then see 15-year-old Paul in his juvenile prison and his life as well as the people who work there. Paul is described as a ‘role model’ and it’s clear that Paul’s impulsive action that day of the murder was completely out of character. This furthers my saddening feelings for Paul and his family.
We then see 17-year-old Colt who is serving his sentence in a juvenile wing of an adult prison, worlds apart to the juvenile prison where Paul is. We also meet Colt’s attorney David Kolbe, who also makes it clear that Colt, despite his actions, was neither insane nor lacking conscious, just made a very bad decision. We meet Carlos, Colt’s birth father, who ironically named him, his only son after his favourite firearm as he drives to visit Colt in prison. We also see Carlos in his own habitat, a lot more humble compared to the other relatives homes, in the programme. Carlos too reiterates how unbelievable it is that his son is in prison and committed such a crime. I feel sympathy here, as Colt’s father is clearly very old and have to travel so far to see the son he so clearly adores, as we witness them laughing and talking dispersed with images of Colt as a ginger haired bright blue eyed baby, full of hope.
The documentary then focuses on the deceased and his tragedy, someone who Colt considered as a father figure. The documentary ends by focusing on ethics and justice as Paul parents’ open up his case by choosing to appeal against Paul’s initial 30-year sentence with the help of attorney Monica Foster. If successful Paul will be saved from going adult prison and will be released before he is 21. If Monica fails Paul could face a re-trail and get 65 years in prison, a chance the Gingerich’s are willing to take as we see shots of the court case, a tense and difficult case at that. The documentary highlights the struggles that lye ahead in Paul’s fight for justice, which is still ongoing and Colt’s move to the adult prison and his preparation for joining the adult population.
Throughout the documentary the footage is intelligently woven together. With unprecedented access to both boys, their families, and the ongoing court case, this True Stories film offers a breath taking and thorough insight into the crime and its aftermath through candid interviews, real life footage and powerful stills. The documentary included a rich amount of different clips and footage. The police interviews were subtitled and taken from the camera inside the interview room, grey and low res. The news reports appeared with fuzzy black borders, as if they were being viewed straight from a TV screen. The characters and their role/relation were introduced through the use of simple white lettering. Family photographs were vibrant and happy. There are filmic shots of a lonely playground and true to life reconstructions of the crime scene. And finally the well thought out interviews with the family in their various settings.
It was this rich combination of different visual shots that definitely enhanced this documentary. Every interview, every image, every shot is clearly pre-meditated and set out for a particular effect. The dominance of grey and white reinforce the nature of the situation and crime, tragic and grim. The use of white, such as shots of the prisoners 4 walls, symbolize a sense of innocence or hope for the future, as the Gingerich family fight to have their sons sentence dramatically altered. Each character give their side of the story but their handpicked and placed together to create a thought provoking and alluring sequence every time which makes the story itself even more intriguing. As a viewer you find yourself agitating between each character, questioning your own ethics, who was wrong or right, sympathizing with one character then not understanding them. It was that sense of building confusion and wanting to make sense of such a tragedy which I found simply irresistible.
Overall, I really love ’12 year old lifer’ because it simply ticks all the boxes of what a great crime documentary should be. It’s true; the crime is tragic, characters relatable, visually superb and leaves you thinking about it for days after. Visually the documentary is terrific; the combination of artsy shots, real footage and first class interviews really shows the full scope of the characters and this horrific event. Too often, a documentary is a super-efficient information machine but visually unimaginative but ’12 year old lifer’ has artistic flare which, I really appreciated. It takes me on a journey both visually and mentally and left me still thinking about the programme longer after it finished. And that’s what I love, thought provoking hard-hitting true crime stories that helplessly linger on your mind.
Narrated By: Noah Huntley
Composer: Benjamin Hollway
Indiana News Centre
The Journal Gazette, Fort Wayne
The Mail Journal
NBC Universal Archives
Colourist: Chris Rodgers
Online Editor: David McSkimming
Director of Photography: Will Pugh
Sound Recordist: Eric Thomas Caroline Babauta
Production Team: David Angel, Sasha Davies, Lyn Niemann, Joe Sailer, Oliver Good
Assistant Producer: Elena Andreicheva
Head of Production: Elaine Foster
Film Editor: Jane Greenwood
Executive Producers for Calamari Productions: Karen Grau, Chip Warren
Executive Producers for Nerd: John Farrar, Jago Lee
Director: Zara Hayes
A Nerd and Calamari Production for Channel 4