Monday, September 24, 2007

Sin City Law review

Viva Las Violence
New Sundance documentary series explores the consequences of crime in America's playground
By Adam Bulger
Hartford Advocate September 6, 2007

What happens in Vegas does not always stay in Vegas. Debt, STDs and criminal charges travel. As the new Sundance Channel reality series Sin City Law implies, a more honest marketing campaign for the city of sin might be billing it "the unhappiest place on earth."

The show takes place in the innards of the Clark County criminal court system. The gleaming surface of Las Vegas is present mainly in short shots that cut between scenes, with glitz providing ironic contrast. The eight-part documentary series focuses on four notorious court cases, and while the courthouse is strikingly well designed, the show's primary aesthetic is unadorned honesty.

The series doesn't gradually wade to progressively more intense tragedy, it tosses the viewer into the deep end with the first case, which follows Beau and Monique Maestas, siblings accused of stabbing a three-year-old girl to death and paralyzing the girl's 10-year-old sister in a crystal meth-induced mania.

I don't throw around the word "evil" a lot, but stabbing children over crank? That's pretty much evil distilled to its most petty and human form.

The Maestases seem like Jerry Springer guests, poor and poorly educated, with misplaced priorities and a hair trigger sense of indignity. They're products of a jaw-droppingly awful childhoods, illustrated by the comments their sister makes about family visits to their incarcerated father. Looking at a photograph, she casually says "this is when we visited him and he put his hand up my shirt."

Beau pleads guilty, and, in an attempt to save his sister, claims that he full responsibility for the attack. However, evidence indicates that Monique shared responsibility.

The moral center in this first trial is public defender Alzora Jackson, who represents Monique. A soulful black woman in her 50s, Jackson not only provides Monique the best defense possible, but also helps to pick out an outfit for the accused child murderer to wear during her hearing. She also gives Monique extremely good advice, advice that seems to have unfortunately come several years too late, when she tells Monique that during the trial "you have to control your impulses."

Interspersing news footage and images from newspaper articles, Sin City Law touches on the darkness at the center of the modern soul more than any reality show. The series is an onslaught of pure sober truth. In the second case, Pascual Lozano's mother puzzles over why her surrogate son would rather be executed than rat out his fellow gang members during his trial for the 2002 murder of a 9-year-old girl.

The crimes of Sin City Law aren't reenacted or illustrated with fancy graphics or edits. Sin City Law is mostly set in courts. The bare bones presentation of emotional subject matter makes the show all the more effective. Attorneys argue the fate of a murder in a back room of the court where cameras weren't allowed. Instead, they film a woman wiping computer screens with the attorney's conversation playing as an audio track. It's a surreal and chilling moment.